Continuing Over a Century of Conservation at Bird Alliance of Oregon

by Quinn Read, Conservation Director

I did not grow up in an outdoorsy household, nor was I heir to any particular conservation ethic. My family went car camping, sure, but that’s because we were poor, not because we could identify any profound connection to the landscape. We lived in the suburbs of Tacoma and the closest thing we had to a natural area was a large undeveloped lot we called “The Field.” The Field is now just another indistinguishable housing development, but back then it was a wide-open space where the neighborhood kids tore around on bikes and adults absconded to engage in all manner of illicit activities.

Quinn Read at the Sanctuary
Quinn Read at Bird Alliance of Oregon Wildlife Sanctuary

Clover Creek meandered through the northern end of The Field, and it was a lovely place to wade among the tadpoles and crawdads. Or it would have been if it wasn’t always filled with trash. Washing machines, rebar, toilet seats, shoes, beer cans, used condoms. You name it, people had tossed it in the creek. As a kid, I was plagued by typical childhood fears—being murdered by the Green River killer, burning to death in a house fire, and not having anyone to sit next to at school assemblies. But the trash heap was different. The summer I turned 13, I began to experience a growing unease that we were maybe, possibly, not doing quite right by the earth.

I enlisted a couple of friends to join me in a project to haul the trash out of the creek. It was disgusting. And so satisfying. (It was also a miraculously tetanus-free experience.) I spent my summer days pulling garbage out of the water and dragging it to a nearby road where it could be picked up by the city. It felt so good to encounter a problem and then be able to do something about it. I wanted more of that feeling.

Later that year, I identified a list of life goals. Among them, I endeavored to graduate from high school with honors, get into a good college, visit the tropical rainforest, fall madly in love with a “tall, buff guy,” and be famous. Ah, youth. But the very first goal on my list was to “make a dramatic impact on the outcome of the environment.” What. Does. That. Even. Mean? Still, I have to give that kid some credit for her earnestness and sense of purpose.

When I got my driver’s license, I had the freedom to pursue my ambitions. I looked up environmental organizations and started making calls. My pitch was that I was 16 and sincerely interested in doing a thing for the environment. There were no takers.

It was discouraging, but I kept at it. Eventually, I came upon Tahoma Bird Alliance of Oregon Society. I called the number, and it was my great fortune that Thelma Gilmur answered. After so many rejections, I was surprised when she invited me to come to the office. In the years that followed, I learned from Thelma and her fellow co-founder of Tahoma Bird Alliance of Oregon Society, Helen Engle, what it meant to dedicate one’s life to activism on behalf of the natural world.

With Thelma’s guidance, I helped in the office, wrote newsletter articles, and participated in the Birdathon. Among my many adventures, I did restoration work on Morse Wildlife Preserve, studied salmon redds, and made bird study skins at the University of Puget Sound Museum of Natural History. As an aside, the professor leading us in making study skins was handling a duck carcass. During our lunch break, he held the sawdust-covered viscera of the duck in his left hand, and a turkey sandwich in his right. Gross. I remember thinking: This is the most powerful human being who has ever lived.

Quinn at 16, volunteering at Pt. Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, taking the ambassador llama out for a stroll.

That’s it! That’s how I got here. With college and law school in between. And some minor career detours including stints at the FBI, a PR firm, a caramel-corn stand, a brewpub, the University of Washington, a law firm (the front desk of the law firm), and a dog-walking outfit.

When I moved to Portland in 2012, I was determined to get back on the life path that 13-year-old me had seen so clearly. It took a while to get in the mix, but for the last decade, I’ve worked for both state and national nonprofit organizations to protect Oregon’s wildlife and the habitats they depend on.

I’ve been deeply involved in diverse multistakeholder forums to adopt more humane trap-check regulations and update Oregon’s wolf conservation plan. I’ve advocated before the Fish and Wildlife Commission to secure better protections for species like beavers, Marbled Murrelets, and southern resident orcas. I’ve also worked in the legislature to advance policies to prevent poaching, address wildlife trafficking and the spread of zoonotic disease, and to secure funding to promote coexistence and habitat connectivity. And I’ve sued the federal and state government to get their act together to protect species like Humboldt martens and Marbled Murrelets. However, it’s my work alongside community members—organizing lobby days, community science projects, and advocacy workshops—that keep me grounded.

Quinn speaking at a rally for water and wildlife on the front steps of the Oregon State Capitol.

So, what’s my conservation ethic now? Not one of us is an island. Our well-being is deeply, inextricably linked to the natural world and every living thing in it. The world is a hot mess, but we are working to find our way through together. The world is also achingly beautiful, and we get to experience it together. Work collaboratively whenever possible. Fight whenever necessary. Maintain a sense of humor. Decenter myself (an ongoing challenge). Get adequate sleep. Stay hydrated. Listen. Adapt. Evolve. Always evolve. Be true. And get after it.

This work is hard. It’s occasionally exhilarating. But more often it’s frustrating, exhausting, even demoralizing. I don’t think there is any surviving this work alone. Not for the long run, anyway. My resilience, motivation, and purpose depend upon community—in every sense of the word. The colleagues I work with day to day. The volunteers who give so generously of their time. The members of the public who speak up for wildlife and wild places. And to the kiddos (hi, Malcolm!) who remind me why this work matters.

Quinn birding in the Klamath Basin during the Winter Wings Festival.

This opportunity to work with Bird Alliance of Oregon feels like coming full circle. I inherited this role from an incomparable conservationist and activist—my friend and colleague, Bob Sallinger. I am deeply humbled to join an organization that has been shaped by visionary leaders like Bob. It is an honor to be a part of this unparalleled community of staff, activists, volunteers, students (of all ages), and supporters. I look forward to getting to know you all and working with you, together for nature.