When you walk through Cooper Mountain Nature Park or ride your bike along the Springwater Corridor, you’re following in the footsteps of Jim Desmond.
Desmond arrived at Metro nearly two decades ago to launch the greater Portland region’s first natural areas program. Over the course of two bond measures and a levy, he helped transform voters’ investments into 14,000 acres of protected land, four new nature parks, hundreds of community projects, and 2.5 million new native trees and shrubs.
This month, Desmond left his post as director of Metro’s Sustainability Center to lead the Oregon chapter of The Nature Conservancy. First, he took time to reflect on the region’s movement to protect its iconic landscapes.
Q: Before you came to Metro, you worked on the campaign to pass the first successful natural areas bond measure for the region. Tell me a little bit about it.
A: I was working as a project manager for the Trust for Public Land at the time, and they assigned me as their liaison to the campaign. The sense of possibility was great. There was definitely confidence that the measure could pass, but it being so new, no one was quite sure. Looking back on it, interestingly, one of the questions that came up a lot was Metro’s capacity to do this work. Metro had never acquired a single acre of land at that point. So it was really all having to instill a sense of confidence in the public that this money would be well spent.
Q: So after the campaign you came to Metro to launch the natural areas program. What was it like that first day? How did you build a team?
A: It really couldn’t have been more “startup.” I tell people that it was like running this new real estate company in the basement of a government building, with the exception that we had $135 million in the bank, and a very clear mandate from the voters of what we were supposed to accomplish.
The first thing we did: the bond measure identified 16 regional target areas, and we went back out to the public and helped what we called the refinement process, to set goals in each of those areas. There was a tremendous amount of public outreach with this new staff. We were all out talking to community groups, watershed councils, neighborhood associations, neighbors, and learning about their aspirations for the area.
It became very critical when we began the acquisition process. We knew a lot about particular parcels and landowners, either because people were approaching us or we were doing our own research. So even though it was so startup, we really hit the ground running.
Q: When you talk about it “feeling startup,” did you have a sense what it would grow into?
A: To be honest, what’s achieved has been beyond my best-case scenario. When we got here, the 6,000-acre goal seemed really daunting. There was no national precedent for that. I tried to find a program somewhere else in the country that had done something similar, that I could go visit and learn from. What I found out was it just hadn’t been done at this scale in a metropolitan area. There were places that owned 6,000 acres, but they had acquired it all at once. It was daunting.
With a great vote of confidence from the voters, we did feel right from the get-go a sense of urgency. I tried to hire people who had real estate experience but also had a strong passion for our mission, people who really believed this was important. We were new and energetic; we were going to run through whatever brick wall we had to.
Q: Now, over the course of two bond measures and two decades, Metro has protected more than 14,000 acres. What comes to mind when you look across that portfolio?
A: To a certain extent, for me, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I can look at areas like the Tualatin River, where we’ve bought dozens of properties on the main stem of the river, some headwater sites on various creeks and numerous headwater sites on the 1100-acre Chehalem Ridge. Being the director, I have the privilege of having somewhat of a bird’s-eye view on the whole thing. I can see the huge impact that these two bond measures have had on these resources.
At the same time, when I really sit and think about it, there are individual places and people that I really gravitate to. There are certain places I’m just particularly fond of – Clear Creek, for example. We bought a 500-acre complex that was mostly a former ranch. It’s really a spectacular property; it’s state-park quality, one of the early things we bought. I hold a deep personal affection for that site and a number of others.
Wilsonville had a really interesting and complex acquisition history that I was in the thick of. We planted a couple hundred thousand trees and shrubs there. It’s one of our major restoration sites. I saw it when it was just scrub, when there was nothing there. So the transition of some of these properties in a relatively short amount of time has been extraordinary.
Q: Tell me about one place in the portfolio that seemed impossible when you started.
A: The highest degree of difficulty is a project that’s still in process: the Willamette Falls Legacy Project in Oregon City. The first time I visited the property I was completely overwhelmed by the cement, the 57 buildings there that encompass 900,000 square feet of industrial space, most of which was in an extremely dilapidated condition. It was like an incoherent labyrinth of buildings that were put together over a hundred years. You can’t walk through it with any sense of organization or structure.
Here’s this waterfall that’s by volume the second largest in North America. The first time you stand at the edge of the dam there and look at it, it’s such a staggering natural resource, your jaw drops. The idea that we could turn that into a public asset where people could walk out and have the same experience that I was having there, seemed worth doing. But when I got back to the office and thought about what I’d seen out there, it also seemed like the craziest, most audacious goal we could ever have.
Here we are, three years later. We have a public easement across the riverfront; we have a strong partnership with a private developer; we have partners at the state, county and city level; we’ve secured over $10 million in funds to begin the development of a public walkway. We’ve had thousands of citizens weigh in on their aspirations there and drafted a concept master plan for the future.
The site has now become an actual project. That would have seemed impossible just a couple of years ago.
Q: Metro has worked with a lot of partners to accomplish everything that’s taken place across the landscape. How have those partnerships developed, and what have they meant for the region?
A: That’s really the key to the success of this whole effort over the past 20 years: the involvement and also the increased capacity of those organizations. The bond measure has been a galvanizing force.
We’ve all learned from each other. Our science and natural resource staff has a great deal of expertise that we’ve shared with others; they know these local resources far better than we do. Together, we’ve been able to accomplish far more than either of us could have done alone. I’ve watched the growth of some of those organizations, not just in size but in sophistication. For example, the Johnson Creek Watershed Council and the Tualatin Riverkeepers, both of which have become powerhouse organizations in their parts of the region. Back in 1995 they were much smaller.
We’ve all been able to garner public support together because we had shared missions. We’re not competing with each other. Sometimes the public can get confused or cynical about these things, but we were all on the same page. To me, it’s probably been the most satisfying part of the whole job.
Q: In recent years, the partnerships have expanded beyond groups with an obvious connection to this work, to a broader look. Please expand on that aspect.
A: That’s been intentional on our part for a couple of reasons. One, we certainly recognize that government, at its best, does some things exceptionally well, but there are limitations to public agencies and there are things that nonprofits can do, in particular get foundation funds. They are eligible for funding that government is not eligible for. They have roots in the neighborhood, they have their own volunteer base. As community-centered organizations, they have deeply passionate staff members and volunteers who are as equally committed to the work as us and become an arm to accomplish the same things that we are trying to achieve on the ground. We’ve tried to build grant programs, volunteer programs, education programs that tapped into that energy in the community and helped it grow.
We tried to water the seeds, if you will, and facilitate the effectiveness and growth of some of those organizations. I would say that that strategy has worked. We talk around here about building a movement. There is a movement here; Metro didn’t build it – it really built itself. Our committed citizens reflected that at the ballot box and every day when they volunteer and donate and recreate.
Q: At the heart of it, why do you think voters continue to invest in and support this work?
A: I think people recognize that this region is remarkably blessed with extremely high-quality natural resources. There are few urban areas that can boast resources like the Clackamas and Sandy rivers, Cooper Mountain, the Multnomah Channel, tributaries like Clear Creek. Many metropolitan areas our size don’t have a single resource of that quality, whereas we have dozens. It’s why people want to move here. It’s why people’s children hope to find jobs and stay here. It’s why companies like KEEN Footwear and Columbia Sportswear are based here. It really is the fabric of who we are as Oregonians and, more specifically, as citizens of the Portland region.
Our clean air and water really define us and bring us together. These bond measures go straight to the heart of that mission and the opportunity to invest in our most important asset, to put ourselves and our community ahead, both for the present and the future. I think it was an extremely smart strategy that is paying dividends today. I think over time, those dividends will be even greater.
Q: We’ve talked about some of this, but you started with a land acquisition program that grew into restoration, grants, volunteers, conservation education, park planning and more. What has been the most exciting part of the expansion and the most difficult?
A: The most exciting part is to see the tent become broader. We’re seeing organizations like Self Enhancement Inc, an organization dedicated to the education and job training of African-American youth in the region, become very engaged, and Centro Cultural in Washington County. Besides Audubon and some of the more traditional partners, we’ve also been able to engage many less traditional partners. That has been extremely rewarding and important for the region.
Q: And the most difficult part of the expansion?
A: The most difficult part is that there remains – and to an extent, the media feeds – a deep cynicism about government. When you’re in a new situation, you’re sometimes asked to disprove a negative. People who don’t know us well or don’t know our track record have not always understood the level of natural resource expertise that we have.
I’ve had plenty of meetings where I’ve said we’ve planted 2 ½ million trees and shrubs, and people look at me like I’m kidding. They’re thinking, "How could I not know this?" Because it’s government, you have to prove yourself every day.
Q: As you know, Metro is developing a plan that will shape our system of regional parks and natural areas for decades to come. If we are bold, what can the region achieve?
A: We have the raw materials now in the way of 14,000 acres. Some of those might not be appropriate for public access – they’re too wet, too sensitive, too steep. But many of them could be spectacular nature parks. They don’t need a lot of bells and whistles. There are plenty of places where a simple, self-guided set of trails and maybe one bathroom and a small parking lot would allow thousands of citizens to experience and explore these places and really convert what we’ve done from places on a map to real place-making on the ground in ways that will become really special.
There are also terrific opportunities for conservation education, community building, work parties and community-based restoration projects. Just what we’ve seen from our experience with the three parks we opened a few years ago – Cooper Mountain in Beaverton, Graham Oaks in Wilsonville, and Mount Talbert in the Sunnyside area of Clackamas County – imagine if we had seven, eight, 10 more of those. The impact it would have in the community is significant.
On top of that, we’ve got 900 miles of trail segments that are shown on the regional plan adopted as future trails but haven’t been built yet. When you begin to link these places or link them to some regional centers like downtown Beaverton or downtown Hillsboro, schools or other natural areas, then you build a world-class system.
Q: What unfinished business do you have? What is the one thing you most want to see Metro accomplish in the next few years?
A: I would like to see the Willamette Falls project completed. We’ve brought it a long way, but it has a long way to go. That’s a high personal priority for me. That project will get harder before it gets easier. There will be setbacks in a project that complex. I urge my successors at Metro, in particular the Metro Council, to weather that storm and adjust to whatever complexities may occur over time.
I would also say I think it’s really important to not rest on what we’ve accomplished here, because the region will continue to grow at a rapid pace. We’ve hit on a very successful approach to land acquisition and site restoration and, as well as we’ve done, I don’t think anybody should be satisfied with this.
Q: Please share a little bit about what you’ll be doing at the Nature Conservancy.
A: The Nature Conservancy is an international conservation organization with offices in all 50 states and 35 countries. I will be the director of the Oregon chapter, working statewide.
The Nature Conservancy works on its own acquisitions and conservation projects. It owns more than 400,000 acres in the state but also has an active role in policy of conservation practices in both federal and state lands. So to allow me to work on a larger landscape and see some really exciting parts of the state — like high desert issues, the impact of the potential listing of sage grouse as an endangered species, the issue of water in the Klamath Basin — this will give me a chance to really apply what I have learned about conservation in some new and larger landscapes.
Q: Is there anything else you want to talk about?
A: I wanted to stress the importance of regional government.
This program worked in no small part because it looked at the natural resources at a regional level. We weren’t concerned about what city or county it fell into – it was all based on a regional approach. It transcended politics. Jurisdictional lines tend to be about government entities and boundaries that are, frankly, made up. They don’t matter to water or air quality, or to birds, salmon or elk.
I think you can extrapolate the same message to other things that make this region special. This is a regional economy. People recreate regionally, they live regionally. For most couples, one person works in one part of the region and the other person works in a different part. Their children may play soccer in another place. That’s just how we live, and to have a regional government that can think in those terms but also be bold enough to act in those terms, is extremely important for this region going forward.