Tulalip ‘climate champion’ Terry Williams dies at 74
For nearly half a century, Williams has been at the forefront of the fight against climate change, often wearing a bolo tie. His efforts to save the environment were “endless, non-stop,” Somers said.
In 1994, Williams traveled 100,000 miles on a plane and another 30,000 on the road for meetings about watershed maintenance, court cases about the effects of logging on the health of waterways or interviews with federal officials in DC, the Daily Herald later reported.
“For decades he has been a champion on climate issues,” said Ryan Miller, Tulalip’s director of treaty rights. “And just lead the way. He’s a big part of why Tulalip has been at the forefront of many of these important issues.
As Tribal Liaison with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and locally as Commissioner of Fisheries and Natural Resources for Tulalip, Williams has brought Indigenous knowledge and representation to the table.
He never saw people on the other side of an issue as his “enemy,” Miller said, “and I think that’s really, really hard to do when you spend 40 years arguing with the same groups.
In 1974, Federal Judge George Boldt ruled that an original treaty clause – which stated that tribes could take fish “in common with” non-Indians – meant that the tribes were entitled to a 50-50 split.
Shortly after the Boldt decision, Williams helped create the state’s first co-management system, in which tribal and non-tribal fishers split the salmon harvest each year. He helped define tribal fishing rights alongside Tulalip Tribal Chairman Stan Jones and Nisqually treaty rights activist Billy Frank Jr.
Williams then negotiated the Pacific Salmon Treaty with Canada and its First Nations. It was supported by research developed by Tulalip staff scientists, such as Somers.
“It was his life’s work,” said Teri Gobin, president of the Tulalip Tribes.
Williams, a Vietnam veteran, was first hired into the Tulalip Tribes Fisheries Patrol. And when the position of Director of Fisheries opened up, he was encouraged to apply.
“For years there have been 16-hour days, learning about habitat from biologists and observing leaders on the political front lines,” The Herald reported years ago.
When Williams began his career in the Tribal Natural Resources Department in the 1970s, he worked to understand climate change and find ways to slow its effects. He established the Tribal Treaty Rights Office.
By the ’80s, Williams was regularly sharing her advice with a wider audience. He became a regional chief of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission and the Pacific Fisheries Management Board.
In the 1990s, he was appointed to the American delegation to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. Williams’ work has been felt internationally, Miller said.
Williams often tried to bridge the communication gaps that got in the way of things like recovering salmon populations.
“It’s the authority of each individual agency, federal, state or local, that gives them the ability to create rules and standards,” Williams told the Herald in 2016. “Eleven agencies have independent programs and authorities in Puget Sound Most are not geared towards Puget Sound’s recovery goals.
It therefore helped to bring stakeholders together. He has organized groups like the Northwest Straits Commission, Marine Resources Committees, the Snohomish Salmon Recovery Forum, the Snohomish Sustainable Lands Strategy, and the local integration organizations of the Puget Sound Partnership.
Ultimately, Williams’ efforts and opinions were rooted in tradition: a deep respect for the environment, Gobin said.
When speaking at Evergreen State College in 2009, Williams said white settlers were mistaken when they viewed the Pacific Northwest as natural and untouched. The lands have always been managed by aboriginal people.
Williams instilled that understanding in Miller, who began his career working at the Tribes Hatchery as a teenager. He heard Williams explain the importance of native plants and animals.
“If we lose these species that are so intrinsically tied to who we are, we lose a part of ourselves,” Miller told the Herald in 2021. “It’s hard enough to pass on these traditions in modern societies. As these resources become scarce, it becomes more and more difficult.
Williams also passed on other lessons to Miller on how to get things done.
“He really taught me not to get discouraged and not to get upset when you face tough issues,” Miller said. “I used to watch him have these conversations and I was upset. I would be so crazy. And Terry would be so calm.
His family saw him as a bit of a paradox.
“He was always this quiet guy,” said Natalie Leighton, Williams’ niece. “…It was hard to balance the soft-spoken man I knew against the powerful man who championed climate change reform in Washington DC”
Somers wept as he recalled Williams’ contributions.
“Just the power of his positive, creative spirit,” Somers said, “was just amazing.”
Family and friends are invited to celebrate Williams’ life at 10 a.m. on July 30 at Tulalip Gathering Hall.