Thomas, Joan K. (1931-2011)

  • By Dee Arntz
  • Posted 3/20/2010
  • Essay 9330
After arriving in the Puget Sound area in 1955, Joan Thomas developed a passion for preserving Washington's environment, particularly water quality.  She found a myriad ways to pursue her goal, first as a community activist with the League of Women Voters, where she rose to be president of the State League, and then as an environmental leader who helped to found the Washington Environmental Council, Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition, and Puget Sound Water Quality Defense Fund. A trailblazer, Joan Thomas was hired as the first woman manager at the state Department of Ecology. She demonstrated a facility in resolving tax issues. She served on the Board of Property Tax Assessment and was a Tax Referee. There appeared to be nothing that Joan Thomas couldn't tackle. Her energy and concern for the community remained to the end of her life. She was to the end a member of State Commission on Parks and Recreation and traveled all over the state to attend board meetings and visit parks.

Early Life

Joan Kaiser Boyd was born on January 23, 1931, in Detroit, and grew up there. Her father, John William Boyd Jr. (1903-1985)  was an auditor for the Standard Oil Company of Indiana and her mother, Hildreth Lillian Kaiser Boyd (1905-ca. 1987) was a homemaker. As a child during World War II, she and her cousin spent several summers in a cabin on Torch Lake in northern Michigan -- a “wilderness” experience that may have influenced Joan’s future worldview:We had no running water. We had no electricity. This was a pioneering experience for city girls” (Thomas interview 2009).

She attended college at the University of Michigan, where she met her husband, Mort Thomas (b. 1932), who had grown up in Tacoma. In an interview she remembered "We came out here by train on the North Coast Limited when he graduated in February of 1955, and we walked down from the King Street Station to the waterfront, and I saw Puget Sound for the first time" (Thomas Interview 2002).  She had never seen the sound or the surrounding mountains. Those geographic bookends of the Pacific Northwest encompass the natural resources that would become her passion and work for the next five decades.

In July 1955, Mort Thomas was drafted into the army and sent to Korea. Joan lived with his parents while he was gone.

League of Women Voters

When Mort returned, they moved to Seattle where their daughter, Elizabeth, was born in 1958. That same year Joan went with a friend to a League of Women Voters meeting and was so impressed with members’ analysis of issues that she joined. Within a few years, Joan rose to the presidency of the Seattle league, served on the state board, and eventually became the youngest president of the Washington league (1967-1969). Not only was the organization Joan’s training ground in leadership; it also whetted her interest in water quality and quantity.   

With the state league, I was involved with the Western States Water Group from New Mexico and Arizona all the way up to Montana and we brought up-to-date a book called Great River of the West about the Columbia River. It was revised again in the seventies when the five states in the Columbia watershed reactivated the regional group. I worked on water quality and water resource management for many, many years in the league (Thomas Interview 2002). 

The West Point Treatment Plant

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the League of Women Voters and other citizen groups supported the formation of the Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle (Metro) to build a regional sewage treatment facility at West Point on Fort Lawton. The plant was dedicated in 1966.

In 1965, 1972, and 1980, Joan Thomas served as co-chair of successful Clean Water Bond issues.   

She became a leader in the next high-profile water-quality issue in King County, the upgrading of primary sewage treatment to secondary treatment. The City of Seattle, like many other large municipalities located on salt water, had a "marine waiver" that allowed discharge of primary-treated sewage into marine waters, thus avoiding the costs of secondary treatment.  However, the national attitude and the national laws were changing to favor clean water and environmental protection.   

The Clean Water Act was passed in 1972 and amended in 1977 and 1981 but still had the "marine waiver." By the time I went to work for the Department of Ecology in 1981, the pressure was really on to do away with the marine waiver and to require secondary treatment at all treatment plants" (Thomas Interview 2009).

Joan Thomas, David Bricklin, Tom Wimmer, and others formed The Puget Sound Water Quality Defense Fund to fight for secondary treatment -- but they were dead set against expanding the Discovery Park site. The West Point wastewater treatment plant, dedicated in 1966, is located on West Point, a point of land that extends into Puget Sound from Fort Lawton and Discovery Park. Thomas explained that the plant "is like a sewage refinery and it takes huge amounts of equipment, digesters, and things like that.  And that just didn’t need to be on the beach at West Point (Thomas Interview 2009).   

The battle over the location of the secondary treatment plant raged for nearly a decade. When Wimmer died in 1987, his law partner, David Bricklin, joined the legal team and Joan became the organization’s chair. The defense fund appealed Metro’s plan for secondary treatment at West Point to the Shoreline Management hearings board and lost. The fund appealed to Superior Court and lost again. The defense fund was preparing another appeal when Metro initiated settlement talks. In 1991 both sides signed an agreement included strict environmental provisions to protect Discovery Park. Thomas recalled the conditions:   

The secondary treatment couldn’t expand any further than what was already built. It was the footprint, it was the height, but it was also the 'pollutant loading' [the amount of pollutants contained in discharge of storm water or treated sewage]. The settlement agreement also provided that if a better process for solids handling was found and they could eliminate one, two, or three of those digesters, they’d take the ones down that were closest to the beach and let that become a public use area. If they (Metro) didn’t find a better way, then they had to pay the City of Seattle. I think it was a million dollars an acre. They didn’t find a better way. And that money went into a trust account, and by the time we [the city] got around to spending it, it was like five million dollars (Thomas interview 2009).   

The secondary treatment expansion was completed in 1996. And although the trust fund paid for major improvements to Discovery Park, including removing roads and military housing and restoring native vegetation, Joan remembered how she felt at the time about the settlement:  

One of the biggest disappointments of my adult life is that that secondary treatment plant is on the beach at West, at Discovery Park instead of having the secondary facility somewhere in an industrial area -- and the effluent going out into the Sound” (Thomas interview 2009).   

But her strategy was -- as with other issues -- Keep it going! Don't give up!

By 1999 Seattle and King County needed to expand secondary treatment facilities. The Citizens Advisory Committee representing the Puget Sound Water Quality Defense Fund, the Washington Environmental Council, and other groups opposed expansion at West Point and invoked the special environmental provisions in the 1991 agreement, specifically the prohibition against additional pollutant loading. The provisions held up legally and in 2003 King County Metro chose a 114-acre site in Snohomish County for the new Brightwater facility, which is scheduled to begin operation in 2011.  

Washington Environmental Council  

In 1968 Joan was one of the original incorporators of the Washington Environmental Council (WEC). The following year, WEC and other conservation groups got a boost thanks to the state legislature’s rejection of a broadly popular Wild and Scenic Rivers bill for Washington. Joan was an early advocate of developing influence in Olympia. She served as WEC’s legislative vice-president in 1970 and helped shepherd one of the nation’s toughest oil-spill bills through the legislative special session that year.   

Photos of Joan Thomas during this time show a petite blond young woman with somewhat startling black-framed eyeglasses. Certainly not a physically imposing figure, her power came from other qualities frequently cited by her colleagues: her persistence and sharp mind.   

Rod Brown, principal in the Cascadia Law Group and 2009 president of WEC, described her influence as a mentor:  

“Of the people I first started working with, the two that stood out the most were Joan Thomas and Vim Wright. And they were both very knowledgeable, very respected by others, and it was clear to me -- as a kid who didn’t know anything at that point in time -- that these were women [who] when they said things, other people listened. It was clear they had been around for a while already. So they were the two that I started paying attention to. And fortunately for me, they both were willing to take the time to mentor me, so they spent a fair amount of time saying, “Here’s what I know about this issue,” or “Here’s what I know about the politics of the situation.” And they both probably gave me a little bit of their wisdom. I would’ve been 25 or 26 years old and I probably didn’t have a lot of wisdom at that point -- not to say that I have it now but I have more than I had then -- and I owe it to them. They would caution me and counsel me how to do the right thing and not overreact to things -- but to react just right”  (Brown interview 2007).      

Joan Thomas was a mentor to many, including Governor Christine Gregoire; Joan Crooks, WEC’s executive director as of 2009; and David Bricklin, prominent Washington environmental attorney. Bricklin shared Brown's opinion:  

"I always thought Joan was one of the clearer thinkers among the group, and she was also very astute politically. Speaking at least for myself, and I think for many of us earlier on, we weren’t particularly astute politically. Joan was a voice of political reason, if you will. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to spend a lot of time and energy if you're just going to get blown up when you approach the opposition" (Bricklin interview 2008). 

Thomas views the passage of the Water Resources Act of 1971 as one of her greatest achievements. As WEC Legislative Vice-President, she led the effort to pass the bill, which expanded “beneficial” uses to include “in stream” uses such as water for salmon. This seemingly minor revision revolutionized water policy in Washington. Now environmentalists could argue that in-stream flows must be maintained for fish and other wildlife. That same session, Joan also helped negotiate and pass the Shoreline Management Act and the State Environmental Policy Act, two pillars of environmental law in Washington.   

Along with water issues, Joan Thomas worked on fiscal and tax policy. In 1974 she was appointed to the Washington Board of Tax Appeals where she served a full six-year term. She was also member of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s management advisory committee for wastewater treatment plants, thanks to federal legislation requiring affirmative action for all boards and commissions. To accommodate the mandate, EPA changed the technical advisory committee to a management advisory committee and she was among the first women appointed.

Department of Ecology

In 1981 John Spencer, deputy director for Washington’s Department of Ecology, recruited Joan to supervise the Water Quality Division. She recalled: The only women in the agency were the director’s confidential secretary and the librarian. I was the first woman in middle management and I was probably the first card-carrying environmentalist (Thomas interview 2002).  

In 1984 Joan became the first woman to serve as regional manager, and created a successful program to develop urban action teams for pollution control. However, faced with upper management routinely ignoring her decisions, frustration set in. She took a leave of absence and resigned in 1987.

As Ecology's Northwest regional manager, I had accompanied the director when Metro was told it had to provide secondary treatment and the region would monitor compliance. After [Metro] accepted that, the first decision that had to be made was where to do it. And that was how it became an issue of shorelines. By then [however] I was out of Ecology and taking a year off (Thomas interview 2002).   

In 1991 Christine Gregoire (b. 1947), then head of the Department of Ecology, asked Joan to sit on the Wetland Policy Forum that Gregoire chaired for Governor Booth Gardner (b. 1936). The hope was that a wetlands protection bill would finally get through the legislature; Gregoire stipulated that the proposal would have to be one that the environmental community could support. At the eleventh hour the key players were called into the governor’s office for a final negotiation. Joan said the language had been reviewed by conservationists and it wasn’t adequate. The bill died right there. This experience began a long friendship between Joan and Chris Gregoire.   

Parks and History

Another facet of Thomas's conservation passion was her involvement with parks. Seattle’s Discovery Park was one of her favorite places and she served on the board of the Friends of Discovery Park.  In 1997 Governor Mike Lowry (b. 1939) appointed Thomas to the Washington Parks and Recreation Commission, and she served as chair in 2001 and in 2007.

I’ve seen that the commission has become greener, and we’ve put a higher value on resource protection and the importance of the resource to public enjoyment and a real understanding of that. And it shows in the decisions that we make” (Thomas interview 2009).  

Joan Thomas expressed excitement about two state-parks initiatives, in partnership with National Park Service, that focused on the history of the area's lands and environment -- the Lewis and Clark Trail and the Ice Age Floods Geologic Trail, approved by Congress in 2009:   

We have a lot of parks that have evidence of the Ice Age floods. [Massive floods caused by bursting ice dams shaped the landscape of much of Eastern Washington]. The Ice Age Flood Trail will be in Montana, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon, because the Willamette Valley is where all that soil ended up. The soil got scrubbed off the Palouse by the Ice Age, by the glaciers, and then the floods just washed it all down to the Willamette. So if we have enough money to support the interpretation that’ll be a good opportunity. It’s more than just sending people to look at dry falls. They need to know what it means”  (Thomas interview 2009).

Her great interest in these initiatives demonstrated her characteristic intensity and total involvement. All issues, controversial or not, received her full attention -- and she had almost total recall of the events and those who participated.   

In 1994 Joan Thomas was instrumental in convincing her good friend and fellow activist Vim Wright (1926-2003) to accept a seat on the Washington State Conservation Commission. (The commission, established in the 1930s, assists and guides conservation districts by providing leadership, technical resources, and money to help private landowners protect public resources.) Joan knew that Vim had the experience and talent to be a bridge-builder on the commission. She was right. In 2001, Vim Wright helped found Farming and the Environment, a non-profit organization working to protect both the economic vitality of farming in Washington state and to promote the environmental stewardship of the state's working agricultural landscape. When Vim passed away in 2003, Joan added yet another item to her already full plate: She took on a leadership role in that group, too.

Thomas also played a role in the development of (this website) as a statewide encyclopedia, acting as an early and longtime champion of funding for the encyclopedia to present the history of the state's environment and environmental movement. 

Woman to Be Reckoned With

Why did Joan Thomas devote her life to preserving the natural resources in Washington?  

"I feel more and more that it’s [about] future generations. I’d lived in a place that wasn’t very beautiful, (and) I moved to a place that was very beautiful. I don’t have grandchildren, but I have grandnieces and grandnephews, and I want it to be here for (them), for the water to be here. And I’ve seen a lot of change. I went on a cruise in 1956 with some people from the Tacoma Public Library. We cruised through the San Juans, and I thought the San Juans were wonderful, but when we put in at Port Gardner Bay and Bellingham Bay, it was just ghastly. I mean, the pulp mill pollution was just gross. So [as of 2002] we see that we’ve taken care of the gross pollution, but we didn’t realize what a difficult job it would be. And the legacy of that activity is in the sediments and on the ground. So there’s still a lot to be done, but if you can keep bad things from happening in the first place, it’s easier than cleaning up afterward" (Thomas interview 2002).

Washington's former Commissioner of Public Lands, Jennifer Belcher, described Joan’s longtime effect on conservation in the state:   

"Joan Thomas is an incredible environmentalist. She has changed the make-up of this state in numerous ways. She has been influential in adopting laws, Shoreline Management Act, and others. She has been influential in electing governors. She has been influential in working with governors. She certainly has been influential on a lot of issues in this state" (Belcher Interview 2002).  

In 2008, two organizations that Joan Thomas helped establish, the Washington Environmental Council and the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Commission, gave her awards in recognition of her lifetime of environmental activism.   

To the end of her life, Joan Thomas was a woman to be reckoned with in Washington -- and to the end she reckoned that Washington's environment was worth fighting for.

Joan Thomas died of cancer on November 28, 2011.

Sources: Dee Arntz and Raelene Gold interview with Joan Thomas, 2002, Seattle, Washington, audio tape and transcription in possession of Dee Arntz; Dee Arntz interview with Joan Thomas July 1, 2002, Seattle, audio tape and transcription in possession of Dee Arntz; Dee Arntz interview with Rod Brown, Seattle, November 21, 2007; Dee Arntz interview with David Bricklin, January 23, 2008; Dee Arntz and Raelene Gold Interview with Jennifer Belcher, Olympia, January 11, 2002, audio tape and transcription in possession of Dee Arntz.

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