I’ve never been one to plan things too far in advance. Vacations and hiking trips maybe, but not life. Not a career path certainly. Did I ever think I would live in Oregon? Maybe. Did I ever think I would be working to protect the largest remaining coastal sand dunes in North America? Probably not. But as the wind blows, so I am here.
I first saw the Oregon Dunes when I was seven years old. I was very fortunate in this regard as a child – my parents loved taking the most ridiculous family road trips. My mother was an elementary school teacher, and had summers off, and my father was often between jobs; leaving us plenty of time for exploration. That particular summer, my father picked us up right after the last day of school and we drove all the way to Alaska. From Tennessee. Didn’t even go back home first, just hopped in the van and off we went. 8 weeks and probably 20,000 miles later we finally came home, just before the start of the next school year. Out of all the amazing things I saw that summer long ago, the Oregon Dunes stick out in the mind the most. Sure, we had also seen the Badlands, Glacier National Park, the Canadian Rockies, and even Denali on a majestically clear day. But the towering hills of sand on the Oregon coast are what I remember the most.
Nearly twenty-five years later I stand on those same sand dunes. Now I am charged with protecting and restoring them. The Oregon Dunes are disappearing – literally being swallowed by invasive plants that are covering this fragile and unique ecosystem. If nothing is done, within a generation these sand dunes will be nothing more than grassy hills. More than 400 species of plants and wildlife, many found no place else on Earth, will be replaced with a uniform scrubland. More than half a million visitors a year come here, for hiking, camping, and ATV riding. Tourism is an important part of the economy of the small coastal towns near the dunes. To say that a lot is at stake is an understatement.
My work with the RARE program is to help the Oregon Dunes Restoration Collaborative build capacity to become the robust organization it needs to be in order to address the threats to this landscape. Currently the ODRC is a working collaborative with several stakeholders. The Siuslaw National Forest owns and manages the land, and has convened this group to bring more partners and individuals to the table. While the threat is great, we are lucky in other ways. This is no fight over whether to protect or exploit a resource. ATV riders and environmental groups are in agreement. The open sands of the dunes are being lost, and we all need open sand. There will be plenty of room for Snowy Plover to lay their eggs on the beaches, and for ATVs to zoom across the higher dunes inland. But European beach grass will take all of that away if we don’t work to restore the dunes.
Thus far, successes have been hard to measure. It’s going to take a concentrated effort and millions of dollars in restoration projects to truly protect the Oregon dunes. We will honestly never remove European beach grass from the coast. And if we succeed in exterminating it from the dunes, there will always be a need for maintenance to prevent it from growing in again. At times, the work is happening at the slowest of paces. About as slow as the dunes themselves move. My time in RARE is teaching me patience, and continuing to remind me to keep the big picture in mind. “Success” for this year might be writing a strategic plan that will guide the work of the ODRC. The group is not its own independent 501c3 non-profit yet. Part of my work will be to build the framework so that they can potentially apply for non-profit status. Thus far I have gotten the various committees of the ODRC to meet more regularly, set action steps, and begin seeking funding for projects. I have launched our social media pages and e-newsletter, given presentations to elected officials and other stakeholders, and scheduled tours out on the dunes. I have created a wide variety of documents to help track and coordinate the various pieces of the collaborative. Much of what I have done has been to set up systems that the ODRC will use for years to come. I hope to have my own grand success story at the end of this term. Something more tangible like a large grant received or a huge event planned. If not, I have at least helped build capacity within this organization so that they can tackle the threat of invasive beach grasses. Sometimes that internal work is what is needed the most.
I think back to how I got here. How I physically arrived at this point, and how I became the person I am today. The winds have blown all over the place. I have managed youth conservation crews, installed stormwater infrastructure, taught kayaking, promoted bicycle transportation, and now, am preserving a unique coastal ecosystem. I have worked in the environmental field, almost always for nonprofit organizations, for ten years now. It certainly has been rewarding but challenging as well. The RARE program is often the beginning of a great new career for the young professionals in the program. I wonder if, for me, it is the end. At least the end of doing such direct environmental work. The winds seem to be blowing in new directions now. At least for the next few years I am feeling the need to step away to avoid burning out.
The winds that shape the Oregon dunes can be ferocious. Strong summer winds whip up the sand into a stinging barrage. Winter storms push heavy wet sand to form the massive interior dunes. It is an ecosystem totally shaped by wind. And yet, on some days you may never notice them at all. We can’t always see or feel the forces that shape our world. We can’t always feel the winds that shape our lives. Yet we cannot deny that they are present. We cannot ignore the effect they have on the landscape in front of us. If my year in RARE ends and I have shaped the ODRC into a more robust organization, I can be content with that. The wind doesn’t need to be thanked for shaping the dunes.
A bit about the author, Jeff Malik:
- Currently serving as Outreach Coordinator for the Oregon Dunes Restoration Collaborative
- Jeff earned a Bachelors in Geography from University of Tennessee and a Masters in Public Administration from the University of Dayton
- People may be surprised when they learn that I am a passionate amateur artist.