William K. Reilly: A Profile of the New Administrator

by Jack Lewis
[EPA Journal - March/April 1989]

William K. Reilly, the widely respected President of World Wildlife Fund and The Conservation Foundation, takes EPA's helm at a pivotal moment in the Agency's short but eventful history. President George Bush has promised to be more of an environmentalist than his predecessor, and many interpret his choice of Reilly as EPA Administrator as a sign of sincere commitment to that goal.

Reilly himself gave resounding credence to that belief at his January 31, 1989 Senate confirmation hearing. The Administrator-designee spoke fervently of the need for a "new era" in EPA's history: "We are at an historic moment, characterized by urgency and opportunity...Rarely, if ever before, has there been such a need for leadership on the environment...[and] I expect to be a strong advocate."

EPA's new Administrator has leadership traits that suit him for this challenging role. It is expected that EPA, already the scene of negotiated rulemaking and other non-confrontational administrative strategies, will greatly benefit from Reilly's special gifts, both as an individual and a manager.

Reilly's proclivity for drawing people together will not just be directed outward, toward the regulated community: it can also be expected to bring new cohesion to the internal operations of EPA. In September 1988, two months before his appointment, Reilly criticized the "heavily fragmented system" of environmental regulation that now prevails at EPA.

Also in 1988, he sponsored a Conservation Foundation proposal for a "model" omnibus Environmental Protection Act that would reflect the cross-media realities of today's environment. Although such a law is unlikely in the foreseeable future, a push toward a simpler and better coordinated regulatory apparatus will certainly be one of Reilly's major goals.

Reilly's personal style--gentlemanly and soft-spoken--makes him the ideal mediator, effective at bridging differences even when antagonisms are intensely felt and there seems to be no common ground for agreement. He is also known for his firm grasp of facts and his commitment to principle. The importance of ethical "values" is a theme to which Reilly refers frequently in conversation, and he attributes that facet of his thinking--like so much else--to his tutelage under Russell Train.

Reilly, born 49 years ago in Decatur, Illinois, has compiled an impressive professional record. After attending public high school in Fall River, Massachusetts, he completed his undergraduate studies at Yale in 1962. Reilly then moved on to Harvard for his law degree, which he received in 1965. That same year he married Elizabeth Bennett Buxton, the mother of his two daughters. After serving for two years as a Captain in the U.S. Army, Reilly next earned a master's degree in urban planning from Columbia University, awarded in 1971.

While studying at Columbia, Reilly received his first exposure to the burgeoning field of environmentalism. As Associate Director of the Urban Policy Center at Urban America, Inc., he co-authored a report for the Public Land Law Review Commission that predicted what future demands cities would make on public land. Ever since, land use and land conservation have remained among Reilly's keenest interests.

As a senior staff member at the CEQ, from 1970 to 1972, Reilly's responsibilities included land use, public lands, urban growth policy, and historic preservation. During the next year, from 1972 to 1973, he headed a Task Force on Land Use and Urban Growth, chaired by Laurence S. Rockefeller; this task force produced a popular report called The Use of Land.

Reilly's career moved into high gear in 1973 when he was named President of The Conservation Foundation, a high-profile Washington-based think tank committed to steering public policy in the direction of decisions that improve the quality of the environment and ensure wise use of natural resources. Reilly's land-use concerns found creative application at the Foundation, which sponsors action-oriented research into a wide variety of matters related to environmental policy.

During the past 15 years, the Foundation has also taken an unusually strong interest in toxics and pollution control. For example, Reilly was instrumental in the 1984 founding of Clean Sites, Inc., the public-private partnership that broke the logjam in hazardous waste site cleanups. He has also maintained an active interest in Third World environmental concerns, and traveled extensively in developing countries.

In recent years, Reilly has scored successes with his efforts to secure dialogue and cooperation among frequently polarized business and environmental leaders. One such widely applauded breakthrough occurred in November 1988 when 25 previously warring environmentalists, industrialists, and developers made a public commitment to a "no net loss" goal for U.S. wetlands, a resource heretofore subject to dangerously rapid depletion. These same people, so harmonious by late 1988, had scarcely been on speaking terms when Reilly first coaxed them to convene for a meeting in July 1987.

Another facet of Reilly's background deserves mention. In 1985, The Conservation Foundation merged with the Russell Train-led World Wildlife Fund, a major organization with a budget of $30 million, six times greater than that of the Foundation itself. Reilly became the President of the merged Foundation/Trust, where Train is now Chairman of the Board. Today, as before 1985, the World Wildlife Fund is committed to the preservation of endangered species and their habitats all over the globe. Under Reilly's brief stewardship, its membership has undergone a spectacular rise, tripling in four short years.

Since Reilly was already a frequent visitor to the Third World for The Conservation Foundation, his recent experiences with the Fund have simply amplified his already pronounced international orientation. During an era in EPA's history when international issues are suddenly a top priority--whether acid rain or the Greenhouse Effect of CFCs--Reilly's hands-on experience is expected to make a valuable contribution.

EPA's new Administrator is also likely to be more ecologically oriented than many of his predecessors. Because of his working background, Reilly is interested in protecting the health not just of people and wildlife but of the biospheres in which they live.

Repeatedly in recent years, his predecessor, Lee M. Thomas, has called for a move away from EPA's almost exclusive concern with environmental threats to human health. Reilly, too, is committed to continuing that quest for a sounder balance between never-to-be-neglected human health goals and the long-term challenge of preserving for future generations both the ecosphere and our natural resources.

Everyone at EPA wishes Administrator Reilly the best of success, both personal and organizational, during his years at EPA. All who now work here are eager for a period of more aggressive environmental action at the federal level, and it is inspiring to know that our new leader wholeheartedly shares that goal. Indeed, in every respect, William K. Reilly appears to be the right man in the right place at the right time.

Lewis was an Assistant Editor of EPA Journal.