Have you ever looked for a snake in Snake Lake? Hiked Swan Creek Park? Reflected in China Lake Nature Area? Thanked whatever powers saved Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge from development?
The University of Puget Sound extended thanks for all of those natural spots Sunday when it awarded honorary doctoral degrees to Thelma Gilmur, 88, of Tacoma, and Helen Engle, 85, of University Place.
Engle and Gilmur saved none of them on their own. Instead, they invited others to learn, teach and lobby with them. Their work helped build a solid environmental movement on the land they feel as part of their being.
“I had the mountain,” Gilmur, who was born in Alder, said of her childhood and her kinship with Mount Rainier.
Engle was born in Oakville in Grays Harbor County.
“My early life in that wonderful prairie must have left something,” she said. “We can’t destroy these wonderful ecosystems.”
Daniel Sherman and Peter Wimberger of UPS’ Environmental Studies department nominated the two women.
“They have devoted their lives to civil, open discussion of ideas, often over contentious issues, and have remained charming and held steadfast to their principles,” Sherman and Wimberger wrote in their nomination. “By exercising their power as citizens, (they) have preserved important parts of our landscape that would otherwise have been developed, thus contributing to the welfare of both people and other species around us.”
That’s precisely what the women set out to do when Gilmur was a teacher and Engle was a nurse, and they both belonged to garden clubs.
Gilmur’s club visited Engle’s native plant garden. The two developed a friendship with conservation at its core.
Gilmur was working at Lister Elementary School in Salishan, near Swan Creek, when proposals popped up in the 1960s to turn the watershed into a dump, golf course or development.
She, Engle and adjacent landowner Mary Haire built the strategy that saved that park.
“First, you establish your mission,” Engle said. “Our mission was ‘no dumps, no developed areas. This is going to be a natural park.’ ”
They mapped the property and invited nearby landowners to join them.
They recruited impressive backers and community groups, then put those names on the mission statement they took to lobby policy makers.
Engle led the lobbying. Gilmur did the ground work, leading tours, organizing cleanups, teaching kids the value of natural spaces, collaborating with conservation activists.
They won, then deployed the system again to help save Snake Lake and China Lake.
They held jobs and raised families. Stan and Helen Engle reared seven children in University Place. Chuck and Thelma Gilmur brought up three in Fircrest. Both men have died, and Gilmur recently moved into assisted living.
In 1969, they went big time.
Engle belonged to Seattle Audubon Society when plans surfaced to develop Nisqually Delta as a super-port and a dump for Seattle garbage.
“Seattle Audubon had too many alligators,” Engle said. “They said, ‘You go take care of it.’”
She and Gilmur did, gathering the required 35 members and founding Tahoma Audubon Society.
“Before we had paid staff, I had to decide whether to teach or do Audubon,” Gilmur said. “I did Audubon.”
“And then you really started to work,” said her friend.
As the chapter’s director, Gilmur did the paperwork, and the legwork on field trips.
“I was trying to get them to get the feel of the places, which I think goes further,” Gilmur said.
Engle agreed. “Don’t ever work on an issue without having put your body in that place.”
They also deployed their plan with maps and coalition-building and lobbying at every government level the issue touched. They helped form the Washington Environmental Council, and served as co-chairs.
They educated lawmakers and coordinated environmental groups’ efforts during legislative sessions.
At home, they educated lawmakers on pollution, drainage ditches, coke plants, herbicides and stream restoration.
They underlined the message at an annual picnic at Engle’s home, where policy-makers enjoyed good food and realized they were not alone.
When federal shoreline preservation money came available, the Washington Environmental Council had political, tribal and local support in place to purchase the land for the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge.
The next time you walk it, you know who to thank.