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Tualatin Riverkeepers tap Mike Skuja as new leader

After months of searching, the Tualatin Riverkeepers have a new executive director

SkujaMike Skuja has lived in the Caribbean, Central America, East Africa, South Asia and Europe.

But now he’s calling Tualatin home.

The 32-year-old Wisconsin native has been named the new head of the Tualatin Riverkeepers, a conservation organization dedicated to the protection of Washington County’s only river.

The Riverkeepers organization has been searching for a new executive director since this summer, when former director Monica Smiley left to take a similar position with the Tryon Creek State Natural Area on Southwest Terwilliger Boulevard.

Skuja brings with him a wide variety of experience. A trained wildlife biologist and human geographer, his former employers include the National Geographic Society, United Nations Environment Programme-World Conservation and Monitoring Centre, the Nature Conservancy and Defenders of Wildlife.

He has worked to reduce human-lion conflict in Tanzania, promoted eco-tourism ventures in Panama, and speaks Spanish, Swahili and Portuguese.

So what brings him to Tualatin?

“My background is a combination of domestic and international conservation, but my real passion has always been local conservation,” Skuja told The Times on Tuesday. “Rivers are so peaceful. I grew up on rivers and lakes in Wisconsin.”

That varied background has deepened his passion for environmental conflict resolution while instilling a desire to work with diverse audiences, which appealed to the Riverkeepers.

“Mike’s global and diverse experiences, along with his energy and enthusiasm will help craft the next exciting chapter of the Tualatin Riverkeepers,” said Lynn Carver, the Riverkeepers’ board president. “Under his leadership, we will expand our outreach to more communities within the Tualatin River system with education, recreation and advocacy.”

Skuja took over at the Tualatin Riverkeepers on Monday, and said he wants to work with young people to get them excited about the Tualatin River and show them why the watershed is relevant in their day-to-day lives, both economically and ecologically.

“I want to make it cool for younger generation to be on the river,” he said.

A Wisconsin native, Skuja recently moved from Washington, D.C., where he worked with growing smaller nonprofits and served as a faculty member at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

Education is something that he said he wants to do more of at Riverkeepers.

“Students are underestimated, but I want to get students engaged and get them on the river as well,” he said.

Skuja has big shoes to fill. Smiley left a decade of service at the Riverkeepers, which included expanding the group’s recreational programs, changed the direction of its restoration work and built up its education program for children.

Riverkeepers advocates for storm-water regulations, sponsors recreational and educational trips and runs stewardship programs along 83 miles of river and hundreds of miles of creeks, streams and other parts of the watershed.

The river has come a long way in the past several decades, Skuja said, and that work needs to continue.

It wasn’t long ago that the river was on the brink of extinction due to heavy pollutants.

The Riverkeepers formed, in part, to help ensure 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.

Skuja said the Riverkeepers are on the right track, and that Smiley and others at the organization have done a lot of work to get the Tualatin River into the forefront of people’s minds.

“There’s a lot of momentum already,” Skuja said. “We need to combat the stereotype of the river being polluted. Now we want to get people out there and connecting with it and recreating on the river.”

Spreading the message of the Riverkeepers shouldn’t be too hard, Skuja said, because the Northwest is famous for its love of its natural areas.

“Ever since I touched down in Portland, there is so much that is locally focused about Oregon,” he said. “This is the first time I walked into a store and saw everything labeled as ‘local.’ Everyone cares about the local environment.”

Skuja plans to tour the river and watershed this week and familiarize himself with the area, he said.

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