Greenway pioneer receives top environmental honor

July 13, 2010

By Warren Kagarise

Mountains to Sound Greenway pioneer Ted Thomsen — “the unsung hero” behind the 101-mile greenbelt — received the highest environmental honor in Issaquah in a City Hall ceremony last week.

The late Thomsen received the Ruth Kees Award for a Sustainable Community — the prize named for the late environmentalist, a tireless advocate for open space preservation. The city selected Thomsen for the yearslong effort to establish a billboard-free greenbelt from Seattle to Central Washington along Interstate 90.

Cynthia Welti, Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust executive director, nominated Thomsen for the honor.

“He was essential to bringing the greenway vision to fruition,” she recalled in the nomination. “Ted is the unsung hero of the launch of this tremendous coalition effort.”

Thomsen — alongside past Ruth Kees Award recipients Harvey Manning, Ken Konigsmark, former Councilman David Kappler and many other environmentalists — helped form the greenway.

Thomsen, a Bellevue resident and former attorney, died in September at age 85.

“Dad’s in good company,” son Brogan Thomsen, a Seattle resident, said before the July 6 ceremony.

The elder Thomsen handled Boeing contracts for much of his career as a partner at Seattle law firm Perkins Coie. Thomsen, a longtime hiker and outdoorsman, became involved in the Issaquah Alps Trails Club after he retired from Perkins Coie in 1989.

In 1990, Thomsen and other greenway founders marched from Snoqualmie Pass to Seattle to bring attention to the corridor.

During the march, the group camped on a field in Bellevue’s Newport Shores neighborhood, Brogan Thomsen recalled. But nobody had asked the groundskeepers to turn off the sprinklers — so the marchers received a soggy wake-up call in the pre-dawn darkness.

Thomsen also helped map Rattlesnake Mountain; the effort resulted in the 11-mile Rattlesnake Mountain Trail between Snoqualmie Point and Rattlesnake Lake.

The project earned Thomsen a colorful nickname from Manning, the mountaineer behind the term “Issaquah Alps” to describe Cougar, Tiger and Squak mountains.

“Dad became known as the Rattlesnake Ranger,” Brogan Thomsen said.

The family plans to erect a bench in the elder Thomsen’s memory at the Rattlesnake Mountain Trailhead.

Doug Schindler, deputy director of Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust, recalled Thomsen as a point man — drafting bylaws, handling paperwork and untold unglamorous-but-necessary tasks

“Ted was an amazing individual, a very modest man who, as we heard, did a lot of the behind-the-scenes work,” Schindler said.

Greenway to the future

The family — Ted, wife Gretchen and four sons — hiked, hunted, fished and skied throughout the Pacific Northwest. Brogan Thomsen, a longtime activist for the blind and environmental causes, said the elder Thomsen also instilled a commitment to volunteerism in the next generation.

The attention conferred upon the Ruth Kees Award honoree might surprise the humble Ted Thomsen. Brogan Thomsen described his late father as a curious man and a respectful legal opponent possessed by a strong work ethic and a dry sense of humor.

Mayor Ava Frisinger announced the recipient as F. Theodore Thomsen — a formal name for a down-to-earth man known to many as Ted.

“I don’t know anybody who ever spoke of him as Theodore, but definitely Ted,” Frisinger said.

Thomsen traveled the globe as a Boeing attorney, Brogan Thomsen said, and the experience helped him appreciate the environment unique to the Pacific Northwest.

The family also counted Lake Washington savior Jim Ellis as a neighbor. Ellis led the push to clean up the polluted lake and spearheaded other efforts to expand mass transit and open space protections. Brogan Thomsen said Ellis helped the Thomsens realize the impact of a single person in a campaign for change.

“Ted had such a warm and engaging personality,” Frisinger said. “People were drawn to helping him — and volunteering for his cause. His vision of the greenway was truly infectious, and I can attest to that.”

Named for Ruth Kees —a teacher, mentor and role model for the Issaquah environmental community — the city bestows the annual honor upon people responsible for preserving natural resources and promoting a sustainable city. Kees died last May.

Kappler said the skills Ted Thomsen acquired in the legal realm aided the greenway effort in the early days.

“He had a whole history of accomplishments before he ever came” to the trails club and, later, Mountains to Sound Greenway, the former councilman said.

Frisinger said Thomsen exhibited the qualities inherent to Kees and other environmental leaders. The effort to establish the greenway, she said, resulted in a regional trail network and unspoiled land set aside for future generations.

“Thanks to his work and enthusiasm, residents and visitors continue to enjoy the many local trails that are located right in our backyard,” she said.

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or Comment at


Ted Thomsen

Past Ruth Kees Award recipients received the honor for efforts to establish the Mountains to Sound Greenway, blaze trails in the Issaquah Alps and protect Issaquah waterways.
  • 2003: Ruth Kees
  • 2004: Joanna Buehler and Janet Wall — Buehler founded Save Lake Sammamish, a nonprofit organization set up to protect and raise awareness about the lake and surrounding watershed. Wall, a city River & Streams Board member, helped improve water quality, and fish and wildlife habitat, in the lake and watershed.
  • 2005: Chrys Bertolotto — Bertolotto, a former city Resource Conservation Office employee, established the Issaquah Stream Team and marshaled dollars to build the Pickering Farm Garden.
  • 2006: David Kappler — The then-councilman advocated for expanded public trails and open space preservation as a public official and as a longtime Issaquah Alps Trails Club member.
  • 2007: Ken Konigsmark — Konigsmark, often the go-to guy when the city needs a strong environmental voice on a task force, shaped land-use policies and helped establish the greenway.
  • 2008: William Longwell Jr. — The longtime Issaquah Alps Trails Club member established trails on Squak and Tiger mountains, and helped preserve west Tiger Mountain for public recreation. (posthumous award)
  • 2009: Harvey Manning — The lifelong mountaineer coined the phrase “Issaquah Alps” for Cougar, Tiger and Squak mountains, but he also pushed to preserve untold acres in the Cascade Mountains. (posthumous award)
  • 2010: Ted Thomsen (posthumous award)

Who was Ruth Kees?

Ruth Kees

The late environmental activist fought for more than four decades to protect Issaquah Creek, Tiger Mountain and the Lower Issaquah Valley Aquifer, a vital water source.

Kees, a Nebraska native and groundbreaking female pilot, and her husband Dan relocated to the West Coast in the early 1950s for Boeing jobs. In Issaquah, the Keeses built a circular house from rocks hauled from Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

In her 84 years, the grandmotherly Kees accumulated numerous accolades for her environmental efforts.

The city established the namesake Ruth Kees Award for a Sustainable Community in 2003. Kees received the inaugural award on the same night she accepted the highest eco honor in the state, the Environmental Excellence Award from the Department of Ecology.

She also received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Issaquah Environmental Council and honors from King County. In 1991, officials inducted Kees into the Issaquah Hall of Fame — the highest honor a person can receive from the city.

“She was a stalwart person and someone who could be very passionate in her concern and opposition to things that she thought would damage our aquifer and our environment,” Mayor Ava Frisinger said.

Kees died days after mountaineer Harvey Manning received the 2009 award. Her estate endowed the award with $30,000. Thomsen and future recipients stand to receive $500 alongside the award — a fused glass-and-copper salmon design from Jones Glassworks in Seattle.

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