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Riverkeepers' head reflects on decade of expansion

by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ -  Monica Smiley is leaving her job as the head of Tualatin Riverkeepers for Tryon Creek State Natural Area. Smiley, has served as executive director of the Riverkeepers since 2007, and helped expand the nonprofit to include recreational and educational programs.After a decade on the Tualatin River, Monica Smiley is moving on.

Smiley, who has served as executive director of Tualatin Riverkeepers since 2007, is leaving at the end of this month to accept a similar job at nearby Tryon Creek State Natural Area, an urban state park on Southwest Terwilliger Boulevard in Portland.

“I’ve been (at the Riverkeepers) 10 years, and I really feel like I’ve put my stamp on it,” said Smiley.

Smiley is taking over as leader of the Friends of Tryon Creek, a nonprofit organization that provides education and stewardship programs in the state park.

For Smiley, who started at the Riverkeepers as a volunteer coordinator in 2003, the move is bittersweet.

“It’s hard to leave the Riverkeepers, they are very much my family,” she said.

As a girl growing up along Puget Sound, Smiley used to sneak onto private property along the beach to check out sea stars, sand dollars and other marine life.

“I have always loved being out in nature,” said Smiley. “I’ve always loved poking nature with a stick.”

That love has transitioned into a career in environmental stewardship that can be seen all along the river.

Under Smiley’s lead, the Riverkeepers expanded its recreational programs, changed the direction of its restoration work and built up its education program for children.

The Riverkeepers runs on about $350,000 a year, which it collects through private donations, grants and fees from summer camps and rental fees. The Riverkeepers offer canoe and kayak rentals at Cook Park through September.

Today, Riverkeepers serves children all across the Portland area through school field trips and summer day camps.

“Growing that piece has been really inspiring for me,” she said.

Smiley said she was drawn to Tryon Creek because of its educational program.

“My passion is education and connecting people to nature,” she said. “Natural places are important to our personal health, and they have even more value if we get to touch it and be in it.”

Tryon Creek serves about 7,500 children every year through its field trips and camps, Smile said.

When she decided to leave the Riverkeepers, Tryon Creek was an obvious choice, Smiley said.

“My backyard is in the Tualatin River watershed, and my front yard is in the Tryon Creek watershed,” said Smiley, who lives in Multnomah Village. “No joke. It’s a good spot to be.”

At Friends of Tryon Creek, Smiley will be responsible for fundraising for the organization and overseeing the parks education and stewardship programs.

It’s a similar role to what Smiley has done for the past six years with the Riverkeepers.

While the jobs are similar, the scope is certainly different. On the river, Smiley’s group has advocated for storm-water regulations, sponsored recreation and educational trips and run stewardship programs along 83 miles of river and hundreds of miles of creeks, streams and other parts of the watershed.

With her new post at Friends of Tryon Creek, Smiley will work within 1 square mile of parkland, primarily in education programs.

Smiley said groups like Riverkeepers and Tryon Creek are incredibly important because they work to keep nature and the natural world in the forefront of people’s minds.

“The Riverkeepers are there every step of the way, working on water-quality issues and removing barriers to get people outside,” Smiley said.

Big change in perception

Smiley said she has seen a surge in activity on the river over the past several years.

When Smiley started with the Riverkeepers a decade ago, the river was seldom used, Smiley said.

“But this past Saturday, there was probably 100 people launching just from Cook Park,” Smiley said. “That’s a big change in 10 years.”

It’s a far cry from a few decades ago, when the river was on the brink of extinction due to heavy pollutants.

The Riverkeepers formed, in part, to help make sure the river returned to its natural state. The agency works to decrease the amount of contaminants that make their way into the river every day.

“(Contaminants from storm drains) is the No. 1 source of pollution in the Tualatin,” Smiley said.

The Riverkeepers work with businesses and local agencies to reduce the amount of pollution in the river.

“Has there been a change in water quality in the river? Yes. Has there been a change in perception to the river? Oh yeah,” she said. “We can see it.”

Smiley takes over at Friends of Tryon Creek in September.

Boat rentals from Tualatin Riverkeepers are available Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through September at Cook Park, 17005 S.W. 92nd Ave., Tigard.

What will the next director of the Riverkeepers need?

Smiley said it will take someone special.

“What we’ve done is created the outreach to be able to make the river accessible, but how do we make the mission accessible?” Smiley asked. “How can we share the work we’re doing in a way that everyone can understand?”

Now, Smiley said, the people crafting the environmental movement sound very collegiate, “but health, clean water, science, education that is for everybody,” Smiley said. “How can we share that? We need to do that technical advocacy work but also broaden the scope of the environmental movement.”

It’s a fine balance, Smiley said.

“They need to think outside the box. And maybe it’s not someone who is already inside the environmental movement. Maybe it’s better if they aren’t.”

Applications for the Riverkeepers’ executive director position — which will pay between $45,000 and $75,000 a year — are due by Sept. 6.



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