In some ways Bob was always destined for Portland Audubon. In Massachusetts he grew up on Audubon Drive and spent countless hours exploring the Massachusetts Audubon’s headquarters at Drumlin Farm. Some things are set in childhood, and Audubon’s mission was indelibly marked in Bob’s DNA.
It won’t come as a surprise that it was a falcon that first brought Bob to Portland Audubon’s doors (although some may be surprised it wasn’t a Peregrine). After graduating from Reed College, Bob took a job with Pet Samaritan Veterinary Clinic where his responsibilities included taking care of stray animals and injured wildlife that were brought to the clinic. It was there that he met the much beloved Dr. Deb Sheaffer, who he would later recruit to join him at Audubon. One day, Elisabeth Neely, Bob’s girlfriend and future wife, arrived with an injured Prairie Falcon that she had found in Washington. They eventually made their way to Portland Audubon where they met Wildlife Care Center Director Katy Weil. Weil had an instinct about Bob and offered him a volunteer position and soon thereafter a staff position. One job led to another, and eventually a series of jobs led to a career.
Bob looks back fondly on those early days in the Wildlife Care Center. “I worked pretty much nonstop, lived with my dog in a VW bus in the Audubon parking lot, and survived on a diet of Old Crow and oranges, but I got to work with eagles and Peregrines, and that is about as cool as it gets for a 25-year-old hippie nature freak.” By 1996 he had become the Wildlife Care Center director, and during his 15 years there, he would oversee the care of more than 45,000 wild animals. When I asked Bob what he thought was the best part of his time with Portland Audubon, he did not hesitate: “Setting wild animals free.”
During his time in the Care Center, Bob used a small grant from Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to launch Portland Audubon’s Living with Wildlife program, the goal of which was to promote wildlife stewardship, reduce human-caused wildlife hazards, and humanely resolve human-wildlife conflicts. Over time Bob played a leading role in evolving this program into some of Portland Audubon’s most innovative conservation campaigns, including Cats Safe at Home, Bird-safe Buildings, Lights Out, anti-poaching, and the ubiquitous Backyard Habitat Certification Program.
It was also during this time that Bob launched Portland Audubon’s Peregrine Watch. Audubon had just come through the Spotted Owl Wars when endangered Peregrines began nesting on Portland-area bridges. Wildlife officials initially proposed relocating eggs and nestlings out of the city and into “safer” wildland nest sites. Inspired by his friend and mentor, Mike Houck, Bob argued that urbanites also had a responsibility to protect wildlife and proposed instead that Audubon initiate a program to monitor, research, protect, and engage the public with this amazing species. Eventually the program would expand to include the captive rearing and release of Peregrines using falcon puppets made by Bob’s wife, Elisabeth. Perhaps his most epic role (and something he still does to this day) was rappelling from Portland’s bridges to band young falcons. Not an easy task when concerned parents are dive-bombing you at 200 miles per hour, and he has a scar or two to prove it. But it was more than just Bob working on Peregrines. He created a community around the efforts, with a small army of volunteers taking on central roles including waiting in kayaks in the waters below bridges in case fledglings fell from their nests. More than a few were rescued that way.
During the 2000s, Bob’s role would expand to not only directing the Wildlife Care Center but also Audubon’s Urban and Statewide Conservation Programs. Bob’s work ethic is legendary, regularly putting in 70-80 hour work weeks and driving through the night and sleeping in his car to attend far-flung meetings around the state. In the mid-2000s, he put himself through law school at night while working full time at Audubon and raising two children under the age of three. Bob credits his ability to sustain this level of productivity over three decades to insomnia and his amazing wife, Elisabeth.
Bob’s conservation impacts stretch from the urban interior to the most remote regions of the state. His conservation work has always been guided by a single philosophy: collaborate when possible; fight when necessary. Locally, he has worked to protect urban natural areas, restore our urban waterways and floodplains, increase urban tree canopy and green roofs, clean up brownfields, advance wildlife-friendly policies and programs, and pass bond measures, levies, and other funding mechanisms that have generated billions of dollars to protect our natural environment and promote healthy urban landscapes for people and wildlife. “Our goal was not to just do projects on the urban landscape, but rather to instill conservation into the DNA of the system so that conservation becomes a basic part of every project,” says Sallinger. “And I was incredibly fortunate to learn from one of the best who has ever done this kind of work: Mike Houck.”
Statewide, Bob’s work has spanned Oregon’s forests, deserts, grasslands, and marine environments. He’s fought for Marbled Murrelets and Spotted Owls, to prevent wind turbines on Steens Mountain, to get adequate water to our wildlife refuges, and to prevent the slaughter of cormorants on East Sand Island. He counts among his favorite projects the collaborative efforts in Harney County to restore bird habitat on Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and surrounding privately owned floodplains. Years of 12-hour round trips to Eastern Oregon were required to build the relationships necessary to see progress. Sallinger notes that most of the real work was not done in the formal meetings but over post-meeting shots of whiskey at the Pine Room.
More recently Bob was instrumental in advancing both protection of the Elliott State Forest and the Private Forest Accords, which increase riparian protections across more than 10 million acres of private forestland in Oregon. After decades of deep conflict, diverse stakeholders were able to come together to chart a new path forward. At a time of unprecedented political polarization, both the Elliott and the Private Forest Accords advanced through the 2022 Oregon Legislature with strong bipartisan support. Bob recounts that as the ”bird guy” in fish-focused private forest accords, he was given responsibility for advancing protections for beaver and stream-dwelling amphibians. Bob credits his conservation colleagues: “I was the seventh most important person on a six-person negotiation team.” However, next time you run into Bob, ask him about the final hours of that all-day-and-night negotiation between timber interests and environmentalists, mediated by the governor. Let’s just say it came down to Bob holding out for salamanders in the eleventh hour, and Governor Brown agreeing that “we need to save those little guys.”
One of the best things about Bob is that at the end of the day, he’s truly an optimist (a curmudgeon-y optimist, as I call him). Years ago, in one of our countless long conversations in my office, Bob and I were talking about fossil fuel storage facilities on the Willamette River, and what would happen in the event of a big earthquake. He shared his philosophy, a way of looking at activism that has stayed with me: Even if you’re only able to fix 50% of a problem, you’re still reducing the problem by half. Focus on the things you can change. Bob works hard for every single victory. If he wins part of it now, you can bet he’ll be back for the rest. And boy does he play the long game, with some issues that have been ongoing for decades.
Bob’s specialty is the tough stuff. The unglamorous stuff that, while grueling, gets green policies built into the fabric of hardwired systems. The beautiful truth is there are far too many successes in Bob’s career to pay tribute to here. His mark has been made across the state. He doesn’t think two years out, or five years out. The conservation efforts he engages in are designed to be impactful 100 years into the future, long past time any of us will be reading this. Just as Finley’s contributions are still felt today, more than a century later.
I asked Bob why he stayed so long at Audubon in a field where the work is often transitory. “It is really about the community. There are lots of conservation organizations out there, but I have never seen one that has a more loyal and dedicated community. It has been an incredible privilege to work alongside so many amazing volunteers, staff, and partners for the past three decades. I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to have learned from and conspired with people like Mike Houck, Katy Weil, Dan Rohlf, Lynn Herring, Deb Sheaffer…far too many to mention…”
The good news is, while Portland Audubon is tearfully saying goodbye to one of our most incredible visionaries, the conservation movement hasn’t lost a thing. Bob will continue his journey as an advocate for wildlife, habitat, and people. We can’t wait to see what he’ll do next and how his work will continue to shape this place we all love so much. Mostly, we want to thank him for traveling this long and windy road with us for the past 30 years. We’ve been the lucky ones.