Dawes, Janet (b. 1932)

  • By Elise Fogel
  • Posted 9/28/2011
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9935

You could say that Janet Dawes is an accidental, though effective, environmentalist. Initially attracted to environmental groups by her love of nature, Janet, soft-spoken and unassuming, worked on Hawks Prairie development issues as a Sierra Club Member, and joined the Nisqually Delta Association in the mid-1980s to help preserve the Nisqually Delta, the last undeveloped river delta in the Puget Sound. In the early 1990s, when Lone Star Northwest threatened the delta with a gravel mine proposed for just north of the Nisqually Delta Wildlife Refuge, Janet saw that there was a job that needed doing and no one else to do it, so she stepped up and learned the ins and outs of environmental permitting and strategy, ultimately helping to negotiate a groundbreaking 1994 settlement that pleased both Lone Star Northwest and the Nisqually Delta Association.

Puget Sound Girlhood

Janet Hunt was born May 30, 1932 in Tacoma, Washington at the height of the Great Depression. Her family already had a past in the Pacific Northwest -- her mother had been born in Tacoma to Swedish immigrants, and her father had been raised in Steilacoom since he was a child. Throughout her childhood Janet’s father worked various office jobs, and the family spent some time in summer with Janet’s grandmother in Steilacoom, which she loved.

She credits her early fascination with the glacier and the Nisqually River to the drives the family made back and forth to Olympia to visit family. Janet always enjoyed hiking and nature, but her primary early passion was playing piano. She attended the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, where she studied piano and was a member of Sigma Alpha Iota, a women’s music fraternity. She struggled with performance anxiety, an issue that would affect her entire life.

Becoming Aware of the Environment

In 1962 Janet married Warren Dawes, a computer systems manager. They and their son moved to Texas in 1967 so Warren could take a job with a NASA contractor. Janet was shocked at the lack of environmental stewardship she found in Texas, and, although she had never identified herself as an environmentalist before, she sought out like-minded individuals at the local Sierra Club.

She became involved with some local environmental issues in Texas, and when the Dawes moved to Calgary, Canada, in 1972, Janet joined the small Sierra Club chapter there. The issues of the time were the trans-Canada highway expansion and tar sands mining projects, but she never considered herself a driving force on these issues, mostly because she considered speaking in public “a fate worse than death.”

Return to the Nisqually

In 1976, the Dawes moved back to the Olympia area and built a house on the Nisqually reach, overlooking the water that had inspired Janet’s childhood fascination. Janet again became involved in the local Sierra Club chapter. Another environmental group, the Nisqually Delta Association, had been fighting the Weyerhaeuser Company over its proposed lumber export facility at Dupont. One day Warren saw an article in the paper about the Dupont port proposal and suggested that Janet get involved. So she called the Nisqually Delta Association, which was leading the crusade against Weyerhaeuser, and started volunteering in the office.

Meanwhile, a spirited public discussion was in progress over a mass residential and industrial development proposal from Weyerhaeuser and Burlington Northern in an area called Hawks Prairie adjacent to the Delta in Thurston County. Traffic jams would ensue from the major population increase, and questions about water resources were unanswered.

Janet considered this “too much to swallow.” She didn’t trust the planning commissioners to adequately represent her interests, feeling like they were going to rubber stamp whatever proposal was presented to them, so she took advantage of the fact that she didn’t have to work during the day and started attending every meeting pertaining to the development. Janet became fast friends with Stan Cecil, an Audubon member, during this time, as he was also available during the day, and they “dogged that thing all the way through.”

Janet felt deeply that it was wrong for such a rural, environmentally important area to be paved over and cause destruction to the delta. In a 1984 letter to the editor, she wrote: “Just now, from my window, I can see two oyster dredges anchored near the shore in Nisqually Reach. To me those dredges are beautiful, because they represent clean water. No doubt their days are numbered because of all the development plans for northeast Thurston County and the resultant need for a sewage-treatment plant” (Seattle Daily Times, March 15,1984). This was her first foray into more intense activism. Although the Hawks Prairie development was ultimately built, Janet had learned important lessons about public process, and attitudes toward the natural world. She knew that some people didn’t follow through on their public statements.

“With everyone running for any kind of political office, saying 'I support preserving the environment', it is so often lip service, and they have no idea what a difficult task it can be with real tradeoffs. A real environmentalist understands the interconnectedness of things, which often requires a new way of thinking about and seeing the world and what consequences action (or inaction) can have, and acts accordingly.” (Janet Dawes email, September 7, 2011). 

Negotiator for Nisqually

Janet slowly increased her involvement with the Nisqually Delta Association through the mid-1980s, when she joined the board. She helped bring public awareness to the polluted soil under and around DuPont that resulted from an explosives manufacturing enterprise active from 1909 to 1976. Janet Dawes called it the “Love Canal of the West,” and argued to expand the existing consent decree to include all the land where explosives manufacturing had taken place if Weyerhaeuser was going to build new homes on the land.

Meanwhile the Weyerhaeuser proposal had worked its way through the court systems and was approved in 1985, but soon after the firm abandoned the project for economic reasons. Then Weyerhaeuser, partnering with Lone Star Northwest, proposed a gravel mine on the same site. The Nisqually Delta Association sprung into opposition, and Janet was on the job.

Ed Kenney, a fellow Nisqually Delta Association member said of Janet Dawes:

“When I joined NDA in the late 80's, Janet was the de-facto heart and soul of the group. She knew the most and was the most persistent activist. Her main interest was keeping the Nisqually shoreline from Tatsolo Point in Pierce County to DeWolf Bight in Thurston County as ecologically intact as possible. Multiple challenges all along the shoreline threatened this goal and Janet knew the historical status and status quo of every one of them. Only George Walter working for the Nisqually Tribe (and also a member of NDA) had anywhere near as comprehensive a grip on Nisqually issues” (Ed Kenny email, September 6, 2010).

In 1992 the Department of Ecology rejected the Nisqually Delta Association's request to stop industrial use along the Nisqually Delta shoreline. Janet was outraged at the injustice:

“Their reasons for rejecting the petition are fallacious – wrong,” she said, “DOE is more afraid of being sued by Lone Star or Weyerhaeuser than they are the Nisqually Delta Association” (The Olympian, April 4, 1992).

Soon after, the Nisqually Delta Association entered into official negotiations with Lone Star over its port proposal. Mary Martin, current NDA president, was married to a man who worked at the Department of Ecology, so she wasn’t allowed to directly negotiate. The job fell to Janet and Stan Cecil. As Janet remembers it, there was something that needed to be done, and no one else to do it.

The Nisqually Delta Association team was composed of attorney David Bricklin, Janet Dawes as lead board member, and Stan Cecil for moral support. Also included at the negotiating table were representatives from the City of Dupont, Anderson Island, Weyerhaeuser, Lone Star, and the Department of Ecology. Weyerhaeuser and Lone Star shared a lawyer at the negotiating table. Tom Mark of the Department of Ecology became the hero for suggesting that Lone Star move the port north to Tatsolo Point, away from the Nisqually Delta Wildlife Refuge, an idea that pleased both Lone Star and the Nisqually Delta Association.

The negotiations were a stressful time for Janet. Public speaking had always been difficult for her, and she was forbidden from talking about the negotiations to anyone. When the plan finally went public, many environmentalists were shocked that Lone Star would agree to move their facility. The new dock location was also closer to Lone Star’s gravel source, which would reduce transportation to the dock.

The agreement dictated that Lone Star and Weyerhaeuser would pay $1 million to the City of Dupont to offset project impacts, as well as $1.75 million to an environmental trust fund over the next 25 years to be administered by the Department of Ecology and the NDA to purchase additional land for the refuge. This money went to the Nisqually River Land Trust, in a fund specifically to buy delta land. It was Janet’s idea to ask for this money, as the new dock location alone wasn’t enough, in her view. The City of DuPont was also required to remove from the Master Plan all urban-zoned shoreline areas. All parties accepted the compromises in this agreement, and were pleased with the outcome, making it a milestone agreement.

A Citizen Hero 

After the settlement was reached, Janet essentially retired. She was happy with the outcome, but took no personal credit for the accomplishment. That didn’t stop others statewide from recognizing her groundbreaking work. The Seattle Audubon Society named her the 1994-1995 Environmentalist of the Year and she received the Washington Environmental Coalition’s Citizen Hero Award in November 1995.

Janet served on the board of People for Puget Sound for a short period, helping to fundraise. She and husband Warren were also involved in bringing Mason County into compliance with the Growth Management Act by urging them to adopt a zoning code. Warren became the busier activist in the family during these years, establishing a local watershed committee and serving as a docent at the Kennedy Creek Salmon Trail through 2011.

Janet’s humble attitude and quiet, detail-oriented perseverance have truly made a lasting impact on the Nisqually watershed. In her retirement, Janet continues to refine her piano skills and also practices oil painting. She remains steadfast in her devotion to the local environment.

Janet and Warren Dawes have a son who lives in Bellevue, and one granddaughter.

Sources: Carol Beers, “6 Win Citizen Heroes Award -- They're Stewards Of State's `Natural Heritage,'” The Seattle Times, November 19, 1995, (http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com); Janet Dawes, “Letter To The Editor, Seattle Daily Times, March 15, 1984, p. A-15; Janet Dawes Emails to Elise Fogel, August 24 and September 6, 2011, in possession of Elise Fogel, Seattle; John Dodge, “At Odds: Development Plans And Environmental Safeguards,” The Olympian, March 3, 1985, clipping file, Nisqually Delta Association Archive, Acc. SPC 90-02, The Evergreen State College; Bob Carson, “Weyerhaeuser Plans Community,” The Tacoma News Tribune, November 13, 1988, clipping file, Nisqually Delta Association Archive, Acc. SPC 90-02, The Evergreen State College;  John Dodge, “State Rejects Nisqually Use-Limits Bid,” The Olympian, April 4, 1992, clipping file, Nisqually Delta Association Archive, Acc. SPC 90-02, The Evergreen State College;  Victor M. Gonzalez, “Public Can Comment On Gravel Dock Plan,” The Tacoma News Tribune, May 10, 1995, clipping file, Nisqually Delta Association Archive, Acc. SPC 90-02, The Evergreen State College;  Keith Ervin, “Planned-Community Site Has 60-Year Toxic Legacy,” The Seattle Times, December 18, 1990, (http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com/); Elise Fogel Interview With Janet Dawes, August 23, 2011, Lacey, digital recording in possession of Elise Fogel, Seattle; Ed Kenney Email to Elise Fogel, September 6, 2011, in possession of Elise Fogel, Seattle; Nisqually Delta Association website, accessed September 13, 2011 (http://www.oly-wa.us/nda/); Eric Pryne, “Landowner Agrees To New Dock Farther From Nisqually Refuge,” The Seattle Times, August 24, 1994, (http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com/); “Seattle Audubon Awards,” website accessed September 1, 2011, (http://www.seattleaudubon.org/sas/WhoWeAre/AboutUs/History/SeattleAudubonAwards.aspx); Linda Shaw, “Work in Progress -- Northwest Landing Residents Wait ...," The Seattle Times, April 11, 1988 (http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com/); Doug Underwood, “Weyerhaeuser Seeks Nisqually Rezone for Industrial Park,” The Seattle Times, April 17, 1982, p. A-1.

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