The green party
By KATHELEEN MERRYMAN • The News Tribune
Drew Perine/The News Tribune
Longtime park protectors Thelma Gilmur, left, and Helen Engle take in the view of Dalco passage. Over the years, they've led Scout groups and protested logging.
Before they met, Helen Engle was a nurse, a mom, an artist. Thelma Gilmur was a health education specialist with Tacoma Public Schools, a mom and a gardener.
After they met in 1969, when the Tahoma Audubon Society was founded, they became sisters in conservation and began saving the world for wildlife, one park at time.
They’ve worked on Snake Lake, Swan Creek, China Lake and Homestead parks. Fircrest named a park in honor of Gilmur. But the biggest space on the women’s agenda has always been Point Defiance.
As a young mom, Gilmur, 82, took Cub Scouts and Girl Scouts out on the Big Tree Trail for nature study and to the Madrona Woods for day camping and more nature study. Gilmur breathes nature study.
Engle, 79, came to Tacoma to study nursing at Tacoma General Hospital.
“The hospital would pack box lunches for us if we were going to Point Defiance Park for the day,” she said. “You could take the bus there, visit the aquarium and see Dub Dub, go on a trail ride, or rent a boat for 50 cents an hour. It was such a wonderful playground.”
As a young mom, she was delighted when her kids got on their bikes at the family home at 40th Street and Alameda Avenue in Fircrest and rode off to the Point for the day.
But the women’s involvement in the new Audubon Society in 1969 pushed Gilmur and Engle beyond casual appreciation into stewardship.
Engle began attending park commission meetings – all of them – representing the Audubon Society.
“You wouldn’t believe all the things people wanted to do with that park,” she said. “At one point, they were going to put a train around Five Mile Drive. I listened and at the end said ‘There are people who think the forest is one of the park’s major resources. I think you’ll get a lot of opposition to this.’”
No large-scale logging, either.
When Gilmur noticed a stack of logs spray-painted “MPD” at a Brookdale sawmill, she and Engle suspected logging in Point Defiance and went looking for evidence. They found stumps cut low to the ground and covered with moss and dirt.
Then, in the early 1980s, the national Audubon Birdathon coordinator came to Tacoma to train local society members and asked to see an old-growth forest.
“We took her to Point Defiance, and we were shocked to see that several trees had just been freshly cut,” Gilmur said.
Outraged, they helped found Friends of the Forest to prevent a chain-saw encore.
To this day, they lobby to keep the trees in the park, even after they die.
“If a 100-year tree falls, it gives another 100 years of value,” Engle said, elaborating on nurse logs, water retention in stumps and the power of a 12-foot snag to attract pileated woodpeckers.
Gilmur and Engle have brought credibility to their watchdog role by working in and for the park.
“We’ve done a lot of cleanups in Point Defiance,” Gilmur said.
“We’ve gotten tons of garbage,” Engle agreed.
Engle served on a citizens advisory committee to draw up a plan for future park use. Gilmur, along with friends Elmer Price and Larry Whitney, arranged for an AmeriCorps team of young people to clean and mark three large trails in the park.
They and their Audubon Society colleagues have catalogued the park’s birds.
And, of course, they are a constant presence, introducing new people to the park, inviting them to sit, look up, look around, listen and be still.
If you have personal stories or memories about the park you'd like to share, contact columnist Kathleen Merryman at firstname.lastname@example.org.