Retro Rewind: Conservationist Helen Engle

Meet Helen Engle, a 64-year Mountaineers member and lifelong conservationist. Helen has devoted her life to protecting the places she loves. She is an inspiration to conservationists past, present, and future.
The Mountaineers The Mountaineers
January 11, 2017

Meet Helen Engle, a 64-year Mountaineers member and lifelong conservationist. She has devoted her life to protecting the places she loves, and is truly and inspiration to our community of explorers.

When Helen Engle joined The Mountaineers in 1952, she was already an active member in the environmental protection movement. A fourth generation Washingtonian, Helen grew her resume to list extensive involvement in conservation causes.

Helen was born near Grays Harbor and raised in Oakville on a plot of land homesteaded by her great-grandfather in 1871. Along with her late husband Stan, Helen raised a large family – seven kids. At the same time, she co-founded the Tahoma Audubon Society in 1969, which quickly grew from 150 members to over 1,000 members within two years.  In 1980 she was elected to the National Audubon board, on which she served for 20 years.

Helen has devoted her life to protecting the places she loves. Her insatiable appetite for learning and uniting people led her to be a founding member of several leading Washington organizations including the Washington Environmental Council, Washington Wilderness Coalition, Mount Rainier National Park Associates, People for Puget Sound, and National Parks Fund, just to name a few.

And we're proud that it all started in the late 1950’s shortly after Helen took a basic mountaineering course. Hear more from Helen herself:

Retro Rewind

We featured even more of Helen's story in a Retro Rewind article in our Summer 2016 magazine. 

By Mary Hsue

Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing a member who has devoted much of her life to protecting and enhancing the lands and waters in the South Puget Sound — the same wild places I enjoyed as a child. I was proud to feature her story in a brief video at our fundraising breakfast in May. Despite being preceded by stories from big names in the outdoor retail and National Parks space, hers was most captivating. In less than three minutes, she conveyed the history and heart of The Mountaineers and the impact of our conservation legacy — one for which all Washingtonians today should be grateful.

64-year Mountaineers’ member and lifelong conservationist, Helen Engle is a fourth-generation Washingtonian and an environmental activist with an extensive resume of involvement in conservation causes.

Helen was born in eastern Grays Harbor and raised in Oakville on a plot of land homesteaded by her great-grandfather in 1871. “During the depression years those farms were incredibly important. Everybody lived off their farms. And what you did have your traded with neighbors so there was a really good feeling of everybody helping everyone else,” she recalled.

Inspired by beauty

A love of beautiful places is what inspired Helen to be a protector of these places. It all started in the 50’s shortly after she and her late-husband Stan joined The Mountaineers. Like Mountaineers before them, they found themselves in the position to teach after taking the basic climbing course. “I really enjoyed teaching the climbing courses. Teaching what to pack in your pack and how to pack it, the food you take, how to survive in the wild,” she explained.

But what was special about The Mountaineers and important to Helen back then was that all age groups were included in outings. “Taking my family to places and finding a club that had a family group so that we could raise our kids together was great.” She adds, “My kids got to learn from the grandmas and grandpas and I could remember some of the old timers so clearly. They were wonderful people and they had all that lore and all those skills and they knew how to do things successfully in the outdoors.”

It was time in the outdoors with her family that fueled her desire to take action, “The idea that the existence we had and relationship we had to the wild places was actually being threatened was a scary thought, and I wanted to see that my kids could have the same places that were so precious to us.” She declared, “Those beautiful places we visited might not be there for another generation, you just have this feeling like I just got to do something about that!”

Amazingly, Helen took action while learning to climb and raising seven children. She laughed as she explained, “Stan took basic first because I was having babies, but after the babies came he would take care of the kids while I went and took the course.”

Helen co-founded the Tahoma Audubon Society in 1969, which quickly grew from 150 members to over 1,000 members within two years. As its first president she recognized the value of preserving what is now the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, the 2,925-acre sanctuary at the mouth of the Nisqually River. “There was a vision early on. From Mt. Rainier to the bay, it was a chance to save an intact ecological system. We just spent countless hours on that,” she said as she recalled lobbying lawmakers to prevent port development on the delta.

In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, conservation was mostly a man’s world. Women were often simply not acknowledged in the fight to preserve wilderness. Helen explained, “Back in the day it was mostly men and there were a few leaders, few women leaders but just like in all the other movements that were going on at the same time like women getting to vote and different things, there were women leaders that were leading the way.” She went on to say, “Women from The Mountaineers were right there because they had tramped those trails and been in those places. And they knew the boundaries and what was encroaching on the boundaries.”

Devoted to protection

Helen has devoted her life to protecting the places she loves. Her insatiable appetite for learning and uniting people led her to a long list of memberships. In 1980 she was elected to the National Audubon board, on which she served for 20 years. She became a founding member of several leading Washington organizations including the Washington Environmental Council, Washington Wilderness Coalition, Mount Rainier National Park Associates, People for Puget Sound and National Parks Fund to name a just few.

Helen and generations of Mountaineers before her were climbing mountains and exploring wild places before the Wilderness Act was created, before the North Cascades and Olympic National Parks were created and before Alpine Lakes Wilderness received full protection. Their love of the outdoors and commitment to conservation is why we’re celebrating the Centennial of National Parks today.

Helen shared concerns for the future of our wild places because conservation efforts will never be done, but she held hope for the future because of the success of The Mountaineers youth programs. She explains, “That’s where I think The Mountaineers steps right in. The Mountaineers can take kids from the depressed areas of our cities to get them out there and introduce them to something great and they will remember it all their lives. We gotta have them understand what the world is like. I could probably name seven or eight kids that have never been to the mountain — never been to the ocean. Doesn’t know what a national forest is all about. How’s he gonna stand up for something if he’s never been there when he was a kid? It enriches their lives so much. Teaches them it’s theirs. It is theirs. We belong there and it belongs to us.”  


This article originally appeared in our Summer 2016 issue of Mountaineer  Magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, click here.


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