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Field Notes

Covering the natural wonders of the Pacific Northwest

April 19, 2012 at 12:00 PM

Remembering Russ Busch: 1943-2012

Russ Busch, dedicated friend, father and lawyer, died peacefully at his North Seattle home on April 11. The cause was a brain tumor, which he had fought for the past several years. He was 68.

Russ2 (3).jpg

Russ Busch has passed away at 68. He fought hard on several of the region’s longest running environmental battles, including taking the dams down on the Elwha River, and defeating the proposed Northern Tier Pipeline. Photo courtesy of Julie Busch

A tiger in any fight, he was adopted into the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, a high honor, for his long work representing the tribe in its fight to tear down the Elwha Dams — a victory he lived to see. Mr. Busch also worked hard to help the tribe through the crisis of the inadvertent discovery of its ancient village of Tse-whit-zen on the Port Angeles waterfront during a state construction project. Mr. Busch represented the tribe throughout its negotiations with the state, which ultimately stopped the project and found another place for its work.

“He was very blunt, he really could only say what he meant,” remembered his daughter Julie Busch of Seattle. “I learned from him not to care what people think, to really say what you mean. That is something he learned from the tribes, to say what you mean, and no more.”

There was another side to Mr. Busch too: his passion for the outdoors, especially telemark skiing. “He skied ten months of the year” Julie said. “He would just go off, take his skis and a baguette and some cheese and a bottle of wine and a summer sausage, and whatever he was reading, go off and sleep in the back of his car, and ski. His book would come back with wine stains. To him that was like a spa vacation.”

Mr. Busch even sewed his own tents, and cooked up batches of waterproofing for his gear in a home work room. “He would melt wax and epoxy to make everything totally waterproof,” Julie said. “He would make better anything he bought, and what he couldn’t buy, he made.”

Mr. Busch grew up in Pullman, and graduated from Washington State University with a degree in English. He graduated in 1971 from the University of Washington Law School, where he studied environmental law. He worked as a clerk at the Washington State Court of Appeals and later joined the Seattle firm of Ziontz Pirtle, where his career working with tribes and large environmental and water cases began.

He moved on to Evergreen Legal Services and the Small Tribes Organization of Western Washington in 1976, where he formed the ties that would shape his career with the Sauk-Suiattle, Upper Skagit, and Lower Elwha tribes.

The biggest cases he handled included battles against the proposed Skagit nuclear plant, and the High Ross and Copper Creek dams, none of which ever were built. He was one of the two recipients of the 2010-2011 Center for Environmental Law and Policy Ralph W. Johnson Water Hero Awards, sharing the honor with Harriet Bullitt.

In addition to his daughter Julie he is survived by his son Adam in New York City; his former wife Sue Busch of Seattle, and sisters Karen Runkel of Salem, Oregon, Cyndie Nelson, of Dubuque Iowa; Cris Busch-Lyons, of Port Townsend, and brother Jim Busch, of Kirkland.

Services will be held at the Lower Elwha Tribal Center in Port Angeles at 11 a.m. Saturday.

Preparations for the gathering already are underway to say goodbye to a dear friend of the tribe. Memories have also been pouring in from friends and family.

Here’s a sampling from the emails I’ve been getting from friends and family:

From Karen Runkel:

“I’m Russ’ older sister from Salem, Oregon, and drove up to be with him — usually for a week or more — 21 times during the illness. There were so many other things I could have written about but, looking back, I found this was a recurring theme, both poignant and encouraging.

“I spent a great deal of time with Russ over the last nearly three years and became aware of the one dream he never let go — to ski again. The strength of his legs was a constant measure of progress; steroids were the first enemy. And there were myriad other ways that cancer found to weaken his legs, no need to list them here.

“I’ll note instead one of his greatest pleasures — after Tillamook natural vanilla ice cream — was to walk, even hike, whenever his energy, his legs and the weather would allow. Sometimes it was just the mile to QFC, but we also traipsed the Burke-Gilman trail, forested Interlaken Blvd, the Sandpoint golf course across the street, Volunteer Park and the nearby streets of View Ridge with their stunning mountain views to the east.

“Finally, there were the Death Steps (his designation), 2 lengthy and steep staircases which climb the west side of Capitol Hill just below Broadway. These had long been a favorite training ground over years of skiing and in February of 2011 he wanted to tackle them again. We made the climb on 2 successive days, first one staircase, then the other. I’ll never forget the sight of him ahead of me, climbing steadily and slowly to the top where his smile and sense of accomplishment were like shaking a fist in cancer’s face.

“We did them only one more time, in May of the same year.

“As his health worsened, we tried for short walks whenever possible but it seemed simpler to give his legs a workout on the elliptical on loan in the living room. He was still spending at least 30 minutes a day on this machine during my last extended visit in February.”


From Eric Eberhard

Distinguished Indian Law Practitioner in Residence

Center for Indian Law and Policy, Seattle University:

“About a week before Russ passed away, I had the chance to sit with him for about an hour one afternoon. He was clearly struggling and diminished from the battle with cancer, but the thing that was so amazing about the visit was that his strength, intellect and spirit were still on display. I took several of your articles and blog posts on the progress on the restoration of the Elwha with me to read to him, along with Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken.

” I read the articles and posts to him. When I was about a half hour into the visit I asked him if he wanted me to keep reading or if he was tired. Without any hesitation he said “keep reading.” At one point I handed him one of your blogs that had some great aerial photos of the river in it. Russ’ motor functions were not good, but he grabbed the page and held it in a tight grip while he stared intently at the photos and then smiled broadly. I reached across to take the pages back, but he held on tightly so I sat back and waited a bit. After a few more minutes he reluctantly let me take the photos and set them aside. I told him that I’d brought a Robert Frost poem with me and asked him if he wanted to hear it. He said yes with great certainty.

” I told him that I’d only asked because I wasn’t sure if he thought Frost was any good as a poet since a lot of folks don’t. He immediately protested, his eyes sparkled and he said that Frost is great. I laughed and said I agreed. So I read The Road Not Taken to him. When I finished I looked up and smiled at him and he smiled right back.

“That hour with Russ is where I hold him in my memory. Everything about his character and personality that made him so remarkable was on display in that moment of time.


From Suzanne Skinner

Executive Director

Center for Environmental Law & Policy:

“I would like to add my voice to the chorus in praise of and in memory of Russ Busch. I did not know Russ well but he made an enormous impression on me. I met Russ when I was 21, finishing up college, and working for an environmental law firm as a low-budget paralegal/analyst on Northern Tier Pipeline.

“Russ’ work advocating against the then proposed Skagit nuclear power plant-by bringing to the light of day that the proposed plant would be sitting on a major fault-not only stopped the Skagit plant but became instrumental to what I was doing and helped kill the Northern Tier Pipeline oil terminal in Port Angeles.

“A mutual friend connected me to Russ: he was incredibly generous and kind to a clueless college kid. Russ Busch played an enormous role in preserving the natural beauty and resources of Washington during the energy crisis of the late ’70s and early ’80s. He taught all of us to look beyond the frenzy of the moment and take the longer view. His legacy to us is a Washington without a Skagit nuclear plant sitting half-built or earthquake prone, a leaking Northern Tier oil pipeline under Puget Sound, and a newly freed Elwha River. May his spirit live on in all of us to protect this state that we love. Thank you.”


From Sue Billings, colleague, friend and fellow telemark skier:

“Russ taught me so much about life, death, and how to play the hand we are dealt. He said he always tried to do things well if he was going to do them at all, so if he had to have cancer he intended to do it well. And he did.

“Some of the quotes that Russ drew strength from are scattered throughout his Caring Bridge writings:

• “In the midst of winter I finally learned that there was, within me, an invincible summer.” CAMUS

• “and there is only one thing we say to death: ‘not today.'” Game of Thrones

• “Each soul must meet the morning sun, the new sweet earth, and the Great Silence alone.” Santee Sioux


From Cyndie Nelson Busch:

“As I read the tributes from family and friends to my dear older brother I am so moved. I live in Iowa so was not able to be with him as often in the NW but we met yearly to ski in New Mexico, staying at our condo at Angel Fire. There are so many memories of him but as a little sister, the one I cherish most is when he told me that I was a really good skier.”


Add your own memories in the comments to this Field Notes post if you like, for others to enjoy.



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