‘A mighty oak has fallen.’ Helen Engle, a giant of conservation, has died

Helen Engle, a woman who dedicated her life to preserving wild places, has died.

Engle died Monday of renal failure at her University Place home. She was 93.

“A mighty oak has fallen,” said daughter Gretchen Engle on Wednesday. “She spread her branches really far. She touched so many people.”

Helen Engle was co-founder of many environmental organizations, including the Tahoma Audubon Society, People for Puget Sound and Citizens for a Healthy Bay.

The list of natural lands she helped save or preserve is lengthly: Billy Frank Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, Point Defiance Park, Snake Lake, Swan Creek, China Lake Park, Chambers Creek Canyon and many others.

Engle served on Washington commissions, task forces and councils which addressed a wide range of environmental issues.

“Let’s take care of nature,” she said in 1991. “That’s not anti-growth, it’s let’s take care of nature. And then you’ve got a quality human environment, too.”

Thelma Gilmur, left, and Helen Engle were active in Point Defiance Park conservation for years. Their efforts helped keep most of the park’s 702 acres a natural oasis, including this view of Dalco Passage. Drew Perine/The News Tribune


Helen Marie Harris was born Feb. 18, 1926 at Tacoma General Hospital. She grew up in Oakville in Grays Harbor County on the family homestead, established by her great-grandfather in 1871.

“My early life in that wonderful prairie must have left something,” she told The News Tribune’s Kathleen Merryman in 2011 after the University of Puget Sound awarded Engle an honorary doctoral degree. “We can’t destroy these wonderful ecosystems.”

In 1944, she returned to Tacoma to study nursing at the University of Puget Sound through a Tacoma General Hospital program tied to World War II.

“The hospital would pack box lunches for us if we were going to Point Defiance Park for the day,” she said. “It was such a wonderful playground.”

In 1947, she married Stan Engle. Stan, a grocer and food distributor, was often at Helen’s side, whether they were mountain climbing or working on environmental issues. Together, they raised seven children.

Engle quit her nursing career when her third child was born.

The couple joined The Mountaineers in the 1950s and became avid hikers.

“The hardest thing is to turn around,” Engle said in 2006 of hiking. “But when you go back, you see different things than you saw going out.”

One thing Engle noticed were trails disappearing because of logging.

It was a moment in the early 1950s in Tacoma that provided Engle with her environmental awakening.

“She tells this story of watching all the leaves fall off the trees at her house on Sixth Avenue and discovering it was because of the smelter,” Gretchen Engle said.

The Asarco copper smelter (where today’s Point Ruston is located) was sending out a toxic plume that contained arsenic, lead and other heavy metals. The smelter closed in 1985 and eventually became a Superfund site.

“She got involved with people at UPS and started doing some research into that,” Gretchen Engle said.

In 1969, Engle and her close friend and fellow conservationist Thelma Gilmur learned about plans to develop the Nisqually Delta as a port and a dump for Seattle garbage.

A Seattle Audubon leader told the pair the organization had too many issues of their own in Seattle and couldn’t take one on in Pierce and Thurston counties.

“The very first meeting to organize the Tahoma Audubon Society happened in her living room,” Gretchen Engle said.

Using coalition-building and lobbying, Engle and Gilmur helped form the Washington Environmental Council and served as co-chairs.

They coordinated environmental groups’ efforts during legislative sessions. At home, they educated lawmakers on pollution, drainage ditches, coke plants, herbicides and stream restoration.

When federal shoreline preservation money came available, the council had political, tribal and local support in place to purchase the land for the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge.

After Engle became environmentally active in the 1960s, she began attending Metro Parks Tacoma commission meetings, representing the Audubon Society.

“You wouldn’t believe all the things people wanted to do with (Point Defiance),” Engle said years later. “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.’”

When Gilmur noticed a stack of logs spray-painted with “MPD” at a sawmill, she and Engle suspected the Metropolitan Park District was 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, a national Audubon executive came to Tacoma 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, Engle and Gilmur helped found Friends of the Forest to prevent a chainsaw encore. They lobbied 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 in 2005, referring to nurse logs that nurture seedlings and standing snags that provide homes to birds and other wildlife.

When proposals popped up in the 1960s to turn the Swan Creek watershed into a dump, golf course or development, Engle, Gilmur and adjacent landowner Mary Haire built the strategy that saved it.

“First, you establish your mission,” Engle said. “Our mission was no dumps, no developed areas. This is going to be a natural park.”

Educated and buoyed by their successes, Gilmur and Engle went on to create Snake Lake Park (now called Tacoma Nature Center) and nearby China Lake Park, both of which border South 19th Street in Tacoma.

Environmental Activist Helen Engle, along with other activists, protest a planned timber harvest that would include some old growth trees near Sequim. Dean J. Koepfler News Tribune archive


Engle’s style was one of coalition building, networking and negotiation, say those who know her.

“I learned a lot from her,” said Ryan Mello, Pierce Conservation District director and Tacoma City Councilman. “She was always very strategic. She always had the long game in mind. She always knew we had to build relationships across the aisles.”

Engle worked to protect farmland by getting the transfer of development rights ordinances passed.

Engle’s own home in University Place is a slice of wilderness inside the city. The one-acre lot is planted with native plants and attracts a variety of wildlife.

When she and Stan bought the lot in 1954, they were pioneers. Now, it’s surrounded by suburbia.

Over the years, it has been the site of numerous meetings, workshops, garden tours, summer solstice picnics and other events. Engle presided over all of them as host and model to aspiring environmentalists.

Engle’s vision went far beyond Puget Sound. She and her colleagues developed an oil spill prevention bill adopted by the Legislature in 1990 and worked to protect a 116-acre stand of old-growth forest in Oregon, among other things.

“A lot of issues are confrontational and controversial, and you get into strategies that include political considerations,’‘ Engle said. “I’ve never been a part of the system in such a way that I’m not absolutely free to say anything I want to say, and that gives me a lot of independence.’‘

She wasn’t beyond direct confrontation. In 1996, Engle and others protested old-growth logging by storming then U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks’ office and demanding the Democrat work to repeal a Clinton-era law that allowed it.

Engle worked to pass legislation creating the sale of personalized license plates that contributes funds to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife program that manages species not hunted, fished or trapped. At the heart of the program’s mission is the restoration and acquisition of important habitats, which also benefit game species.

“It was, and still is, so exciting to know that we fought hard and won for wildlife, but, really, everybody wins,” Engle said. Engle’s own license plate read “TOWHEE,” one of her favorite songbirds.

In 2008, the Cascade Land Conservancy (now Forterra) gave her the first Helen Engle Lifetime Achievement Award.

In 2011, Engle was instrumental in procuring a $75,000 grant that allowed the Mount Tahoma Trails Association to replace a popular backcountry hut destroyed by fire in 2008. Engle had taught her kids to ski at the lodge in the late 1950s.

In 2014, Engle spoke about why wilderness is important.

“During our lobbying for the passage of the Wilderness Act, we were accused of wanting to lock up places and throw the keys away,” she said. “Now it can be seen that the trails are open and droves of people are using them. People seek out places where nature is in charge; where humans, who have changed every environment they use, can manipulate nothing.”

Engle was an early adopter and frequent user of email. Her daughter recalls attending a function where her mother was being honored.

“The speaker said, ‘How many people have received an email from Helen Engle in the last week?’ and I swear two-thirds of the people raised their hands,” Gretchen Engle recalled. “She was a connector of people.”

Engle would send out frequent family newsletters to her children. She kept abreast of their lives and careers and enjoyed traveling to visit them, Gretchen Engle said.

She was a voracious reader.

“You could give her a stack of seven books, and they would all be read by the end of the week,” Gretchen Engle said. “She always said, ‘Read non-fiction. There’s so much to know in the world.’”

The last book Engle read, “Toxic Pearl: Pacific Northwest Shellfish Companies’ Addiction to Pesticides?” bore a sticky note with Engle’s writing this week. It read, “We really must read this book.”

Engle also was an artist who knitted at meetings and sewed her own clothing. She liked to recycle castoffs into art. At one meeting at her home, she offered guests apricots and asked them to drop the pits in an empty bowl.

“The next time we saw her she had a beautiful necklace out of the pits,” Gilmur said in 2004.

Engle is survived by her children David, Christopher, George, Gretchen, William, Heidi and Melanie; six grandchildren and two great-grand children. Stan Engle died in 2009.

A memorial service for Engle will be held at 3:30 p.m. on May 4 at Mason United Methodist Church in Tacoma.

Craig Sailor has worked for The News Tribune for 20 years as a reporter, editor and photographer. He previously worked at The Olympian and at other newspapers in Nevada and California.