On a surprisingly clear January morning after days of showers, Rosario Franco drives an ATV down a muddy path along Multnomah Channel across from Sauvie Island.
After a couple of minutes, he reaches a clearing where several crews are spread out busily planting red-osier dogwood, Douglas spirea, Pacific ninebark, hawthorne, Pacific willow, ash and more into the wetlands and fields. Over several days, the crews will plant 35,000 native plants, part of the 175,000 plants that went into the ground over the course of the fall and winter at Metro’s Multnomah Channel Marsh Natural Area.
It’s been 20 years since Franco first started working at the site. Franco and his family are originally from Mexico, and after working alongside his father for a decade in Oregon, he opened his own firm in 1996. Crews from R. Franco Restoration have been working at Metro natural areas since 1997.
“The water, habitat, wildlife – there are so many benefits,” said Franco, looking around at plants he and his crews planted over the years. “I really enjoy being outside and seeing how the projects change. Every year I come here there are changes, and you see different birds.”
Diversifying the region’s restoration workforce has grown increasingly important in recent years as Metro and other organizations in greater Portland invest more in businesses owned by people of color, women and veterans and emerging small businesses. Parks and nature has historically been a predominantly white career field, and investing more resources in economic equity is one of the primary goals of Metro’s Parks and Nature Racial Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan.
With the latest round of restoration contracts, Metro natural resources scientist Curt Zonick and natural resource specialist Kristina Prosser worked with the Parks and Nature Equity Advisory Committee to make the bureaucratic process of government contracts more accessible to diverse business owners. This year’s process included conducting in-person interviews with potential contractors so people could talk more freely rather than relying on the traditional request-for-proposals process that emphasizes writing skills.
“We’ve learned in the past that some of our best-performing contractors gave us poor proposals,” said Zonick. “Several firms this year took the time to say they appreciated the interview process.”
Similarly, workforce development has emerged as a main theme in Metro’s community investments. About a third of the Nature in Neighborhoods community grants currently support workforce development programs, including ones at Voz, Wisdom of the Elders, Forest Park Conservancy and Verde Landscape, Tualatin Hill Park & Recreation District, and Portland Opportunities Industrialization Center and Rosemary Anderson High School.
“When you’re looking at the current restoration workforce and where you want to be in 10 years, you have to look at education and training programs so people from diverse backgrounds can have those jobs in the future,” said Crista Gardner, who manages Nature in Neighborhoods community grants.
Franco is similarly invested in sharing information and the lessons he has learned during his decades in the restoration business. For the project at Multnomah Channel Marsh, Zonick paired Franco with a newer, emerging small business so Franco could help mentor them.
“I don’t think of it as competition,” Franco said. “If I do a good job, I’ll always have work. The more we help each other and teach each other, the better it’ll be for everybody. I think it’s very rewarding when you help other people.”