The third Daniel J. Evans Nisqually Stewardship Award to ever be given was awarded this week to Nisqually River Council founding member Jim Wilcox, whose early efforts in the 1980s and beyond helped create unity and collaboration in Nisqually Basin conservation efforts.
The prestigious award, which has been bestowed to only two other leaders within the watershed during the last 15 years, was presented to Wilcox by Nisqually River Foundation Executive Director Justin Hall and Natural Resources Director of the Nisqually Tribe David Troutt.
“I’m deeply grateful for this honor and I must say, in all humility, when I look at what little I’ve done in comparison to Congressman (Norm) Dicks and Billy Frank, I think this is a misplaced honor,” Wilcox said while accepting the award at Wilcox Family Farms on Wednesday, Sept. 4. “I feel honored to be thought of in that context.”
A large, roughly 4-foot-long Raku-fired ceramic coho salmon plaque, which will be displayed at the Nisqually River Foundation, was presented to Wilcox during the reception. The honoree took home an accompanying smaller piece.
The Daniel J. Evans Nisqually Stewardship Award was created by the Nisqually River Council to honor notable stewards of the Nisqually Watershed, according to information from the Nisqually River Foundation. The award is named after former Gov. Daniel Evans, who was in attendance for Wilcox’s reception.
Legendary environmental leader and Nisqually Tribe member Billy Frank Jr., a grassroots conservationist who led the fight for native fishing rights and championed fish habitat conservation, was honored back in 2007 and was the award’s first recipient. Frank Jr. died in 2014 at age 83.
Former United States Congressman Norm Dicks was the second recipient of the award. The Sixth Congressional District representative helped with expansion and restoration efforts for the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge and helped spearhead other salmon recovery efforts.
“I bet I could thank every single person in this room for the large or small role they played in helping bring people together and helping them understand that it wasn’t one against the other, or one in place of the other, but it was an opportunity for people of good faith to come together and find a way to preserve the greater good for everyone,” Evans said. “I’m just proud to have my name associated with (the award) and even more proud to recognize Jim Wilcox as the current recipient of the Daniel J. Evans Award. I can’t think of a better recipient to say ‘thank you’ to.”
James Wilcox, born in Tacoma, was raised on Wilcox Family Farms and eventually found himself in the family-owned business with his brother, Barrie Wilcox.
The Roy resident was a founding member of the Nisqually River Council in 1987 and was seemingly thrown into the efforts to preserve the 517-square mile basin after the meetings with the Nisqually River Task Force.
“That’s how I kind of got started and I became really aware of what was going on,” he told the Nisqually Valley News. “I was scared out of my wits when we started the council. But the turning point came after, I don’t know — six or eight months — Billy Frank got up and said … ‘I want to find ways that we can all exist and the river can be protected and the salmon runs can be sustained.’ And that changed everything.”
A leading advocate for sustainable farming, Wilcox served one term on the council and stayed active following his departure.
In 2013, Wilcox was appointed by the governor to the Puget Sound Partnership’s Leadership Council, where he further served to promote Puget Sound conservation efforts.
“We’re really lucky. The Nisqually is unique in terms of all the rivers on the Puget Sound and the fact that there’s so little development,” Wilcox said. “That’s why it’s in the great shape it is today. But it’s a challenge to keep it that way, too.”
While Wilcox has seen notable success with leading his family business, many within the realms of Nisqually River preservation efforts say Wilcox has prioritized the preservation of the region and its salmon to an admirable extent.
“Jim’s been apart of a $141 million company and the most important thing he said he’s been a part of is the Nisqually River Council,” Hall said.
Shortly before the event, Gov. Jay Inslee published a letter congratulating Wilcox on his accolade. In it, Inslee details the story of how Billy Frank Jr. and Jim Wilcox came together for the benefit of the Nisqually Basin following the Nisqually River Task Force.
“(Jim’s) outsized influence on agriculture and environmental stewardship, in Washington as well as around the country and the world, come back to his roots as a family farmer in the Nisqually Watershed. It is fitting that he is receiving this honor today,” Inslee wrote.
In a Facebook post following the letter’s publication, J.T. Wilcox, state representative of Washington’s second legislative district and House minority leader, said he appreciated the kind words the governor wrote regarding his father.
“I’ve always believed that political opposition should not eliminate private regard and tried to act on that. The governor is doing the same thing. The story he tells is great, too. Sometimes you get to be part of History and I’m glad dad recognized that in the moment. It’s not easy to do,” J.T. Wilcox wrote.
As for the future of restoring fish habitat, Wilcox said they just need to move forward with it. But, like all bureaucratic processes, it’ll likely take some teamwork.
“I feel really, really impatient about the pace that we’re moving in restoring the salmon,” Wilcox said. “We know the three or four essential things that need to be done to keep the salmon viable and to restore the great runs we used to have. We know what to invest in, we know what to do and, in my view, we need to move forward. We don’t need anymore studies, we don’t need anymore reviews — we just, for Christ’s sake, need to move ahead.”