For state parks, there are park rangers. For the Willamette River, there is Scott Youngblood.
Scott is the Willamette River Greenway Ranger for Oregon State Parks, responsible for maintaining 2,800 acres of public land along the Willamette River. Some days, that means going out in a boat to survey invasive weeds on the riverbanks. Other days, like when I met up with him, it means taking a chainsaw to a massive fallen tree to clear a boat ramp.
“I hardly ever have two days that are the same,” says Scott. “That’s one of the many reasons I love my job.”
Being a ranger is physically demanding, but the recreation focus of the job means a lot of interaction with the public too. With a gentle Georgia drawl and an approachable, unflappable manner, Scott negotiates both worlds with ease. He has the kind of calm authority that makes you think he knows his part of the river better than anyone. And, since he’s on it most days and in all seasons, he just might.
Scott’s territory extends from Albany upstream into the Middle and Coast Forks south of Eugene. It’s the part of the Willamette that sees the most seasonal change – high winter flows bring giant fallen cottonwoods, new gravel bars and side channels to the river every year. And in the past few years, it has become the focal point of several new projects to improve water quality and habitat.
Restoration work has been going on for years in the Willamette’s tributaries through local watershed councils. This has allowed communities to take more ownership in restoring their watersheds. But the big river, the mainstem Willamette, was largely overlooked. That has started to change.
“…There is no mainstem watershed council. [But a lot of groups] are stepping out of their watershed or their normal work area and doing mainstem projects now,” says Scott. “It’s really ramping up, which is nice to see.”
One of the biggest challenges for on-the-ground restoration work along the mainstem Willamette is battling invasive weeds, which choke out the native plants that provide a varied and healthy home for birds and mammals. Scott and many others participate in Early Detection and Rapid Response, a partnership-driven approach to finding and removing certain new, highly destructive weeds before they spread.
With five years on the job, Scott finds a lot to be encouraged about these days. Yet covering over 100 miles of river can get overwhelming. So what keeps him going when the task feels too big?
A photo of a field, hanging above his desk. Before Scott and his crew got to it, the field had been choked with 10-foot tall blackberry bushes.
“The next spring, it was a huge camas field… the whole probably 5 or 6 acres was nothing but purple. When I get so frustrated with all the weeds and how much there is to do, I can just look at that picture and say: Oh. That’s why you do it. You know, that’s what you’re here for.”
Scott’s next project is to take that field one more step, to fully restore the oak savanna that existed before the weeds took over. He’ll get there little by little, but for now there are more parks to check on.