Jonathan Blasher’s love of rugged Oregon landscapes has taken him from building forts on the outskirts of Eugene to building a nonprofit dedicated to play — and, now, a new chapter as the next director of Metro’s Parks and Nature Department.
When he takes the helm in August, Blasher will oversee 17,000 acres of parks, trails and natural areas across greater Portland, from the Chehalem Mountains on the west to the Sandy River Gorge on the east. He was selected from a national search to guide Metro’s work to protect clean water, restore fish and wildlife habitat, and connect people with nature close to home.
Martha Bennett, Metro’s chief operating officer, said she was impressed by Blasher’s experience developing partnerships and creating opportunities for young people to spend time outdoors. Blasher emphasized the need to preserve natural resources while inviting people to experience nature, too.
“His vision of Metro’s niche in parks, trails and natural areas was very compelling,” Bennett said. “He understands the importance of water quality and habitat protection, and he understands the need for Metro to make a human connection. I was impressed by his ability to not only conceive this idea, but communicate it and build support for it.”
Blasher has spent most of his career with Playworks, a nonprofit organization that collaborates with schools to create safe, fun and inclusive opportunities for young people to play.
After starting as an AmeriCorps program coordinator in California, Blasher went on to launch the organization’s Pacific Northwest chapter in 2009. As executive director he has expanded the chapter’s reach to 150 schools across Oregon, Washington and Idaho, with a focus on at-risk communities. Blasher also serves on the Oregon Parks and Recreation Commission.
At Metro, Blasher will lead a park system created by two decades of public investment.
Voters in Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington counties have approved two bond measures to purchase land with high-quality natural resources and two levies to maintain and improve Metro’s park system. Metro manages busy destinations such as Oxbow and Blue Lake parks, as well as natural areas with a focus on habitat preservation.
Blasher says he’ll spend his first few months getting to know Metro’s staff, properties and partners.
“I’ve been with an amazing organization that I really care about and put a lot of my time and energy and effort into,” Blasher said. “I’m excited to put the same dedication and energy and passion into parks and nature that I’ve had for kids and play.”
Blasher sat down over coffee to talk about his journey, from why he loves fly fishing to how Metro can remove barriers for people of color.
What excites you most about being Metro's next Parks and Nature Department director?
I'm really excited to reconnect with my roots in nature. Growing up in Eugene, I spent a lot of time playing out in the back woods and swimming, and it was really a foundational part of who I am.
I’m excited, too, that Parks and Nature has such a strong reputation and is so well trusted in the community – and has just done some amazing projects. It’s a humbling honor to get be part of this department and have an opportunity to help lead it into the future.
Oregonians have done something pretty unusual by creating this type of park system, focused on nature in an urban area. What’s your theory on why people here are so invested in the landscape?
As a native Oregonian born and raised in Eugene, we have our very special places. For those who grow up around here, you’ve got your secret spots that you want to keep secret.
I think that's a mindset that resonates with a lot of people in life. Change is tough, and people want to be able to maintain certain things that are special. That’s why we have a unique opportunity, and I think that’s what attracts people.
What do you see as the biggest challenges for Metro’s park system over the next few years?
I think it’s going to be about staying the course and staying true to mission — keeping nature and conservation as the core piece, and having a responsible and thoughtful way to allow people to experience that through parks and nature areas.
We’ll also have to contend with the growing population, and people that maybe don’t understand or don’t value it the same. So it’ll be important to keep that mission clear and focused.
How do you think we honor that commitment to clean water and healthy fish and wildlife habitat, while also inviting people to come enjoy more of the land that they’ve helped protect?
I grew up experiencing this. If I didn’t, I might not appreciate it the same way. So you have to make sure that you’re keeping the continuity, generation to generation, of people getting to experience nature in a responsible way.
I remember as a kid walking trails and wanting to run around and pull leaves off trees and knock things down, and my mom saying, “Hey, no. Look, but don't touch. Walk along here. We don't want to disturb it, it’s a very delicate system.” Having that message at a young age I think is important.
So we have to strike that balance between informing folks and making sure that they get a chance to see it and experience it. Otherwise they’re not going to want to preserve it or maintain it in the future.
You went through a pretty vigorous recruitment. Was there anything that surprised you about Metro or about its parks system?
I don’t think it was surprise so much as just really appreciating the openness and the opportunity — and the trust in staff to say, “Here’s a candidate. Go sit down with them and do whatever you want with this guy or gal for the next 45 minutes.” Being able to have open and rich conversations I think speaks to the passion of the staff, to the trust that the leadership team is building.
And then everyone was always coming back to service and the commitment to do what we said we would do for the public. I think that that’s really honorable.
You’ve devoted your career to helping young people spend time outdoors. What drew you to that work?
Again, it comes back to my background of growing up in Eugene in a small neighborhood on the outskirts of town, right next to a bunch of woods and forests. And we had a park down the street.
I was one of four wild little boys. My folks said, “Go outside and play, and come back when it’s dark or dinnertime.” We rode bikes. We played kick the can. We were out building forts, swimming, and that was a really foundational part of my life.
I also realized growing up as a kid and being a person of color in a place like Eugene, there were definitely a lot of challenges and weird undercurrents that I felt. And being a kid, I felt like sometimes adults just didn’t understand and didn’t put enough trust in kids and their feelings.
So it’s something that resonated with me, and I wanted to make sure to be able to give back. I like being outside, I like to play, and I think kids keep it pretty honest and pretty straightforward.
We know there are a lot of people who haven't felt safe or welcome exploring the outdoors, especially communities of color. What role do you see Metro playing in changing that?
I think Metro has a great opportunity to change that — because the three-county area that it serves, a lot of that is open space. And there are definitely communities of color that are moving here.
There’s an opportunity to have a real positive dialogue. And I think nature and parks create community spaces where people come and gather, whether it's intentionally or unintentionally.
There’s a lot of opportunity to provide interpretative signs that let people know more about the history there and the community. And because there’s a big population of folks in the area and we do have access to parks and nature, we can make that happen.
One of the challenges is, sometimes it’s transportation and sometimes it’s access and awareness. So those will be some of the opportunities to address as well.
But it’s going to take a lot of work, and there’s going to be missteps and there’s going to be successes and challenges. I think we just have to be open to the process and really living it. Which means asking questions and informing ourselves as a department and as individuals, and being bold and brave to take on this work.
Awesome. So tell me about one of your favorite places to spend time outdoors.
I love to fly fish. I don’t go catching, necessarily. But I like to go fishing and go out there. I spend a good amount of time at McIver Park, and I like getting out to Oxbow. So, I guess, a lot of time on the Sandy River and the Clackamas River.
What do you love about fly fishing?
My dad was into fishing, and he would take us since we were kids. You get up early and get the can of worms and just go out there, be peaceful and be in nature.
What I like about fly fishing is that it’s a little bit more involved. I’m not the kind of person that wants to go and just sit. I like to be doing something. With fly fishing, half the time I’m trying to put on a different fly or make sure I’m not tangled. And it, for me, is a really quiet, peaceful way to make it more challenging to catch fish.
Because I'm not out there really trying to catch fish; I’m finding an excuse to be out in nature. Fly fishing provides an opportunity to think a little bit more creatively, a little different, and be challenged in a different way.
You have one-year-old twins, right?
Yeah, 14 months.
How has that experience changed your perspective on nature or on public service?
It’s changed me, overall, a lot. One of the biggest things is about the sense of control and the reality of how little control I really have over anything in my life, except for my attitude and my actions.
In terms of service, that’s just something that’s been baking in my DNA. My mom teaches and is all about social justice. My dad worked in state and federal probation for pretty much all of his career. So service is a big part of me, and that’s something that I wanted to instill in my kids and let them see.
In terms of nature, that was one of the first things I wanted to do. I was chomping at the bit to say, “Oh, let’s go take them out here. Let’s go there. Let’s go camping.” And my wife had to be like, “They’re two months old, so you’ve got to just pump your brakes a little bit. Let’s get the basics down.”
I’m just excited to give them that opportunity, and to see the world again through their eyes. To be excited about all the little things.