Evergreen Magazine

Islands of Opportunity

With a passion for the coast and ocean and the coastal communities that depend upon them, Sen. Kevin Ranker stays true to his roots.

kevin ranker at lime kiln lighthouseIn the early 1990s, a tan young man with curly blond hair and saltwater in his veins was sitting on a pristine beach in Australia watching the sun rise over the ocean. A fourth-generation surfer whose great grandfather started fishing, diving and surfing in California in the 1920s, he had grown up on the coast, splitting time between Orcas Island and Southern California. As an avid fisherman, swimmer, sailor and surfer, he cherished the coastal lifestyle. But on that morning, he realized he wanted to do more. If he wanted to enjoy more days like this, he needed to start giving back to the ocean and the coastal communities he loved. 

In 2008, Kevin Ranker '97, was elected state senator in Washington's 40th District, including San Juan County, parts of both Skagit and Whatcom Counties, and nearly 700 miles of coastline. In a district that covers Bellingham, Mount Vernon, Anacortes and the San Juan Islands, he is the first senator elected from the islands in more than 100 years. In his freshman year, he was named vice chair of both the Senate's Agriculture & Rural Economic Development and Natural Resources, Ocean & Recreation committees and was also appointed to the Environment, Water & Energy and Transportation committees. 

Ranker has brought his passion for the coast and ocean to his work as a policymaker. Before his election to the Senate, Ranker served on the San Juan County Board of County Commissioners.  Known for his boundless energy, he simultaneously served as chair of the Washington Counties Transportation Committee, chair of the Puget Sound Salmon Recovery Council, chair of the Washington Coastal Counties Caucus and member of the Washington Shoreline Hearing Board. His efforts were focused on implementing successful economic development strategies, protecting agricultural lands and developing opportunities for the preservation of coastal and ocean environments and the goods and services they provide.

Islands of Opportunity graphicAs a senator, Ranker continues his commitment to community issues. He advanced key climate change legislation and coastal and ocean policy with a constant focus on local economies. He developed and sponsored legislation that set new standards for state vehicle emissions, building efficiencies, and oil spills. Another priority for Ranker this year was Senate Bill 5688- legislation that expanded the rights of Washington state registered domestic partners. "This is a very powerful issue for me. It is an issue of equality," says Ranker. "We give certain rights to married couples-I believe strongly that not giving those rights to all loving couples is discrimination."

In the private sector, Ranker is a senior fellow with The Ocean Foundation, an international community foundation and think-tank based out of Washington, D.C. In this role, Ranker advises the foundation and others on national ocean policy. He is excited to see the oceans recognized as a national priority; in June, President Obama established the White House Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force, focusing on the protection, maintenance and restoration of the health of coastal and ocean ecosystems and resources. On Sept. 24, Ranker testified before the task force at the White House Conference Center.

kevin ranker wading in the waterIn recent years, he has focused on energy and climate issues-from an ocean perspective. "Global climate change, energy production and the health of marine ecosystems are inextricably linked," he says. "We must manage our coasts and oceans in a way that accounts for the unprecedented number of activities being proposed. We need to allow for the development of these exciting renewable energies-such as offshore wind, wave and tidal-in a way that promotes them while protecting historical uses and resources to keep coast communities thriving."

Ranker's course was shaped by his experiences at Evergreen. His first program with emeritus faculty member Russ Fox focused on community development. "That program caused a huge shift in my thinking," he says. "I found that I wanted to focus on bridging the gap between economic development and conservation. I wanted to learn how to help communities thrive in ways that also promoted environmental stewardship. My focus on the combination of community development and coastal ecology was set at that time."

When he started at Evergreen, Ranker planned to study coastal ecology and public policy, then go on to law school in Portland. But a study abroad program in his senior year cemented his commitment to community development work.

As part of a program with faculty member Phil Harding, he studied Indonesian culture, economy and language, and traveled to Indonesia with a plan to film a documentary on his work in the small communities in Eastern Indonesia. But on his way, he visited Nusa Lembongan, a five-square-mile island southeast of Bali, where he discovered a community that was only recently impacted by a massive growth in tourism.

He befriended locals who were hand building a 64-foot outrigger in one of the island's first efforts to promote ecological tourism. At the invitation of community leaders, Ranker joined the effort to build the boat. He changed his focus to studying and documenting the effects of the nascent tourist industry on this small island, through becoming a part of their community. Upon his return he edited and produced a documentary of the changes he witnessed in the community paralleled by the construction of a "beautiful boat of local woods and bamboo."

A long journey for a guy who came north from Venice, Calif. in the early 1990s in a 36-foot U-Haul carrying everything he owned, including five surfboards and a fly rod. From surfer to senator, Ranker gradually transformed his love for the oceans and coast toward the advancement of ocean policy, coastal economic and community development, and conservation strategies. 

"There has to be a balance between environmental and economic concerns in all communities, but it's vitally important in coastal communities because our lives and livelihoods are so intertwined with the ocean and its ecology," Ranker says. "For instance, in the northern Puget Sound we have tremendous opportunities to develop our economy as a marine industry cluster, which can build and maintain jobs, while promoting marine stewardship. We have the perfect combination of skilled boat builders, shipyards and scientific research institutions. But protecting Puget Sound is bigger than just those industries directly tied to the water. From tourism to real estate to building, our local industries rely on a healthy Puget Sound." 

The 40th District's distinct communities-the Skagit Valley's rich agricultural lands, Bellingham Bay and the San Juan Islands-are held together by their unique relationship to the Puget Sound.

"Each of our cities and towns has its own special identity, but those of us who live here share at least one thing in common-a strong appreciation of the region's natural beauty and strong sense of community," Ranker says. "That sense of community and the geographic diversity of the North Sound are some of its most valuable assets." 


Along with Sen. Ranker, a number of Greeners are making waves in state legislatures across the country.

Rep. Brian Blake '93, 19th District, Washington, member since 2002

Rep. Chip Conquest MIT '92, Orange-Caledonia District 1, Vermont, member since 2009

Rep. Cynthia F. "Cindy" (Wood) Evans '82, 7th District, Hawaii, House Majority Floor Leader, member since 2002

Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos '85, 37th District, Washington, member since 1998

Sen. Dan Swecker '73, 20th District, Washington, member since 1995

Rep. Brendan Williams '92, 22nd District, Washington, member since 2004