In memory of

Sara E. Johnson

Jan 31, 1956
Feb 3, 2024


Sara Elaine Johnson of Salem, Oregon, died on February 3, 2024, after a long battle with cancer. Good friends were holding her hands on the final stretch of her life journey.

Sara was born on the South Pacific desert island of Canton, lived as a child in Kabul, Afghanistan, then moved with her family to Washington, DC. Sara worked for National Public Radio as the National Training Coordinator, then moved to Wisconsin to complete her undergraduate and graduate education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. There, she worked with UW-Madison’s College of Agriculture and UW-Extension in natural resource policy and outreach.

In 1993, she co-founded and was the first executive director of the River Alliance of Wisconsin (RAW), a statewide citizen-advocacy organization for rivers. Under her leadership, RAW became nationally recognized for dam removal and river restoration. The restoration of the Baraboo River to a free-flowing state was one of Sara’s most cherished achievements. She was also instrumental in a landmark settlement with Wisconsin Electric Power affecting 11 dams on the Menominee River system in Wisconsin and Michigan.

In 1998, Sara joined Trout Unlimited (TU) as the Director of Volunteer Operations and the Small Dam Removal Expert. She led major initiatives to strengthen the grassroots chapters of TU, as well as leading TU’s small dams program. In all her work, she recruited and supported women leaders to help broaden TU’s conservation efforts amid the rapidly expanding angling community.

Sara next moved to California, where she worked in various consulting capacities, focusing on uniting social and natural resource sciences to address issues facing fisheries, watersheds, and rivers. She was particularly gifted in working in collaborative and conflict-resolving roles. Sara also authored several publications on dam removal.

Sara was energetic, enthusiastic, and sometimes just plain effervescent about rivers and the outdoors. She enjoyed flyfishing, hiking, her beloved dogs, and sharing experiences with friends. She dealt with life’s many challenges with grace and determination. Sara was predeceased by her parents, Bess and Howard Johnson, and her brother, Michael. She is survived by her former spouse, Todd Ambs, and dear friends who will miss this gentle caring woman immensely. Sara loved music and was a huge John Prine fan. This, from his 1972 album SOUVENIRS, is for Sara:

Memories they can't be boughten /They can't be won at carnivals for free /Well, it took me years /To get those souvenirs /And I don't know how they slipped away from me.

Donations in her memory can be made to the River Alliance of Wisconsin or to the Southern Wisconsin Chapter of Trout Unlimited.

Messages of Sympathy

  1. Vicki Llewellyn says:

    I only knew Sara for just a little over a year. She came to our home often and delightfully regaled us with stories of her adventurous past. During that time, she and I really connected. I consider her a dear friend, ally and sister and always shall. You'll never be forgotten, Sara. Rest in peace and remember that those of us who knew you in this life will always love you.

  2. Jill Kisler says:

    Sara will be deeply missed by all of us as she brought so much to each of us in her own way. Sara was a very caring person. She was full of knowledge and this knowledge she shared with all of us. Rest in peace Sara. Love you

  3. Staff of Johnson Funeral Home says:

    Thank you for trusting Johnson Funeral Home.

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