Issaquah environmentalist Ruth Kees dies

May 12, 2009

By David Hayes

Ruth Kees sits with her formidable Rolodex at the dining room and worktable of her Tiger Mountain home, where much of the work done in her 50 years of local environmental activism took shape. By Greg Farrar

Ruth Kees sits with her formidable Rolodex at the dining room and worktable of her Tiger Mountain home, where much of the work done in her 50 years of local environmental activism took shape. By Greg Farrar

Longtime environmental activist Ruth Kees died May 6. She was 84.

Kees was a longtime local advocate for preservation of open space and environmental protection. The city created the Ruth Kees Award for a Sustainable Community in her honor. The award recognizes others if they have “demonstrated outstanding commitment to protecting and preserving Issaquah’s natural resources for a sustainable community.”

Issaquah Alps Trails Club co-founder Harvey Manning was honored posthumously with the award May 4. Kees did not attend the ceremony.

Issaquah City Councilman David Kappler said Kees was an amazing person.

“All her work was with so much life and energy to make Issaquah a better place,” said Kappler, who had known Kees since the mid-1970s through his work with the trails club. Kappler said Kees was not only known for her efforts to protect the Issaquah Alps — the peaks surrounding the city — but for her understanding how it all fit together with the water, the forest and the streams as a habitat for salmon.

Kappler was presented the Ruth Kees Award in April 2006, which he said was a fitting tribute to name an award after someone as dedicated to the environment as was Kees.

“As someone who received the award, it is a real honor,” he said. “I still have a picture on my refrigerator of Ruth hugging me when I received the award. That award is very meaningful.”

The award was established in 2003, with Kees as the first recipient. The same night, she was presented the state’s highest environmental honor — the Department of Ecology’s Environmental Excellence Award — for her more than 40 years of efforts to protect the Issaquah Creek watershed.

Barbara Shelton, a member of the Issaquah Environmental Council, considered Kees a friend and mentor. She said when given a choice, Kees never took the easy road.

“Ruth lived her life with great courage and conviction,” Shelton said. “In the ’40s, she chose to explore the U.S. with her sister in their Piper airplane, when most young women were becoming secretaries.”

In a 2003 interview, Kees said she and her sister purchased that plane for $3,500, possibly the first two women in the country at the time to co-own a plane.

“Not too many women were flying back then,” Kees said. “Oh, there was Amelia Earhart and some of them, but my sister and I might have been the first co-owners of a plane in the country. You had to wigwag it to see out of the front when you taxied. It was our magic carpet.”

The flight business led Ruth to an introduction to her future husband, Dan, who needed a pilot to fly him from Colorado to Nebraska. The decadeslong partnership headed west, where the duo eventually sought out the greener country of Seattle and jobs with The Boeing Co.

Together, they built a home at the base of Tiger Mountain next to a stream, a dream come true for Kees.

“I had always wanted a stream, and I had my stream,” she said. “I wanted space, and here we were, in the forest. It just thrilled me being out here, all the green trees and the things you could raise.”

The couple built the circular home in 1960, after hauling rocks from Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest every Friday for years. The house cost them $12,000 and a lot of work.

Shelton said it was there Ruth’s advocacy for the region’s great beauty took off and the fight for preservation began in earnest.

“She was an able spokesperson for the forested hills, their natural ecosystems, her beloved Lower Issaquah Valley Aquifer,” Shelton said. “Although Ruth was trained in art as a draftsperson, she had great investigative skills. She researched, consulted with experts, dug into governmental records to put together the most comprehensive information she could find and then decided how to advocate for the environment. She didn’t do it for herself — she knew that our area’s future depended on a balance between development and natural resource conservation.”

Shelton added that Kees worked with other local icons, such as Harvey Manning, who promoted the Issaquah Alps, to promote an Issaquah that was multifaceted — attractive for its natural places as well as its small-town charm.

“Through Ruth’s advocacy, development learned to consider environmental impacts, sometimes through persuasion or common interest, sometimes by legal wrangling,” Shelton said.

Even leaders took heed when Kees spoke. Issaquah Mayor Ava Frisinger was left with an indelible image of the citizen activist.

“She was one of the bright lights of the community,” Frisinger said. “She was extraordinarily persuasive and compelling. When she made arguments, she did so with conviction and passion, but in a way that was gracious.

“She was a person who could tell you you were completely wrong, but never with a sense of ill will,” she added. “Primarily, she wanted to educate.”

Among Kees’ causes were co-founding the Issaquah Environmental Council to fight the location of the now-defunct Skyport, co-authorship of the Issaquah Creek Valley Groundwater Management Plan in 1994, various struggles with sewer installations and developments, and working to establish the Tiger Mountain State Forest.

Kees’ concerns with land and water often put her at odds with developers and government. She and her allies were once slapped with a $1 million lawsuit by a developer. The suit was dismissed, but it took a toll in worry, she said.

“She has stuck her neck out, often at cost and risk to herself,” said Ken Konigsmark, of the Issaquah Alps Trails Club. “Ruth did much more than talk, too. She had been willing to file appeals, to do extensive research, to get expert testimony and to go all out to stop unwise proposals.

“She was threatened with suits at least once to try to shut her up, but she refused to back off. She was tenacious and wise far beyond what the common person understands about their connection to, and responsibility for the environment we live in and that sustains us,” he added. “She was always willing to point out unwise uses. We need more Ruth Keeses.”

Reach Reporter David Hayes at 392-6434, ext. 237, or dhayes@isspress.com. Comment on this story at www.issaquahpress.com.

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