Fletcher, Kathy (b. 1950)

  • By Dee Arntz
  • Posted 3/28/2010
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9369
A Harvard-educated biologist, Kathy Fletcher worked for the Carter White House and spent five years as a staff scientist in various environmental organizations. Since the early 1980s, she has devoted her professional life to the restoration of Puget Sound. In 1983 she became the first chair of the Puget Sound Water Quality Authority, which initially was an advisory commission. When it became an actual state agency in 1985, Kathy left her job at Seattle City Light to head it up. Within one year, she directed the development and adoption of the first Puget Sound Management Plan. After the Water Quality Authority was moved into the Department of Ecology in 1990, she decided to build public support for a healthy Puget Sound by founding People For Puget Sound in 1991. This organization now (2010) has about 25 staff members and more than 7,500 member households and thousands of volunteers. Kathy Fletcher has shown herself to be a gifted institution builder with what seems limitless energy to devote to creating a healthy Puget Sound. She projects a disarming, cheerful persona, but beneath lies toughness and commitment. Her career demonstrates her success as manager and leader of conservation causes and organizations.

Roots in Washington

A fifth generation Washingtonian, Kathy’s life experiences link her to the outdoors and Puget Sound. Her great-grandfather, Frank Binns, was one of the first naturalists to explore and identify the flora of the Olympic Mountains. Her grandfather, John H. Binns (1895-1980), also  loved the outdoors, and Kathy remembered times with him and her entire extended family exploring:

“We spent weeks and weeks in the mountains, mostly the Olympics, but also the Cascades, and we spent a lot of time on the beach. Every summer we would spend time out on the ocean beach, and we laid in our winter supply of razor clams" (Fletcher 2005).

Kathy's father is UW Law Professor (emeritus) Robert L. Fletcher (b. 1918). Fletcher writes, "He was/is a wonderful dad, leading great family hiking, clamming and sailing adventures, but also cooking most of the family meals and being there for us kids no matter what. He built the cabin in British Columbia that is the beautiful getaway spot for our entire extended family" (Kathy Fletcher to Dee Arntz, March 29, 2010).

Kathy’s mother, Betty Binns Fletcher (1923-2012), a federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals judge until her death at age 89, was her major role model:

“After she had all four of us kids, she went back to finish law school. She had started law school but World War II as well as kids had interrupted that, and so she actually finished law school at a time that I can remember. She was one of such a small handful of female law students that the women’s student lounge at the UW Law School was like a little anteroom off the bathroom. There were probably fewer than five women law students. When she graduated from law school she was number one in her class, which probably never would’ve happened if her name had been on her exams, but at least they graded by the number. She couldn’t find a job, because virtually none of the law firms in Seattle would hire women as lawyers. She was offered jobs as legal secretary. And finally she did get a job, and then, of course, she became over time a named partner in the firm and then a judge. Her pioneering spirit and her conviction that you can do what you set your mind to has influenced me from day one" (Fletcher 2005).

Kathy’s sister, Susan F. French (b. 1943), is a law professor at UCLA. Her older brother is Ninth Circuit Judge William A. Fletcher (b. 1945), appointed in 1998. Her younger brother, Paul R. Fletcher (b. 1953), is a medical doctor and executive at Group Health.

Science and Earth Day

After growing up in Seattle’s Laurelhurst area, Kathy’s next stop was Harvard. During her first year, 1967, she had a life-changing experience in a biology class filled with 300 freshmen.

“Who would ever think you’d find inspiration in that room? But I did. Professor George Wald, a Nobel Prize winner, taught the course and he opened my eyes to science, and I realized that I could really be interested in this. I retained my interest in music and literature and all the other things I thought were my fields, but I realized that this was something I could sink my teeth into. When I tried to find my own way of blending environmentalism, my interest in biology, and my political soul, there wasn’t really an academic mentor at Harvard at the time" (Fletcher 2005).

In 1970 Earth Day, started by Senator Gaylord Nelson whose staff chose Denis Hayes (b. 1944) to organize it, rocked college campuses across the country, Kathy recalled:

"I was politically active, because that was the time of the Vietnam War. That first Earth Day [April 22, 1970] brought together for me political activism and my interest in science, and I decided that was the direction I could go as a career. Earth Day 1970 made me an environmental activist" (Fletcher 2005).

Fletcher earned a degree in biology and spent most of the next year in Washington D.C., lobbying for environmental legislation.

Colorado Years

Following this, she moved to Colorado.

“I spent the early seventies basically trying to change the Interior Department’s policies about water and coal and oil shale. The energy and water development pressures were enormous and had huge negative environmental implications -- and the Interior Department was a major bad actor" (Fletcher 2005).

For five years she worked as staff scientist for environmental organizations in Colorado: Environmental Action of Colorado, Rocky Mountain Center on the Environment, and the Environmental Defense Fund. A big issue of the day was stopping oil-shale development, which could have been an environmental disaster for the western part of the state. In Denver, Kathy became a member of the Notorious Oil Shale Breakfast Club with its local “headquarters” at the home of her neighbor, Vim Wright (1926-2003). Wright later moved to Washington state and became a force for environmental and social justice in Seattle. 

The Carter White House

 In 1976 Jimmy Carter (b. 1924)  ran for president, and Fletcher signed on:

“I became part of the transition team that he actually formed before he won the election. And then I was invited to stay on as part of the White House staff, part of the domestic policy staff, so that’s how I got back [to D.C.]" (Fletcher 2005).

After Carter’s election, Fletcher worked for Stuart Eizenstat (b. 1943), domestic policy advisor to the president. Her portfolio included the Department of the Interior’s environment and natural resources policies, as well as work with Indian tribes.

An early issue was Carter’s campaign promise to reform the water policies of the federal government. The president first decided to expose the misleading economics of dam projects proposed by the Army Corps of Engineers, an issue he had tackled first-hand as governor of Georgia. Fletcher handled the substance of the issue. Politics blocked ultimate success in stopping bad projects, but Carter did institute reforms in the Corps of Engineers and in the Bureau of Reclamation. Despite substantial evidence in support of action, political pressure by special interests doomed any major changes to ”pork barrel” dam and canal projects such as the Tennessee-Tombigbee Canal and the Central Arizona Project.

Alaska and the Pipeline

The country’s largest state was Kathy’s next battleground. She helped shape policy and legislation to achieve conservation classification for many areas of federal land in Alaska.

When Alaska joined the union in 1959, all of its vast lands belonged to the federal government. Statehood brought with it substantial land grants to the new state, but Native people were left out of the equation until the oil companies decided to develop North Slope oil and build a pipeline all the way to Valdez. Unresolved Native land claims were an obstacle to the pipeline, and Congress cleared them in the 1971 Native Claims Settlement Act.

The act allowed the pipeline to proceed immediately, but the actual lands to be conveyed to the Native corporations -- and the fate of the vast remaining tracts of federal land -- were still unfinished business in 1977, left to the Carter Administration and a new Congress. Unfortunately, Alaska’s delegation to Congress, reflecting the sentiment of many Alaskans, were hungry for unlimited development of Alaska’s riches, including virtually all of the federal lands. They opposed the dreams of many other Americans to preserve at least some of Alaska’s federally owned wilderness for the future.

In a bold move, which Kathy helped staff, President Carter used the Antiquities Act in 1978 to designate millions of acres as national monuments, essentially buying time for Congress to act. The conservation withdrawals galvanized Congressional action in December 1980, and the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act was passed, protecting nearly 80 million acres, one-third of it in wilderness status. The one area exempted from protection was a portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a battle that has echoed into more recent years.

Moving to Puget Sound Country

Kathy Fletcher met her husband, Ken Weiner (b. 1950), in Washington, D.C., and just prior to Carter’s  defeat in 1980 they moved to Seattle. Ken is now a partner in the law firm K&L Gates. Their son, Josh, was born in 1984. 

Fletcher went to work for Seattle City Light, first as director of environmental affairs, and then as assistant superintendent for energy conservation, community relations, and customer service.

Her passion for Puget Sound became her work in 1983, first on an advisory commission to the state legislature called the Puget Sound Water Quality Authority, and then as chair of the Puget Sound Water Quality Authority when it became a government agency in 1985. By the late 1980s the agency had become forceful and effective -- and encountered stiff resistance from major Washington industries that wanted more “flexibility” in standards for water quality and discharges.

The state legislature agreed and put the formerly independent authority under the wing of the Department of Ecology. Fletcher resigned -- and then she set out to help protect Puget Sound with people power.

People for Puget Sound

Armed with grants, research, and a strong business plan, People For Puget Sound opened its doors in 1991, and it has been growing in support and effectiveness ever since. Fletcher's belief in persistence and partnerships continues to pay off as more and more money, resources, and volunteer efforts flow into the cause of restoring Puget Sound. The organization now (2010) has a staff of 25 and more 7,500 member-households, plus thousands of volunteers. Again, Kathy Fletcher has built a strong and trusted organization from the ground up.

Her impact on improving the ecological health of Puget Sound is very visible, if you know to look. One place to start is the restoration of the Duwamish River. Here a toxic dumpsite ravaged by industrial development is becoming green again in an astonishing turnaround.

Fletcher combined her organizational work for the environment with being a mother. Her husband, Ken Weiner, said:

“For Kathy, being a mother was a very major part of her life. We would have to pick our son up at daycare or at school or whatever. We both have sort of high-pressure jobs, and I didn’t feel I could walk out on a client in the middle of something. And there’s nothing less important about what Kathy was doing then what I was doing, but she wouldn’t. She, no matter, Josh came first and she would be there. She went to basically every one of his afternoon ball games" (Weiner 2009).

Kathy Fletcher is currently is a member of the Northwest Straits Commission and a member of the Puget Sound Partnership’s Ecosystem Coordination Board. In August 2005, Governor Christine Gregoire (b. 1947)  appointed her to the state’s Oil Spill Advisory Council (now defunct). Kathy has served on many nonprofit organization boards, including the national Sierra Club and the National Environmental Trust, and is currently a member of the boards of Restore America's Estuaries and the Washington Foundation for the Environment.

In 2009 Kathy Fletcher was awarded the Seattle Aquarium Society Medal, which is presented annually to an individual whose leadership and lifetime accomplishments reflect the mission of the Seattle Aquarium: Inspiring Conservation of our Marine Environment. “In Kathy,” says Aquarium Society CEO Bob Davidson, “we have found a leader whose life work is inextricably linked to the appreciation, protection and future health of Puget Sound" (Awards Ceremony, 2009).

Sources: Dee Arntz interview with Kathy Fletcher, March 18, 2005, Seattle Washington; Dee Arntz interview with Ken Weiner, July 9, 2009, Seattle Washington; Dee Arntz personal attendance at Seattle Aquarium Society, Awards Ceremony, January 21, 2009, Seattle, Washington; Kathy Fletcher email to Dee Arntz, March 29, 2010, in possession of Dee Arntz, Seattle, Washington.

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