The woman whose namesake tree and civic award embody Issaquah’s community spirit of environmental activism and commitment to a better natural world than the one she inherited.
One of Issaquah’s most impactful environmental champions–Ruth Kees–was born in 1923 on a small farm near the agricultural town of Beatrice, Nebraska. From her childhood until her death in 2009, this self-described rabble-rouser paved her own trail. And, had a tremendous impact on the place we call home.
Apart from school, her youth was centered around farm chores–raising rabbits, feeding chickens, hauling water, shocking wheat, and hoeing corn by hand (which did less harm to the plant). All of which planted the seeds for her environmental leanings.
Ruth went on to attend University of Nebraska as an art major, but when World War II broke out, everything changed. To contribute to the war effort, she went to work in a munitions factory as a government inspector of ordinance materiel. In 1945, after the war, Ruth’s knowledge of anatomy (acquired from figure drawing classes) made for an easy transition to giving shots as a local doctor’s assistant. Around that same time, she and her sister started taking flying lessons, secured their pilot’s licenses, and bought their magic carpet–a three-seater Piper PA-12 Super Cruiser.
Not having traveled much, they took off like birds flying both for fun and work! It was on one of those work flights when she met Dan. The two later married and on their first anniversary Dan got his pilot’s license, too. By the early 1950’s, they had relocated to Washington State and both went to work at Boeing–she, as an engineering draftsman.
Taking their time to find just the right spot, in 1959 they acquired 20 acres on Tiger Mountain, started building their home, and moved into their work-in-progress on Christmas Eve of 1960. Back then there was no road, no electricity, no telephone wires, and due to a grant from the early 1800s, every other square mile belonged to either Weyerhaeuser or the University of Washington.
Ruth claims to have picked her first fight (as a local activist) around that time, over a sand and gravel pit. In the Ice Age, Tiger Mountain and the surrounding area was largely covered by glaciers, and the boulders and sand and gravel they left behind remain on our mountains, and in our valley and aquifer. And there’s tons of it. Aside from being an eyesore, opening a pit would have destroyed the vegetation and disrupted the groundwater. She didn’t know much about groundwater at the time, but after being here a short while, came to understand that the creek running through their property (now known as Kees Creek) was a tributary of Issaquah Creek, which had salmon in it. From their property to Issaquah Creek it was all wetlands. In fact, most of Issaquah is built on wetlands. Her intrigue led to a connection with the salmon… and spawned a lifetime of environmental activism.
A true steward of our area for over a half-century, Ruth made it her mission:
To fight overdevelopment, but as a proponent of sustainable development
To protect watersheds, recharge areas, and water quality
To protect the treasure she calls our forested hills and instill environmental awareness
To retain permeated surfaces and set clearcutting boundaries
To preserve the Skyport
To help establish Tiger Mountain State Forest, Squak Mountain State Park, and Cougar Mountain Regional Wildland Park
She founded the Issaquah Environmental Commision
Served on multiple committees in the area including: King County Health Department’s groundwater-management team for the Issaquah Creek Valley and Friends of Issaquah Creek
Ruth accomplished all of these feats (and many more) by collaborating with friends, like-minded citizens, local officials, and government agencies. Recognizing her contributions, in 1991 she was inducted into the “Issaquah Hall of Fame” and in 2003, the Washington State Department of Ecology awarded her with the “Environmental Excellence Award.” Her memory is still honored today by the City of Issaquah with the “Ruth Kees Environmental Award,” given annually to an individual who has worked hard to protect our area’s natural resources.
To read more about Ruth Kees’ fascinating story–and in her own words–check out Ruth’s Oral History. And if you feel like walking in her footsteps, well, she has a trail named after her in the Tiger Mountain State Forest–the “Ruth Kees Big Tree Trail”–where you’ll also discover an old-growth Douglas Fir along the trail (one of Issaquah’s Heritage Trees and the largest within City limits). We can all be thankful for her legacy, the history she made along the way, and her fight to protect our precious natural resources.