Stories in Washington

Meet Maia Bellon

By Anya Blaney, Partner, Blaney Consulting

Headshot of Maia Bellon.
Meet Maia Bellon The Fearless Lawyer and TNC Trustee Who is a Bridge Between Worlds © Hannah Letinich

Maia Bellon is used to traveling between worlds—intertribally and transculturally. Her mother is Mescalero Apache and adopted Yakama and her father is French-American. Her husband and daughter are members of the Makah Tribe in the Pacific Northwest. Maia spent the first year of her life on the traditional homelands of the Navajo Nation in the Southwest, and as a child, she danced on Tribal lands across the west. These ranged from the Nisqually Tribe in Washington, the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana, to the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe in Nevada. She grew up steeped in imagination and scientific curiosity, conjuring stories about moss resembling Sasquatch's hair and learning to identify by sight the butterflies she chased in her backyard. Today, as a partner at Cascadia Law Group and a Trustee of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in Washington, Maia is a bridge between Tribal Nations, U.S. and Washington governments, and advocates of our precious environment.

“It was tough growing up mixed white and Native: I got grief for not being of one particular race, while there was racism embedded in the school system," Maia said, recalling how the bus that took her and her brother to high school in the 1980s was divided between white children, who sat up front, and Native children, who sat in the back. "My parents sat me down and told me my life was about being a bridge. I keep that in mind when things get contentious as a negotiator for my clients. What I bring to the table is the desire to treat people with respect.”

Despite growing up beneath the poverty line, Maia's early life was rich in outdoor experience and family connections. Her father became one of the longest-standing general managers for Washington's Chehalis Tribe for nearly three decades and was a scholar of Native American cultures. Maia's family followed her father around the western U.S. as he moved due to work and college. She credits experiencing these different landscapes and her mother’s Indigenous knowledge for making her “resilient” and aware of the various fragile ecosystems around her. She recalls huckleberry picking with her family and learning to be aware of her surroundings so as not disturb bears and not to overharvest first foods. For Maia, the environment and her identity are intertwined, and her work reflects this deep connection.

“Environmental awareness is embedded in the DNA of Indigenous people,” she said. “For example, in my family, we drink water at the beginning and end of ceremonial meals to express the sacredness of water and food. I was frequently out with my aunties, picking berries and digging roots and thanking Mother Earth for these bountiful gifts. I was lucky to have incredible teachings that instilled respect for the environment into my life.”

Maia held on to the values of respect for the Earth and for others during her challenging journey to becoming the first Native American to serve as the director of the Washington Department of Ecology and a member of the Governor’s Cabinet. She remained steadfast during her time at The Evergreen State College (TESC), where she focused her undergraduate studies on neurobiology. Here, she learned the power of perseverance as she financed her education by cleaning dormitory rooms and working as an office assistant.

A family takes a selfie in front of a stream.
Enjoying Nature Maia’s family captures a selfie in nature. © Maia Bellon

“No job was below me to pay my bills and get myself through college,” Maia said of her experience. “I was humbled, and now I feel fortunate to be where I am in my career.” However, when Maia realized she wasn’t content with her academic track, she applied for and received an internship with the late Olympia Congresswoman and environmentalist Jolene Unsoeld, which sealed Maia’s ambition to practice environmental law.

“I had an incredible experience with her, working to support constituents with several environmental emergencies like a mysterious fish kill and the aftermath of a flood event,”she said. “I fielded the calls that would flow in for Congresswoman Unsoeld and helped her constituents navigate these situations."

After finishing her internship and graduating from TESC, Maia enrolled in the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University, where she mastered environmental law, focusing on Tribal law. Here, she found her calling to pursue ecological conservation, taking an interest in environmental issues facing Indigenous people, who endure higher exposure to toxic pollutants, contaminated air and unsafe water.

Before joining Cascadia Law Group and TNC, Maia first joined the Ecology Division of the Washington Attorney General’s Office in 1994, eventually landing the position as the head of Ecology’s Water Resources Program in 2010. Governor Jay Inslee appointed her director of ecology in 2013, where Maia made history by not only becoming the first Native American to serve in the state Cabinet, but also serving as the longest-running director of the Washington State Department of Ecology until January of 2020. She oversaw a team of 1,700 employees and managed a biennial budget of $2.3 billion. She achieved success in carbon emission reduction, water resources and water quality management.

Maia championed stringent water quality standards on behalf of her vulnerable populations, confronting the Trump Administration’s attempts to overturn clean water protections. She also tackled the challenge of containing leaking radioactive waste at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. She thwarted the construction of a massive coal export terminal. Moreover, she fought for climate change adaptation, supporting projects addressing sea-level rise and adopting a state regulation to reduce carbon pollution.

Maia first encountered TNC while working on a joint project to acquire more than 50,000 acres in the Teanaway Watershed, one of the most significant land purchases in the history of Washington State. The watershed in Eastern Washington is a tributary to the Yakima River and has historically been a valuable yet contentious resource among neighboring communities. The project was a collaboration between the state of Washington, the Department of Natural Resources, the Yakama Nation, The Nature Conservancy in Washington and other partners. Today, the area is preserved as a community forest while maintaining critical habitats for wildlife, including endangered species such as bull trout, steelhead and Chinook salmon.

Maia’s role in the bipartisan legislative effort to raise funds for the acquisition was “bringing characters together with different interests that put individual interests aside for the greater good.” She collaborated with an “unlikely ally” for environmental preservation, Republican Senator James Honeyford, as a key in the transaction who brought farmers to the table to support a sustainable, cool, clean water supply in the face of drought and climate change.

"Once you find a common interest, you have a foundation for connection," she said about her approach. "Once you have a foundation, you can find a second or third common interest. You slowly peel the pieces back and end up with people who like and respect one another."

As partner at Cascadia Law Group, Maia is an effective facilitator bridging people's differences and fostering understanding to reach common goals. Her role spans various environmental matters, including energy policy, climate change and air quality, guiding municipal, government and Tribal clients. The Nisqually Tribe, which welcomed Maia’s family to the Olympia area when she was a teenager, is one of her clients. Now, she advocates on their behalf to ensure the Federal government upholds the rights reserved in the 1854 Treaty of Medicine Creek.

“The Nisqually Tribe's commitment to collaboration and positive engagement resonates deeply with me,"Maia explained."I consider this approach as ‘quiet work,’ which yields faster outcomes and paves the way for meaningful change."Particularly close to Maia's heart is her role on the board of the Nisqually River Foundation, where she helps steward a healthy watershed.

Beyond Maia’s professional endeavors, preserving and celebrating her Indigenous ancestry is part of her life's purpose. She connects with her roots through traditional beading and participating in Tribal dances and singing, activities bonding her with her family. She also fiercely supports her daughter's budding career as an artist in film and media exploring the Indigenous youth experience. To maintain an active lifestyle and forge a bond with the natural world, Maia finds solace in activities such as beachcombing and the sport of pickleball. When things get tough, she relies on kindness, a cornerstone belief guiding all aspects of her life.

“Kindness is a tremendous source of strength for me,” Maia affirms. “I genuinely believe that each person possesses a wonderful capacity for kindness within them. This belief sets the stage for positive transformations and lasting change.”