By Don Nelson
Even if you believe in serendipity, fate, karma, kismet and all that, you might find it hard to fathom that two of the country’s most accomplished environmental attorneys would independently move to the Methow Valley, eventually be introduced to each other and decide to start a law firm.
Natalie Kuehler and Mark Ryan would agree that the circumstances were unlikely, but they are both delighted that the formation of Ryan & Kuehler PLLC in Winthrop puts them back in a legal arena they are familiar with and passionate about.
How that came about involves the intersection of two distinctly different personal stories that also happen to be overlapping professional stories.
Ryan, who worked for the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for 24 years, literally wrote the book on the federal Clean Water Act — he is the author of the Clean Water Act Handbook, third revised edition. He’s working on the fourth edition now. “It’s a best seller in its arena,” Ryan said.
Kuehler worked for the U.S. Attorney General’s office and represented the Department of Justice in large and complex environmental lawsuits, many involving the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act.
They had never met before they encountered each other in the Methow Valley, but quickly learned that they had many colleagues and causes in common. They have even won the same national award, the EPA Gold Medal for Exceptional Service — Ryan in 2002, Kuehler in 2012.
“It’s a perfect match for me,” Ryan said of the legal partnership. “It’s incredibly fortuitous that two former government litigators would meet each other here.”
Ryan moved to the Methow Valley from Boise, Idaho, in 2014 after taking a downsizing buyout from the EPA. Kuehler came to the Methow in April 2015 for a job totally unrelated to the practice of law — she worked for the National Forest Foundation (NFF) in collaboration with the Methow Ranger District of the U.S. Forest Service on the “Treasured Landscapes: Majestic Methow” campaign, coordinating forest restoration projects around the valley.
On her first day of work in the valley, District Ranger Mike Liu told Kuehler that he felt it necessary to issue a warning: When her six-month job here was over, she wouldn’t want to leave.
Kuehler said she realized that long before the NFF job ended. The day she drove over Washington Pass into the valley, Kuehler said, “I was stunned … it felt like home.”
Kuehler and Ryan were introduced through local acquaintances, and “all of a sudden it became a great opportunity to live and work in the valley,” she said.
Ryan and Kuehler checked each other out with other environmental law litigators they knew — in many cases, they each talked to the same people — and got a consistent message, Kuehler said: “You two have to join forces.”
Ryan grew up in the Midwest, graduated from the University of Michigan — his specialty was limnology, or lake ecology — and then attended law school at the University of Indiana. He worked in aviation litigation for the Seattle law firm Perkins Coie before joining the EPA.
Kuehler was born and raised in Germany, then came to the United States after high school to travel and check out colleges. She ended up at Wellesley, followed by Harvard University law school. She clerked for a federal judge, then became an associate at the huge international law firm Sullivan & Cromwell in New York. Feeling like she had reached a plateau there, she pursued an opening at the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York.
In her five years with the Justice Department, Kuehler focused on environmental lawsuits, prosecuted Medicare and corporate tax fraud cases, was involved in civil rights actions, and represented the department in the General Motors environmental bankruptcy case.
“I loved the work but I didn’t love New York,” Kuehler said. She left the federal job and took a year off to travel, which took her to a 21,000-foot mountain top in Peru and eventually back to the United States for more trekking. Through what she described as “a random series of connections,” she contacted Liu about the National Forest Foundation position. Liu sent her a scenic photo of the Methow Valley and “I was sold,” Kuehler said. “I packed up my car and drove to the Methow.”
Ryan moved to the Methow with his partner, Jane Gamblin, after taking the EPA buyout, and was looking for something different to do. Local attorneys Susan Donahue and Sandy Mackie, among others, encouraged him to consider a legal practice. He hadn’t expected to have a law partner until he met Kuehler.
“It was too good to be true,” Ryan said. “She [Kuehler] was an assistant U.S. attorney, worked with the Department of Justice, had the same background and knew many of the same people.”
Kuehler said she “had a dream of practicing water law” but expected it would be in a bigger city. As it is, Ryan and Kuehler will likely do a fair amount of traveling for their work. They recently returned from an industry conference in Austin, Texas, where they renewed old connections and made new ones.
That doesn’t mean they’re not open to local business. The firm will also offer a variety of other general legal services.
Ryan & Kuehler will host an open house on Friday (April 8) in its office at 1112 Highway 20 in Winthrop, next to the post office. The event will begin at 4:30 p.m. Refreshments will be served.