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Treading Lightly spacer One small step at a time

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Denis Hayes believes that preserving land such as this fern-covered knoll in the Cedar River watershed is a matter of not just law or money, but of moral conviction.
DENIS HAYES TEETERS on the edge of a stiff chair inside the second-floor conference room of The Bullitt Foundation, where he serves as president. In fact, he seems to unfold his gangly, 6-foot-2 frame in sections, sometimes leaning so far back that he balances on the chair's hind two legs. His legs are cast stiffly at a 45-degree angle, one ankle atop the other. His wrists are wrapped behind his neck like a man reclining in a hammock. His large, intense eyes are lost in the glare from a skylight.

"I have to warn you," he says in professorial tones. "This is not a very good story. It is completely out of context, and I can't tell it without sounding pretty flaky."

Yet he plunges ahead, because I've asked if there was some epiphany that led a Camas boy who once aspired to become a doctor to abruptly change course and make an indelible mark in the environmental movement instead. Not only did he organize the inaugural Earth Day in 1970, which thrust environmental concerns into political equations, but he has maintained a place over the next three decades as one of its clearest and most respected voices.

A delegation of Buddhist monks walked in support of Earth Day 1999, north of Bangkok, before attending religious services honoring the goals of the event.
While Earth Day 2000 drew big crowds, it did not spark the media attention and political influence that organizers had hoped for. Some environmentalists say the event has lost its bite, spirit and effectiveness through the years.
When he is not writing, speaking, planning, arguing about big issues like global warming, he is doling grants through the $100 million-plus Bullitt Foundation that helps kick-start and fuel a wide range of Northwest environmental causes. A lot has happened to him since the first Earth Day. He has been a bureaucrat and an author, a scholar, professor, practicing attorney and think-tank researcher. But he has always been a dogged champion for alternative energy and a lighter footprint on the globe. He is intense and serious, but also courteous, so he dives into the promised story.

It was early in 1965 and he was 20 or so and in about the first third of a three-year hitchhiking trip.

"I was in Namibia. And on the road there was a turnoff to an old German colony called Luderitz. I didn't have any particular direction in my life, and I wasn't doing anything, so after a few hours — there was hardly any traffic — I got a ride there.

"Well, Luderitz was not memorable, so I went back to the outskirts to hitch a ride back to the main highway. It was this long stretch of road hemmed in on both sides by high fences, with wire atop it to keep people out of the diamond fields. So it was literally like being in a tunnel.

"Night came and nobody had picked me up. I walked over a little hill and unrolled my sleeping bag. It was desolate country. The moon was incredibly bright and the sky was awash with stars. I was somewhat aware that cold-blooded animals surrounded me, and I was the only piece of heat around. I was really, really hungry and exhausted, perhaps from being in the hot sun all day and now a cold night. I didn't sleep at all. I tried to contemplate myself and reflect on just why I had taken off.

"I don't recall a vision or anything like that, but by the time morning came, I had, for whatever reason, come to a decision. I really wanted to wrestle with the big problems. I had been reflecting on the whole trip on what I had seen: poverty, bleak landscapes destroyed by human activity, mining, clear-cutting. There was no, 'I want to work on the environment' because nobody used that word back then to mean what it does today. I would have made the decision at some point, but for some reason, it came that night."

He pulls his eyes from the skylight and fixes them back on me. "I told you it isn't a very good story."

GOOD STORY OR NOT, it marked the beginning of the rest of his life. While growing up in southwest Washington, he was surrounded by billowing stacks of the paper mill that employed his dad — and by the natural wonder of the Columbia River. He attended a couple years at a community college, then took off in the early '60s to explore the world on the cheap.

He returned from his sojourn with a wider, more complex view of the planet and his place in it. He decided to immerse himself in impossibly big and, to that point, undefined planetary issues. His career since has been equally complex. He became a practicing attorney, an adjunct engineering professor at Stanford University, a visiting scholar at the Smithsonian Institution, a prolific writer of articles and author of two books. He organized the Illinois State Energy Office and, at the age of 35, was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to head the U.S. Solar Energy Research Institute.

He was essentially fired when the new president, Ronald Reagan, slashed the institute's budget by more than half. Hayes responded at his press conference with a memorable parting shot. Reagan's energy department, he said, was run by "dull gray men in dull gray suits in dull gray offices thinking dull gray thoughts and writing dull gray reports."

These days, he's a go-to guy for reporters across the country looking for a quote, but Hayes chooses his words carefully rather than speaking in bumper-sticker quips and sound bites. This year's 32nd annual Earth Day celebration will be noted across the world tomorrow, and he will speak at various events and venues, including the United Nations, in New York.

Now 57, he returned to the Northwest 10 years ago when the Bullitts hired him as president and CEO of the foundation. The organization, headquartered in a historic carriage house next to the family's ancestral mansion on First Hill, funds nonprofits in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, British Columbia, southern Alaska and western Montana and covers a spectrum of environmental causes, from climate changes to sustainable agriculture.

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In organizing the series of environmental teach-ins for the initial Earth Day, under the tutelage of Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson, Hayes and associates worked from Washington, D.C., but tapped into environmental concern throughout the country.
He moved back to his home state to be near his ill mother, Antoinette, and because the Northwest palette suits him better. He's a hiker, diver and river-rafter and sees the area environmentally focused enough to be an example for the country, perhaps the world. The foundation's target area is concentrated enough that its money can make a difference, he says. During his 10 years with the foundation, it has made grants, mostly to regional grassroots organizations, of more than $67 million and protected another $40 million worth of land through revolving loan funds.

Hayes says he occasionally visits the groups during the evaluation process and offers advice. He jokes his ideas seem to have improved now that he also has money to spend.

Indeed, his position makes it hard for members of various environmental groups to criticize him publicly. That would be biting the hand that feeds them. But leaders of a few that receive foundation money, while effusive in their praise of his intelligence and communication skills, privately question if his national profile and global view don't distract him from a regional focus.

In fact, when the Bullitt Foundation hired Hayes in 1992, The New York Times announced the organization had got itself "a star," but some local groups wondered just how long he'd stay. He had been used to the national stage, and the Northwest struck some as a little confining for someone with Hayes' background.

"I guess the question I have is," says one recipient of foundation funding, "is Denis committed to making the Bullitt Foundation as good as it can be or is he on the payroll to subsidize his other pursuits? It seems like the foundation was more interested early on in looking for innovation, but has settled into kind of a groove track."

In 1998, the foundation donated $250,000 to the Seattle-based Earth Day Network, which Hayes also chairs, to help plan and promote Earth Day 2000 and its themes of global warming and alternative energy. The local environmental leaders acknowledge Earth Day is a great symbol that reaches the general public, but not the landscape-changing force it once was. They contend the money and attention poured into it could have been better spent in the trenches.

Hayes says he recused himself from the foundation board on the Earth Day grant decision. He also says the 2000 event was designed to increase overall public knowledge, speed up political deadlines about the issue and generate overall support for each environmental sub-group. And while he continues to be honored and called upon nationally for his environment and energy opinions, he dislikes the attention he gets in connection with the foundation. The Bullitts — Patsy Collins, Harriet, Stimson and Kay — have not only been extraordinarily generous, he says, but they have invested principle into it.

"They have never once asked what is the popular thing to do, or the politic thing to do, but only, what is the right thing to do," he says.

WHEN HAYES returned from his world hike back in the mid-'60s, he decided to try to get into Stanford.

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On the first Earth Day in 1970, Seattle Community College students smashed a car and blocked traffic to protest air pollution.
"It was the only college I applied to, which was really, really stupid for a southwest Washington kid who had only two years of community college to do," he acknowledges. But, fancying himself a problem-solver of the world's great challenges, he wanted to be pushed.

He not only got in somehow, he became student-body president and led peaceful protests against the Vietnam war and other military interests. Then he managed to get into Harvard Law School as one of 12 students nationwide accepted into a new master's program on public policy. Harvard, with its tradition, East Coast money and prep-school cliques, didn't mesh with his full-blooming contrariness.

"I was looking for a way to get integrated into the community and saw an article in The New York Times about a speech Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin had given about organizing campus teach-ins. It must have been the slowest possible news day to get coverage like that, but part of my program called for an external activity, and helping to put together a major teach-in sounded good."

Nelson met and was impressed with Hayes and put him in charge of organizing not just a campus teach-in but a series of them across the country. Hayes found the original focus on campuses too limiting. He found support for the event came from far more exciting and unexpected sources. Earth Day became community-oriented, encompassing people from all sorts of political and ideological leanings. They met with every possible constituency, from science teachers to Boy Scouts. To their surprise, organized labor was among its most ardent supporters.

He and his crew brainstormed for the name, tossing out "Environment Day," "Ecology Day," "Green Day" before settling on the more direct and catchy Earth Day.

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When he's not commuting by bicycle, Hayes drives a hybrid gasoline-electric car to cut gas consumption and emissions.
Earth Day 1970, feeding off the activist appetite of Vietnam protests, brought out 20 million people and inaugurated the modern environmental movement by linking traditional conservation issues such as protection of wilderness and endangered species with concerns that urban folks were more attuned to, like air and water pollution. Merging the issues under one umbrella helped make Earth Day a more inclusive and powerful phenomenon associated with landmark environmental laws: the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act.

The word that Hayes was searching for that Namibia morning in 1965 — "environment" — became a powerful part of the national vocabulary. He led the organizing effort for the 20- and 30-year anniversaries. Earth Day 1990 drew 141 countries; in 2000 it attracted 184, including the first national environmental campaign ever in China.

"Let me tell you another story," Hayes says from the conference room. "Unlike the Namibia story, this one is actually interesting." Former White House chief of staff John Ehrlichman told it to him over dinner, he says.

"Nixon did not care much about the environment, and as much as you can be anti-environment, he probably was more than any other president. But he was a consummate politician.

"Getting 20 million people out to the streets, and seeing the various communities that these were taking place in were largely Republican, got this on his radar. He knew that his opponent in the '72 election was going to be Edmund Muskie, who was enormously respected. So Nixon asked Ehrlichman, 'What are we gonna do?'

"Ehrlichman pulled out a study that was done in 1969 that proposed the creation of an environmental protection agency. Ehrlichman said we already have these various agencies, so let's just pull them all together. You don't have to change anything, just call it the Environmental Protection Agency and you have the issue.

"So Nixon actually proposed the EPA, but he made an enormous blunder. He appointed Bill Ruckelshaus, who was a genuine environmentalist and a skilled political insider."

BETWEEN HIS COMPLEX sentences and deadpan expression, Hayes frequently flashes droll humor. And while his large eyes often wander as he searches for the right track to take on an answer, they bore into you as he listens. He has learned to walk the line between preaching the perils of global warming and reckless fuel consumption and taking time to celebrate successes.

"I'm afraid we (environmentalists) lack presentation skills," he says with the barest of smiles, "and have come to be perceived as having a congenital aversion to good news. We are bedeviled by the fact that the problems we face are gigantic and bleak. I think we're learning how to carve things up. Rather than talk about worldwide extinctions, we talk more about specifics, like the orcas. Instead of just the very real global-warming nightmare, we try to talk specifics like more efficient automobiles, solar power. . . .

"The tendency is that whenever someone (business or government) makes a positive step. . . . we condemn them for not doing enough. But I think it's important someone steps forward and says, 'That was a step in the right direction.' More than anything, I am more interested in winning than posturing, and I think the stakes are sufficiently high that we need to think in terms of multiple years and generations."

In the early '70s, he wrote a tome called "Rays of Hope" on solar power as an alternative to petroleum. It seems sadly over-optimistic now, almost three decades later. His second book, "The Earth Day Guide to Planet Repair," was released to coincide with Earth Day 2000. He leads with a stark picture of climate change and global warming, then moves down to ways individuals can help. He believes that if environmental stewardship is to take hold, it must ultimately be framed by moral imperatives rather than just legislation or money.

He walks his talk. His home, where he lives with his wife, has all the energy-saving accoutrements, perhaps $30,000 worth, and is just two miles or so from work. He rides his bicycle in good weather and drives a hybrid electric-gas-powered car, a Toyota Prius, which uses far less fuel and emits far less carbon dioxide than sports-utility vehicles and trucks do. Yet, he need only check out the freeways to confirm how far he and other environmentalists have to go.

Hayes and his wife recently went on a Hawaiian vacation, but he took time to answer some questions by e-mail. Could he relax or was he tallying how developed the islands had gotten? His reply was part '60s world-trek memory and part wistful appreciation.

"It is impossible not to lament what has been lost," he wrote. "When I was 19, I worked as a disc jockey in a Honolulu radio station for several months and hitchhiked all over the islands. They were stunning . . . and biologically rich. Much of what I loved has been lost — replaced by sterile resorts and the corrupting fast-food detritus of modern civilization.

"Still, when I'm on vacation, I swim hard and run hard and hike the countryside . . . Kauai offers the relaxation of a familiar old friend that I've known for a quarter century and love deeply."

For more information on Earth Day, go to

Richard Seven is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff reporter. Barry Wong is a magazine staff photographer.

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