When Bill Arthur left for college in 1972, a family friend from rural Montana, where Arthur was born, urged him to steer clear of three things: Godless commie professors, marijuana, and the Sierra Club. “I had never heard of the last one, so was immediately intrigued,” says Arthur of his first flicker of interest in the organization. It soon became a fruitful relationship, continuing to this day.
Arthur’s youth involved plenty of outdoor activities—fishing, camping, canoeing, and backpacking. He watched as the Kootenai River, where he saw his first grizzly bear at age twelve, was dammed to create a reservoir, destroying local communities. He didn’t like it, but learned only later on that he had options. “You can connect with like-minded people and get things done by exercising your power,” he says.
During his freshman year as a forestry major at the University of Idaho, he noted a Sierra Club flyer advertising a meeting on a proposed local wilderness area. Attending it inspired him to join a Club outing to that area. “I got caught up in a network of people who were genuinely friendly, and it was easy to get involved on a personal level,” Arthur says. He began volunteering on wilderness issues.
Arthur soon realized forestry wasn’t for him. At the time it was primarily about cutting down trees, and he preferred a wider focus that included conservation. He transferred to Washington State University for his sophomore year and switched his major to natural resource economics. He also met his future wife Debora there; they now have two kids and two grandchildren.
Following graduation he taught economics at Spokane Falls Community College, and his Club volunteerism grew to include roles such as conservation chair for what at the time was called the Northern Rockies Chapter.
The Arthurs moved to Seattle in 1983 so Debora could pursue a Master’s degree in Library Science. That same year a temporary position opened in the Club’s Northwest office, and Arthur decided to give working professionally for the organization a try. He was hired, and when the staffer on leave didn’t return Arthur’s position became permanent. “My one-year contract never ended,” he says dryly.
A lifelong fisherman, Arthur became involved in the Club’s efforts to protect and rebuild the region’s vitally important salmon and steelhead population, particularly those originating in the Snake River. Since the 1890s, a total of 15 dams have been built along the Snake, but the most consequential to fish populations have been the last four, built between 1961 and 1975. “The lower four are the ones that have been the big blow to the enormous salmon runs that used to come up the Snake,” Arthur says. “The Columbia River had a huge run, too, but almost half come from the Snake system’s many tributaries.”
The population depletion, along with overall habitat destruction, created ripple effects throughout the region’s ecosystems. The Club’s salmon recovery efforts experienced a modicum of success, but not nearly enough. “By around 2000, we realized that the only way to restore fish populations was to remove the lower four,” Arthur says. It speaks to the tenacity of the challenge that nearly 20 years later the dams are still in place, even as the effort to remove them moves forward.
Arthur was also involved in regional energy issues and wilderness designations during his working years with the Club. Prior to his 2016 retirement, he spent a few years on the Beyond Coal campaign, having previously served as deputy national field director and Northwest/Alaska organizing director. The team worked to hasten retirement of the Colstrip coal-fired power plants in Montana, and though all four of its plants are still operational, Beyond Coal achieved an agreement to retire Colstrip 1 and 2 no later than June 30, 2022. Arthur is confident this will occur, thanks to the binding agreement the team secured.
Upon Arthur’s retirement he and Debora took their grandkids camping in Yellowstone National Park, after which he spent six weeks fishing and visiting areas he had worked to protect as wilderness. But within six months Arthur jumped back into the fray when the Sierra Club won a suit requiring a new Environmental Impact Statement on the Columbia River basin region. He formed the Snake River Salmon Campaign, a volunteer-driven, three-state Sierra Club task force (Washington, Oregon, and Idaho) focused on salmon and steelhead recovery in the Columbia and Snake River basins. He continues to chair that group, and also serves as vice chair of the Washington Chapter Conservation Committee. “I’ve returned to the ranks of volunteer activists from whence I came,” Arthur says.
Julia Reitan has been Arthur’s colleague in the Sierra Club for many years in both staff and volunteer roles, at times on the same campaigns. “What I love about the Sierra Club is that we have the stamina and longevity to keep fighting for important goals—for generations if need be—until we win,” she says. “Bill epitomizes that; he never gives up on anything worth fighting for. He is so in it to win it.”
The Washington Chapter has linked its work on the basin’s rivers with the urgent effort to save the Salish Sea’s Southern Resident orcas from extinction. The orca and salmon efforts are inextricably linked because while numerous factors threaten the orcas, the most critical by far is the current lack of sufficient Chinook salmon—the biggest, most nutritious species in the basin.
Which circles back to the argument for removal of the Snake River’s lower four dams. Arthur maintains it’s doable because relevant technology and economics have evolved. For every argument offered on why the dams are necessary—affordable energy, farm irrigation, agricultural transport—he articulately presents a viable alternative. Another justification is that regional tribal treaty rights require that salmon runs be restored.
“If we’re successful on the trajectory we think we can hit, we hope for a removal decision in 2021 or 2022,” he says. “Then it would take three or four years, because solutions need to be put in place simultaneously. It’s not unrealistic to think they might be fully out by 2024–2026.”
Can that really happen—and occur in time to save the dwindling Southern Resident orca population? Arthur remains hopeful. “There’s one thing I’ve learned over many years in this business… remain optimistic, but not delusional.”
The big picture is crystal clear to Bill Arthur. “Protecting wild places, rivers, and habitat for fish and critters is what inspired me to join the Sierra Club,” he says. “I want to help leave my kids, grandkids, and future generations a heritage that inspires awe, soothes the soul, and keeps us connected to our amazing world.”