Engle, Helen (b. 1926)

  • By Elise Fogel
  • Posted 2/12/2012
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10029
See Additional Media

Helen Engle is 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. Since then she has done much work to help create parks and wildlife refuges. 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 has an insatiable appetite for learning, seemingly unlimited energy, and exceptional organizational and social skills. When the Cascade Land Conservancy awarded her its first Helen Engle Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004, board member Nancy Pearson said, "One of the things particularly unique about Helen is her willingness to go out of her way to bring people together" (The News Tribune, December 3, 2004).

Early Years

Helen Marie Harris was born on February 18, 1926, in eastern Grays Harbor County and raised in Oakville on a plot of land homesteaded by her great-grandfather in 1871. He was closely allied with the local Chehalis Indians, learning their language and helping to establish reservation boundaries. Her grandfather operated the first steam-powered sawmill in the area, and passed this role on to his son, Helen’s father. Helen’s mother was a nurse from Tacoma who had a deep love for the natural world and was very knowledgeable about plants.

The Harris family continued to maintain close relationships with the Chehalis Indians through Helen’s generation. Because the Chehalis trusted her mother, she was recruited by state officials to help chlorinate the tribe's wells during a typhoid fever outbreak that occurred during Helen’s childhood.

Engle remembers growing up during the Great Depression as a time when everybody worked together and families spent time together outdoors. She described her childhood home as a "Garden of Eden." She inherited from her family both an appreciation for nature as well as a knack for diplomacy.

After graduating from Oakville High School in 1944, Helen attended the Tacoma General Hospital School of Nursing. She planned to join the Army nurse corps after graduation, but by the time she graduated in 1947 World War II was over.  Helen met Stan Engle (1922-2009), a veteran recently returned from Austria, at a picnic at Surprise Lake. They bonded over their love of nature and they were married shortly thereafter.

Family Life

Engle began work as a nurse in Tacoma while Stan took over his family’s grocery business. They started a family and Helen continued working until her third son was born, at which time working outside the home ceased to be cost-effective. She stayed busy, volunteering in the Methodist Church, teaching Sunday School, and organizing fundraisers, among other activities. She was also involved in her children's pre-school and the PTA.

Engle’s fond memories of playing in nature as a child led her to join the Audubon Society in the early 1960s so that her own children could have the same closeness to nature. The family enjoyed field trips and enjoyed learning more about birds, plants, and animals from Audubon volunteers. When the Engles lived in Tacoma on 6th Avenue, Helen witnessed the pollution from the Ruston smelter first-hand and worried about the effect of pollutants on her family.

Helen and Stan had seven children: David, born 1948; Chris, 1949; George, 1951; Gretchen, 1955; Bill, 1958; Heidi, 1960; and Melanie, 1962. Melanie was a babe-in-arms during the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair. Helen's sister, who lived in the city, babysat Melanie while Helen enjoyed the fair, returning every few hours to nurse the baby before returning to the exposition.

Building a House

In the early 1950s the Engles bought a one-acre plot of clear-cut land on the outskirts of University Place in Pierce County. An architect friend designed a home for the growing family. It was the first house in the neighborhood and took about two years to finish, with the Engles doing much of the work themselves. All walls are 4 by 8 panels, with large window sections overlooking a yard that Helen has beautifully landscaped from the ground up with many native plants and a few exotics thrown in. A bigleaf maple tree they planted 1956 when it was the size of her arm now towers over the yard.

The Engle house has been a gathering place for the family and the broader environmental community ever since it was built. A projection setup in the living room allowed the Engles to host slideshow events, and the basement office aided in the organization of many environmental projects. As of 2012 the Engles' lot has been reduced to less than an acre by subdivisions and new streets, and the area is now a suburban neighborhood.

An Activist is Born

Engle took a basic mountaineering course in the late 1950s and enjoyed exploring the wilderness with Stan, who was a passionate mountaineer, and their growing family. She began holding an office with The Mountaineers starting in 1954, and has continued her involvement, in different capacities, to the present (2012).

She evolved from an ardent nature enthusiast to an environmental activist in the mid 1960s, when the Swan Lake watershed in Salishan was threatened by garbage dumps and development. A friend from her garden club, Thelma Gilmur (b. 1923), a teacher at Lester Elementary School, heard about the proposals and was determined to save the area. Gilmur and Engle teamed up and launched a successful campaign to protect Swan Lake and create a park. They then replicated their lobbying and grassroots approach to protect China Lake and Snake Lake. It was the beginning of a lifelong partnership.

Soon after, the Nisqually Delta was also 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 and appealed to the Seattle Audubon Society for support. Audubon staff was busy focusing on issues closer to their own home, but agreed to send the names of Seattle Audubon members living in Pierce County. Engle and Gilmur received 35 names and addresses and convened a meeting.

Hazel Wolf (1898-2000) 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. 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. She recalls:
"Once when I called the SAS [Seattle Audubon Society] office a cranky little old lady told me that what I was doing was wrong! I was taking members of Seattle Audubon away from them. I told her it was NOT subtraction, but multiplication! I was right -- their growth was exponential" (Engle, "My Involvement…").

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.

Refuge for Wildlife

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. Protection Island was a haven for harbor seals and was one of the last remaining nesting grounds for tufted puffins. It was threatened by a developer's plans to build vacation homes there. Persistent salt-water intrusion into wells and expert opinions that an underwater pipeline could not survive the tides convinced Engle and others that “This Island is for the birds.” They mounted a successful campaign to turn their catchy slogan into law. Some Audubon members had bought plots on the island so they could have legal standing to challenge the development. In 1982, Protection Island was named a National Wildlife Refuge, and human activity was prohibited.

Engle was able to participate in some officially sanctioned fieldwork on the island, but the public was no longer allowed.  Today approximately 70 percent of the nesting seabird population of Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca nest on the island. It has the  largest nesting colonies of Rhinoceros Auklets in the world and the largest nesting colony of Glaucous-winged Gulls in Washington. The refuge is also home to the last two nesting colonies of Tufted Puffins in the Puget Sound area, and approximately 1,000 harbor seals depend upon the island for a pupping and rest area. Although birders and nature watchers cannot set foot there, private boat tours around the island are available at nearby marinas.

Tahoma Audubon and Beyond

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. In 1999 the organization was bequeathed an office building and the Adriana Hess Wetland Park. It hired two staff people at this time, a testament to the strength and longevity of the organization.

Engle was also a devoted member of the League of Women Voters, which came out as a strong supporter of the Shorelines Management Act. She went on the "rubber-chicken circuit," giving presentations on the Nisqually Delta and other important shorelines of Washington state, using a slideshow she created.

"The organizations that always want to show their members both sides would invite Phil White from Weyerhaeuser and a League of Women Voters speaker (me!) to come to their meetings. He was a delightful young man and we flipped coins over who would speak first. We both claimed we knew the other’s position well enough to argue either one and win" (Engle, "My Involvement ... ").

Engle was a good-natured debate partner and tried to get to know people of all opinions. She counted a number of loggers among her circle of friends and was respected by all, whether they agreed with her strong views or not.

The Shorelines Management Act was passed by the state legislature in 1972. During the 1970s and after, various political leaders appointed Engle to environmental posts. Governor Dan Evans (b. 1925) named her to the Interagency Committee for Outdoor Recreation (1976-1978); Governor John Spellman (b. 1926) put her on the Recreation Resource Advisory Committee (1983); and she was the environmental coordinator for Congressman Norm Dicks (b. 1940) in 1984. 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.  In response to Weyerhaeuser’s proposed superport at Dupont, she put together a slideshow called "P.S. [for Puget Sound] I Love You." It included aerial photos of south Puget Sound as well as close-ups of the species that lived there, highlighting many of the things that make it such a valuable place. The slideshow circulated through schools and political organizations, with Helen giving the presentation over 100 times in just four years. She served on the organization's 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.

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. They both belonged to the Foothills Trail Coalition as well, and Stan was the treasurer for 15 years. He was at least peripherally involved in all the organizations that Helen supported, and he also worked full-time supporting the family. One way he contributed was building benches for auctions, one of which sold for $3,400 at a People for Puget Sound event. He was instrumental in developing the 15-mile Foothills Trail, and after his death in 2009 the trail's kiosk in Orting was dedicated to him.

National Audubon

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 was especially fascinated with the Chesapeake Bay and with the Everglades.

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.

Renewal of Spirit

Helen became active outdoors as an adult to expose her children to plants and wildlife, and she and Stan continued enjoying the natural areas she was tirelessly working to protect. Nature was a rejuvenating force in her life. She once said:

"And hiking down wilderness beaches to the ocean -- those places are critical to me for that renewal of spirit and incredible beauty and creation. Even in my acre here, I feel it when I look up at the way the light changes in the tops of the trees, and the way the sky changes" ("Many Voices, One Sound").

Stan was always the stauncher mountaineer of the couple. Helen preferred the beaches or estuaries, places where water was a defining characteristic and birds were plentiful. "When the birds and flowers quit, I quit," she says, laughing (interview). The San Juans, Ocean Shores, Willapa, and, of course, the Nisqually Delta count among her favorite places, and her backyard is itself a refuge. Her property is also on the radar of University Place, which has asked if Helen would like to donate it for a park when she "doesn’t need it anymore." She is considering it (2012), although her children are very attached to the home and would be sad to see it torn down, even for such a good cause.

Helen never stopped attending university courses and symposia on hydrology, anadromous fish, geology, and many other subjects. She is now particularly interested in water management, as well as solar energy and reducing our dependence on fossil fuels.

Art has also been an inspiration and outlet for Helen over the years. To get some time for herself, she joined a Thursday afternoon painting group when her children were young and has continued experimenting with art ever since. She has worked with watercolors, silk screen, concrete craft, and decoupage, won a variety of awards, and exhibited regularly. She enjoys all kinds of crafts, from making her own clothes, to knitting and jewelry making -- her hands are usually occupied with something.

As a woman who devoted her life to her family and volunteer work, like many of her generation, Helen’s career has not been rewarded with a pension and retirement benefits. However, she claims that being a woman never impacted the work itself. "It was different in those days ... people who are interested are just people, we’re interested in the same things, nobody ever pays any attention to what sex you are. It was never an issue for me. I made a lot of great friends in high places" (interview).

Recognition and Awards

Engle has received a number of awards for her leadership. In 1991 she received the Thomas O. Wimmer Environmental Excellence Award, presented by the Washington Ecological Commission under Governor Booth Gardner (b. 1936) and Secretary of State Ralph Munro (b. 1943). In 2004, the Cascade Land Conservancy created the Helen Engle Lifetime Achievement Award. Helen, appropriately, was its first recipient.

On April 6, 2011, Engle received People for Puget Sound’s Warren G. Magnuson Sound Legacy Award, specifically for co-founding the Tahoma Audubon Society and for her work in cleaning up pollution in Tacoma’s Commencement Bay through Citizens for a Healthy Bay. In May 2011 Helen and Thelma Gilmur together received honorary Doctor of Science degrees from the University of Puget Sound. The two long-time friends were nominated by Daniel Sherman and Peter Wimberger, professors in the University of Puget Sound’s Environmental Studies Department. Sherman had become a colleague as a board member of the Tahoma Audubon Society, and over the years Helen would call on both Sherman and Wimberger to persuade them to get involved in her causes. She has also visited their classrooms to talk about her experiences as an environmental activist, always a highlight for the students.

In their honorary degree nomination, Sherman and Wimberger praised the extent of Engle’s activism:

"It is hard to find a Washington State environmental group of consequence that Engle did not have a hand in establishing ... . As an indication of their influence, when Norm Dicks wanted to hold a town hall for environmental leaders in our state this election season, he hosted it at Helen's house" ("Joint Honorary Degree Proposal").

Their award was not only for environmental work, but for the two women's fine example of the democratic ideal for involved citizens.

"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. They are shining examples of democratic citizenship exercised to its fullest. They are citizens who, by exercising their power as citizens, have preserved important parts of our landscape that would have otherwise been developed thus contributing to the welfare of both people and other species around us" ("Joint Honorary Degree Proposal").
In her acceptance speech, Helen credited her zeal for the environment to her childhood home: "My early life in that wonderful prairie must have left something. We can’t destroy these wonderful ecosystems." (The News Tribune, 2011).

Staying Active and Up-to-Date

Despite the many challenges facing our region, Helen Engle remains optimistic about the future, taking a multigenerational view of the issues. She continues to enjoy birding and attending meetings and symposia to learn more about environmental matters. In 2012, she is currently secretary of the Tacoma branch of The Mountaineers and also on the Washington Fish & Wildlife Department’s Wildlife Diversity Council. At the age of 86, Helen is a savvy Internet user, staying up-to-date on the issues that concern her and managing the Mountaineers list-serve.

She has always been mission- and goal-oriented, and has persevered due to the wonderful friends she’s made over the years. Thelma Gilmur has been a valued colleague ever since their garden club days. "She calls me her sister sometimes," Gilmur said, "but I'd have an inferiority complex if I grew up being her sister because she can do everything" (Gordon).

When she’s not out and about, Helen Engle is enjoying the birds in her own backyard and hosting family gatherings. She is amazed at how different each of her children turned out, and is proud to have among her brood several grandchildren who are devoted to environmental causes, as well as several serious mountain climbers. Her youngest granddaughter is currently a student at Seattle University.

When she accepted her honorary doctorate in 2011, Helen said, "Don’t ever work on an issue without having put your body in that place" (The News Tribune, 2011). She has devoted her long life to protecting the place she lives and loves.

Sources: Troy Coleman, "Tell Us a Story: Helen Engle," People for Puget Sound website accessed January 20, 2012 (http://onepugetsound.org/voices/engle/); Helen Engle, "Biographical," in possession of Elise Fogel, Seattle; Helen Engle, "My Involvement in Nisqually," in possession of Elise Fogel, Seattle; "Environmental Council Picks President," The Seattle Times, June 7, 1978, p. E-15; Fish and Wildlife Service, Department of the Interior, "Washington Maritime National Wildlife Refuge Complex, Sequim WA," Federal Register website accessed February 1, 2012 (http://edocket.access.gpo.gov/2007/E7-15882.htm); Elise Fogel interview with Helen Engle, January 27, 2012, University Place; Susan Gordon, "More Wild Things Are Here Because of Her," The News Tribune, December 3, 2004 (http://www.thenewstribune.com); "Helen Engle and Thelma Gilmur Receive Honorary Degrees," University of Puget Sound website accessed January 29, 2012 (http://www.pugetsound.edu/news-and-events/campus-news/details/858/); "Helen Engle, Terry Williams and Seattle Aquarium Win Sound Legacy Awards,"  People for Puget Sound website accessed January 29, 2012 (http://pugetsound.org/pressroom/press-releases/040411magnuson); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Nisqually Delta Association" (by Elise Fogel), http://historylink.org/ (accessed January 31, 2012); Kathleen Merryman, "Audubon Society founders Led the Way," The News Tribune, May 16, 2011 (http://www.thenewstribune.com); Daniel Sherman, email to Elise Fogel, January 22, 2012, in possession of Elise Fogel, Seattle; "Tahoma Audubon Society,"  Tahoma Audubon Society website accessed January 29, 2012 (http://www.tahomaaudubon.org/Default.aspx?pageId=30300); "Trail Kiosk in Orting Honors Stan Engle," The News Tribune, October 16, 2011 (http://www.thenewstribune.com); "Protection Island National Wildlife Refuge," United States Fish and Wildlife Service website accessed February 8, 2012 (http://www.fws.gov/refuges/profiles/index.cfm?id=13533); Daniel Sherman and Peter Wimberger, "Joint Honorary Degree Proposal for Helen Engle and Thelma Gilmur," copy in possession of Elise Fogel, Seattle.

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both HistoryLink.org and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for HistoryLink.org Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You