It was perfect, accidental timing that after 14 years working as a natural resource scientist at Metro, Kate Holleran’s last contribution to Our Big Backyard was for the edition announcing Chehalem Ridge Nature Park was open. From nearly the day Metro purchased the 1,200-acre tree farm in Washington County, Holleran led the work to transform a monoculture into a thriving, resilient network of forests, savannahs and wetlands.
Holleran has been Our Big Backyard’s unofficial columnist, taking readers with her to natural areas across the region, showing how a natural resource scientist looks at a landscape. Ever a teacher, Holleran is also a student, and over the past several years she’s shifted her views on human interactions with nature, who is an expert on plants and animals, and what her role is in helping create a more diverse conservation profession.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What’s the biggest highlight of your work at Metro?
I have to start with Chehalem. When we became the stewards for that piece of land, it had all the simplicity you associate with a tree farm. For decades it had been either in agriculture that you associate with single crops, or it was covered almost entirely in Douglas fir. Over the years, primarily through forest thinning, we were able to increase the numbers and kinds of native plants in the understory. All of that resulted in a wider variety of wildlife using the site. Plus we know that keeping the forest healthy is good for water quality, too. It’s exciting and humbling to watch those changes happen.
Another reflection I have about the last 14 years, is how important helping people connect to the land is for our well-being. Honestly, I was one of those people who said, people bad; wild good. I was seeing the land through the lens of the damage some humans have done. But I’ve re-learned through working with community members how important it is for people to be able to connect with nature. People plus the wild doesn’t have to result in harm – we can all help take care of the land.
What sparked that change in you?
It was really by listening to community members talk about their reverence for and desire to be in nature. I share that value. That caused me to re-think my attitude about bringing people into wild places. These lands that Metro takes care of are the people’s lands, and I’m not a gatekeeper protecting the land from everyone else. I can help make the land a little healthier in the short term, and I can help connect people to the land.
How did all this affect how you approach conservation and stewardship?
We need all our wisdom to help us take care of the earth. For a long time, the dominant approach has been western science. It hasn’t been sufficient because there is so much we still do not understand about our ecosystems. Sometimes it’s been wrong, and we’ve been slow to recognize when it is. I still think science needs to be a foundation of land stewardship, with a big dose of humility. And exploring the intersection of western science, traditional ecological knowledge, and other ways of understanding the land may help us be better stewards.
How does a place like Metro start that work?
We need to recruit and hire people of color. The “we” that’s doing it probably shouldn’t be all the white people in the room. Maybe it should be a stakeholder group that is predominantly people of color. I think it’s going to take time and be intentional.
Metro was designed and built by white people, so the lens that we see through is still the dominant culture that excluded a lot of groups from decision making and access. We must examine everything we do.
We know from the history of conservation, the history of national forests and parks, those places were created by removing the original inhabitants of the land and excluding people of color. Moving forward we must find ways to make conservation and land stewardship racially just. The way to do that is to make a lot of space for more voices.
A lot of white people who value racial equity hear that and think that making space means they should step back and not speak. That’s not what you mean, though.
A white person who is trying to be supportive and just shuts up isn’t being intellectually honest. We need to have rigorous conversation about how to protect the earth and restore the landscape. Those conversations can include traditional ecological knowledge, western science, and other frameworks for land stewardship. I bring my experience and my understanding of western science. I can show up, listen first, and I can bring my intellectual contributions to the conversation.
This isn’t a conversation only between conservation professionals. We need to support community groups that are focused on uplifting their communities and connecting them to the land. Allow community groups to lead conservation discussions. Will the priorities be the same as mine? Probably not, but inclusion is one of the first steps to equity in the outside.