New district ranger lands job she’s long wanted

Scott Swanson

New Sweet Home District Ranger Nikki Swanson found her calling in a summer job.

Swanson, who, incidentally, has no known relationship with the writer, had graduated from the University of Oregon in 1992 after majoring in biology and minoring in English.

She traveled with a veterinarian to see if that was what she was interested in, then tutored summer school students to determine if teaching was for her. It wasn’t.

Then she got a job with the Ore- gon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“That was amazing,” she said last week of her first experience accompanying a fisheries biologist.

“We were snorkeling, we were hiking in the high mountain lakes, we were doing fish counts, we were doing sanding in the rivers – a lot of hands-on stuff near water and with fish.

“I thought, ‘You know, I didn’t even know this was a job, but this is what I want to do.’”

She got a job surveying streams for the Forest Service and, while doing that, she had another thought.

“From the time I was a stream surveyor, I looked at that district ranger job and I said, ‘Some day. Some day, that’s the job I want.’

“Because it’s just the perfect intersect between natural resources and community, and both are really important to me.”

Swanson, 46, was named Sweet Home District Ranger in April after serving as interim ranger twice in the district, in 2007 after Mike Rassbach left and until Melanie Glossa took over, and again this year after Cindy Glick, who replaced Glossa, retired.

Swanson grew up in Veneta and graduated from Elmira High School in 1987. Then Nikki Swets, she attended the University of Oregon on an academic scholarship and walked on to the track team, where she mostly ran the 800 meters (half mile) and earned a track scholarship as well.

“I ran in the Prefontaine Classic before you had to be amazing,” she said. “It was pretty cool.”

Her family was outdoorsy and enjoyed camping and fishing, she said. Her mom’s side included “a lot of loggers.” She and her father, particularly, fished “a lot” while she was growing up.

“I just enjoyed the outdoors. I knew I wanted to do something in biology and English, but I didn’t really know what was open.”

After that first job, doing stream surveys in 1990 in the Lowell Ranger District, now part of the Middle Fork Ranger District, Swanson was accepted for a Forest Service scholarship program that paid for her to earn a master’s degree in fisheries at Oregon State University in 1994.

She moved up the ladder in the fisheries arm of the USFS, then left to work for the BLM office in Eugene for two years after being advised that she needed to gain experience outside the Forest Service if she wanted to rise higher.

“I stayed in the same watershed, but I quote, unquote, left.”

When she returned to the USFS, it was as Aquatics Program manager in the supervisor’s office of the Willamette National Forest, dealing with fisheries, watersheds, soils and lakes. She stayed there for 14 years before taking her current position.

“Some of the projects that have been done on this district, in particular, are amazing,” she said. “We’ve learned a lot throughout the decades of trying to do stream restoration. Early on, we tried to cable things down and make them stay, then we realized that root wads are what we need to get things to stick, especially in these systems that have had all the wood removed and didn’t already have that.

“It’s pretty incredible. You take a stream like Soda Fork that had zero redds (spawning beds), zero steelhead. Two years later, these trees have collected enough sediment that you have 20 redds, or something like that.

“If you build it they will come. There they are. You actually feel like you’re doing something, you’re making a difference that the fish likes. That’s a pretty cool feeling.”

Now she’s turning her attention to other, “multi-use,” goals for the district.

“I want people to come and recreate and enjoy themselves, and I also want us to provide products, whether it’s special forest products or firewood or timber. I like that we can do that. That’s important.

“One of my goals for the future is that the Sweet Home Ranger District is producing a steady supply of timber every year.”

She said the district has three upcoming timber sales in the works – Jude Ridge, Trout Creek and in the Calapooia. The Jude Ridge project is a less complex subset of the larger Trout Creek project and she said the Forest Service has decided to get it moving first.

“It’s ‘Can we get some timber out the door while we do more complex work?’” she said.

Not only is thinning necessary, she said, but revenue from timber sales can keep forest roads open and take care of other needs.

She’s still very interested in water.

“Clean water is very important to me, not just because of my fisheries background,” Swanson said.

She said the district will continue to work with the South Santiam All-Lands Collaborative, which is aiming to create a Community Forest east of Sweet Home, with a trail running along the river from Sweet Home to the Willamette National Forest.

“It’s been an amazing partnership for this district and it will definitely continue into the future,” Swanson said.

Swanson said she’s looking forward to it all and she wants to get involved in the community, though she and her husband will likely not move here from the Eugene area until their daughters, a senior and a sophomore in high school, graduate.

“I’ve always wanted to be district ranger. I just think it’s the perfect job and it’s what I’ve always wanted. So I’m just thrilled to have this opportunity.”