Helen Engle

Helen passed in March 2019 at age 93.

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

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

Helen Engle was an environmental activist with a formidable resume of involvement, especially in issues involving South Puget Sound. Early on she joined the Seattle Audubon Society and in 1969 co-founded the Tahoma Audubon Society with a list of 35 names. Within a couple years after its founding, Tahoma Audubon had more than 1,000 members, thanks in part to Engle’s tremendous organization and networking skills. Her environmental activities and top-notch networking brought her national recognition. In 1980 she was elected to the National Audubon board, on which she served for 20 years. Engle had an insatiable appetite for learning, seemingly unlimited energy, and exceptional organizational and social skills. Cascade Land Conservancy awarded her its first Helen Engle Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004.

When the Nisqually Delta was threatened by dumps and Weyerhaeuser’s proposed shipping ports. Engle was inspired by this issue, so close to home, so she joined the Nisqually Delta Association. Hazel Wolf came from Seattle to show her support, and the turnout was so good that Wolf suggested they found their own Audubon chapter. The Tahoma Audubon Society chapter was founded in 1969 with 150 members and with Engle at the helm. The first meeting was held at the Tacoma Mountaineers’ clubhouse.

Her basement served as headquarters for the next several years as the group actively fought for the protection of the Nisqually Delta, and more generally promoted wilderness appreciation and conservation of green spaces in both urban and rural areas around the south Puget Sound region.

The Nisqually Delta Wildlife Refuge was created in 1974, although the battle to protect the area from encroachment by developments would continue for decades. Creating wildlife refuges was one of Engle’s key concerns, and she had a hand in the creation of several throughout Western Washington, including the Grays Harbor Wildlife Refuge near her childhood home. She was part of the team that helped convince local skeptics of the economic opportunities provided by outdoor recreation and environmental tourist attractions. Hiking, birding, and other “passive recreation” activities were an untapped source of revenue, with the added bonus that they could be more sustainable than the timber business. As one example, the annual Grays Harbor Shorebird Festival has become a smashing success.

Engle also worked on the Protection Island Wildlife Refuge, created in 1982 near the mouth of Discovery Bay on the Strait of Juan de Fuca in Jefferson County. In 1982, Protection Island was named a National Wildlife Refuge, and human activity was prohibited.

Meanwhile, the Tahoma Audubon Society was thriving. Engle wrote and edited the monthly newsletter, The Towhee, and a group of volunteer committees ran educational programs and organized field trips and forums. She stepped down as president in 1971, but remained an active contributor and consultant for the organization.

Engle was a good-natured debate partner and tried to get to know people of all opinions.

Various political leaders appointed Engle to environmental posts such as the Interagency Committee for Outdoor Recreation, the Recreation Resource Advisory Committee, she was the environmental coordinator for Congressman Norm Dicks. She also served on the Wildlife Diversity Council at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, which sought to expand the definition of wildlife and convince the department to include non-game species in their mission.

Engle was instrumental in the lead up to the organization of People for Puget Sound and served on the board until 1997. Engle was a founding member of the Washington Environmental Council and served on the board from 1974 until 1980. She served as president from 1978 to 1980, during which time she was a member of the task force that created the Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve in Skagit County. She also was a founding member of many Washington environmental organizations, including Washington Wilderness Coalition (1979), Washington Environmental Political Action Committee (1981), Mount Rainier National Park Associates (1985),The Arboretum Foundation of Pierce-Kitsap Counties (1985), Nisqually Basin Land Trust (1989), Citizens for a Healthy Bay in Tacoma (1990), People of Puget Sound (1991), and National Parks Fund (1993).

She maintained a long list of other involvements, including Olympic Park Associates, Washington Native Plant Society, Issaquah Alps Trails Club, Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, Defenders of Wildlife, Washington Trails Association, League of Women Voters, and Federation of Western Outdoor Clubs. Throughout this time, she led hundreds of field trips in the Nisqually Delta.

Engle’s extensive local resume caught the eye of the National Audubon Society and CEO Russell Peterson nominated her to its board in 1980. She served for 20 years, relishing the opportunity to network across the country, to visit environmentally significant places everywhere, and to learn how others dealt with their issues.

She made lasting friendships with environmentalists all over the United States and loved introducing them to the Nisqually Delta. In 1991 she received the National Audubon Society and Bausch & Lomb Conservationist of the Year Award, presented at the NAS Convention in Estes Park.

In July 2013 The National Audubon Society presented Helen Engle with its 2013 Lifetime Achievement Award at its convention in Stevenson, WA. “People like Helen truly make Audubon amazing,” said Audubon President and CEO David Yarnold. “Her boundless energy and commitment to conservation amazes and inspires those around her. She demonstrates the power of a citizen network like Audubon.” 

Both Helen and Stan were active in the Tacoma branch of The Mountaineers, and they organized and hosted the annual salmon bake in a different location each year. For 66 years she was a member of Mountaineers. This last month her life’s work and exceptional leadership will be honored when Helen’s family was presented with The Mountaineers Lifetime Achievement Award at their annual gala. This is the highest award they have. It is presented once a year to those who demonstrate outstanding achievements in conservation and advocacy, influence outdoor education, and contribute to mountaineering history.

Here is a final quote from Helen, “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.”

This is a from a collection of articles written about Helen over the years.