SEATTLE — Jennifer Belcher was the first woman to be elected Washington State Lands Commissioner. But for her, that achievement was just the next thing she did after putting the state at the forefront of the nation for women‘s equity in state agencies.
Belcher died March 31 after a long illness. She was 78 years old.
Belcher paved the way for public service, transforming the state’s first land management agency in favor of conservation. During her 10 years as a state representative, major accomplishments in her legislative career included work to establish subsidized child care for state workers and fair pay for women in government. the state.
Along the way, Belcher earned a reputation for a work ethic as radical as his posture. When she swept a room or stepped onto a catwalk, it wasn’t her high heels or her beehive-like bun, but her riveted focus and assertive command that grabbed people’s attention.
“The first encounter I had with her, I thought, ‘Oh my word, she’s an intimidating woman. It was his posture to begin with, his hairstyle, it was his whole demeanor; she took over the play,” recalls Chris Gregoire, who first met Belcher when Gregoire was director of the state Department of Ecology.
Gregoire, who would go on to serve as Washington’s two-term governor, was elected attorney general in the same 1992 tidal wave of women first elected to high office in the state. In addition to Belcher and Gregoire, the year of the late Washington woman saw Deborah Senn elected as insurance commissioner and Patty Murray elected to the US Senate.
Born Jennifer Emerson Marion on January 4, 1944, in Beckley, W.Va., Belcher’s political career began as a political aide in the governor’s office to Dan Evans and Dixy Lee Ray from 1973 to 1979. She was elected to the State House . representatives in 1983. She represented the 22nd Legislative District, which included most of Thurston County, and rose to chair the House Natural Resources and Parks Committee.
Belcher was a transformational leader in the state Department of Natural Resources, where she hired and the policies she implemented. She led the agency from 1993 to 2001, administering 5.8 million acres of public land.
Kaleen Cottingham, Washington State’s first female forester, was appointed to the position by Belcher and became her second-in-command. There she witnessed some of the pushbacks Belcher faced, including a sign taped to a wall in the DNR men’s restroom: “Last white male leaving the Natural Resources Building, please, lower the toilet lid.”
Nothing like that slowed her down an inch, Cottingham said.
Belcher’s coronation at the DNR is widely regarded as his leadership in completing a habitat conservation plan for the management of state forest lands.
It was the first HCP of its type approved by the federal government in the country. The plan, a 50-year agreement finalized in 1997, allows timber harvesting on state lands while protecting habitat for threatened and endangered species.
“She was groundbreaking,” said Jerry Franklin, the eminent forest ecologist whose career as a federal and academic scientist helped reveal the workings and importance of forest ecology, especially for old-growth forests. . “She basically turned this agency around, and she never came back.”
Martha Kongsgaard, former chair of the board of directors of the state Puget Sound Partnership, connected with Belcher through the women’s society GOWNS, or Grand Old Womens Network Society, a group of women environmental leaders in Washington. “She didn’t set out to be the first woman in anything, she was who she was, she saw opportunities and possibilities to get things done,” Kongsgaard said – despite resistance.
“Wood was king here, not queen,” Kongsgaard said. “She was fearless.”
Belcher’s leadership paved the way for the women who came after her, said Hilary Franz, who took over as commissioner of public lands in 2017. “Every time a woman takes that step and has the courage, the Fearlessness and commitment to lead, especially when it’s the very first…it opens the new door, the new opportunity, for every woman.
Marcy Golde, 88, a longtime forest advocate with the Washington Environmental Council, first met Belcher in 1979. She recalled a commissioner who also brought “a degree of daylight and balance the department desperately needed. She wanted a rules-based system that wasn’t just old boys calling and getting what they wanted,” Golde said.
Belcher also opened the department to the public, Golde said, holding town hall meetings in communities across the state just to see what was on people’s minds.
She also listened to her employees — and worked hard to elicit new voices, said Miguel Perez-Gibson, who before his retirement from the DNR had worked under every commissioner since the 1970s. In Belcher, he saw a leader who thrived in the work – and inspired others to do so, from diverse backgrounds.
“I’ve never worked harder in my life than I’ve worked for her; we had a tempo and a rhythm; we had to get things done and do them right away,” Perez-Gibson said. “We were trying to make big changes.”
Belcher declined in 2000 to seek a third term, choosing instead to return to West Virginia to care for her ailing parents.
She comes from humble roots and only completed one year of college. His mother was a homemaker and his father drove a truck for Kroger, becoming president of Teamster Local 175, said one of his sisters, Susan Knight, of Scott Depot, WV.
Belcher made sure the family at home could share in the joy of her success, Knight said. “She included us, every step of the way,” Knight said.
“And she was the type of person, every time she got a promotion, she always had her hand stretched back, pulling somebody else behind her.”
Knight said all six children in the family had wonderful parents, “who always encouraged us.” Her mother was a staunch feminist and both her parents were staunch Democrats and environmentalists. “My mom recycled when recycling wasn’t cool.”
Another sister, Barbara Miller of Marmet, WV, remembered Belcher as someone who always had a helping hand to help anyone who needed it. “I lived with her as a teenager, and she told me that if you didn’t learn anything from me, I want you to learn empathy for others.
“He was a special person, a sharing person,” Miller said. “Your condition is much better for her. It’s greener. It’s more fair. Because she worked for it.
In addition to Knight and Miller, Belcher is survived by sisters Rachelle Marion of Charleston, WV; Cynthia Smith of Pittsburgh; and many nieces and nephews. Belcher was predeceased by her brother, David Marion, of Ripley, WV, and her husband, Larry Belcher.
The family requests that memorial bequests be made to Kanawha Hospice Care, the Charleston Humane Society or the Nature Conservancy.
A memorial is planned in Washington, where Belcher has requested that his ashes be scattered, Miller said. “We will send her back, to be in the nature she loved and fought for.”