Save Lake Sammamish founder Joanna Buehler departs
January 3, 2012
By Warren Kagarise
Issaquah trailblazer led efforts to protect lake from threats for decades
Joanna Buehler earned top honors for environmental efforts for decades spent on a difficult struggle to shield Lake Sammamish from constant pressures from a population boom occurring along the tree-lined shore.
Still, despite the accolades — a Green Globe Award from King County and a Ruth Kees Environmental Award for a Sustainable Community from the city — milestones to protect the lake remain elusive some days.
“You can never win an environmental battle — it’s always a rear-guard action,” she said. “Whole swaths of land — people will look at them, and they don’t change, so they’d never know it was threatened. But if you look at certain places, they wouldn’t be there if somebody hadn’t fought for them.”
The “superstar” in Eastside environmentalism stepped down Dec. 31 from the top spot at the nonprofit organization she established, Save Lake Sammamish. The decision represents a monumental change for the 22-year-old organization as Buehler prepares to relocate from a lakefront home along the southern shore.
“She’s been a superstar locally and regionally, and she’s well-known for that,” city Resource Conservation Office Manager David Fujimoto said.
Buehler started as a citizen activist after she noticed surveyors on a stroll through Timberlake Park, a forested area just down the shoreline from her home.
“I said, ‘What are you surveying for?’ and they said a pipeline, and I said, ‘Where?’ and they got into a boat and they said, ‘It’s none of your business,’” she recalled.
Multiple phone calls later, Buehler realized the proposed pipeline could someday discharge polluted storm water — runoff from roads and neighborhoods — into the delicate lake ecosystem.
“I thought, ‘All I have to do is go to the people who are making decisions and explain to them what’s happening and what the problems are, and they’ll do the right thing,’” she said. “I was so naïve.”
Conservation successes, setbacks
So started a long struggle to preserve the lake and surrounding watershed — a mission made more difficult as Issaquah and the Eastside communities around the lake boomed. Buehler offers encyclopedic and unfiltered stories about conservation clashes big and small from the past 22 years.
“There’s been a lot more debate and discussion about what happens on the lake,” she said.
Save Lake Sammamish spearheaded efforts to create additional protections for the lake and protect the Lake Sammamish kokanee salmon, a landlocked species in decline.
“I bought some time and raised some awareness for the lake,” Buehler said. “Save Lake Sammamish has changed the tone. They’ve changed how the lake is viewed.”
The construction and population explosions in the watershed contributed to a decline in water quality and, perhaps, a higher lake level as more runoff gushed into the lake, rather than soaking into the ground or wetlands. Erosion along the streams branching off from the lake also caused water quality to drop.
“When I came here, you could look down to the bottom of the lake and you could see every single pebble, you could see the fish,” she said. “It wasn’t all eroded. It was clean and beautiful.”
The setbacks loom large, too. The federal government denied a petition to list Lake Sammamish kokanee as endangered late last year, and development continues in the watershed. Buehler said more stringent protection is necessary to limit further damage to the lake.
“It is much easier to mobilize people when there is a threat and there’s a crisis than it is to prevent those threats and crises,” she said.
Buehler invoked a former mentor, late mountaineer and Issaquah Alps Trails Club founder Harvey Manning, as a source of inspiration in the long conservation battle.
“Cougar Mountain and Squak and Tiger — those open spaces are not there by happenstance,” she said. “There’s always a threat. As long as there’s woods and open space, and somebody wants to use it, there’s always a threat,” she said.
Legacy on the lake
Supporters described Buehler as hardworking and tenacious — essential traits for a conservationist on a long mission.
“I think very highly of Joanna and I’m sorry to see her go,” said Frank Lill, a Save Lake Sammamish vice president since 1997 and a longtime lakefront Bellevue resident. “There’s no way we’re going to have anybody that can fill those shoes. We’ve got to do the best we can with what we’ve got.”
Buehler forged links to leaders across King County and built ties between Save Lake Sammamish and the Issaquah Environmental Council, a leading environmental group in the city.
The next president at Save Lake Sammamish is former board member Erika Vandenbrande. Buehler agreed to remain on the Save Lake Sammamish board for another year. Vandenbrande plans to serve as president for a year, and the organization plans to search for a long-term leader.
The shoreline behind Buehler’s home is carpeted in native plants and a wetland bridges the area between the lake and the backyard.
“It’ll be very hard to leave here,” she said.
But Buehler’s lakefront house is too large and expensive to maintain anymore, so she purchased land in Burien overlooking Puget Sound to build a home.
“Everybody has a time, and I think it’s important to have succession,” Buehler said. “We had a couple of retreats as a board and, you know, it always comes up that the strength of the organization is Joanna and the weakness is Joanna, because as long as I’m there, nobody else is going to really step in.”
Despite the change at Save Lake Sammamish, local leaders said Buehler’s impact on the lake should continue to resonate in the years ahead.
“I always remember Joanna as a person who took the big-picture look at things,” Fujimoto said. “She was stalwart in her approach in thinking about the importance of how we care for the land and the lake and the streams — and the importance to us as a community around them.”
Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.