Talk NERRdy to Me: Deborah Rudd
Talk NERRdy to Me is a monthly column about leaders and luminaries from across our Reserves. This month, NERRA’s correspondent-at-large Nik Charov interviewed Deborah Rudd, public involvement coordinator at Oregon’s South Slough Reserve. South Slough was our first Reserve, so featuring them now is fitting given that we just welcomed our 30th. They talked about a “slough” of things—from the birth of the first Reserve and Indigenous collaboration to the best way to spoil volunteers and keep vandals from spoiling the view.
Nik: Hey there, Deborah Rudd, why was Oregon’s South Slough the first NERR?
Deborah: I think people in the community just showed that they really wanted a Reserve here.
Nik: But, but … the Coastal Zone Management Act was passed in 1972 and just TWO years later, there’s a NERR. Holy moley! People must have been excited?
Deborah: There were a lot of motivated people, but not everybody in the community was excited at first. The Friends of South Slough wasn’t formed until the mid 80’s. Some hunting and fishing is still allowed, and we’re surrounded by logging companies. We all work together to figure out how to move forward. We’re not the big threat that some thought we were going to be!
Nik: Has the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology always been there? Lovely to have them right up the road.
Deborah: They have been around since the 1920’s. Our former manager and a number of Reserve staff were students or taught there. We have a great partnership. Our lab is housed on their campus. It’s a great institution.
Nik: Say, how come you’re not a National Slough-erine Research Reserve?
Deborah: Probably to give people a mouthful of more difficult words to say.
Nik: At least people on the West Coast know what sloughs are. When did you get there?
Deborah: I started at the end of 2005 as a temporary, part-time interpretive aid and the public involvement coordinator position happened to open. I’m still here.
Nik: You came in through the education door.
Deborah: Yes, my job is twofold. The coordinating of volunteers and interns falls under education because I train them, but public outreach is education too. We’re currently revamping our management plan now and the question is always, “Where do we put public involvement exactly?”
Nik: So you’re a generalist? A utility infielder?
Deborah: I tend to do better with those kinds of things. My background is in human services. I worked for a women’s shelter with senior and disabled services. It’s all very rewarding but it’s definitely the kind of work that, just because the end of the day comes, it doesn’t mean your job is done.
The nice thing about the Reserve is we’re not dealing with people in crisis. Most people we see are there because they want to have fun.. Actually, come to think of it, I’ve had other customer service jobs. I co-managed a restaurant for a while, which is fast-paced but really tiring.
Nik: I was in that industry for a while. It’s all pleasing people, keeping things moving and happy, dealing with Human Dimensions while balancing a tray of scalding food. Who wouldn’t like that?
Deborah: I’m naturally drawn to people. My father was that way. He was an Air Force veteran, then a regional trainer for a large company. A lot of my volunteer activities have been working with people and doing things for people, which is funny because I don’t consider myself an extrovert necessarily. More behind the scenes. I don’t really like being front and center stage. To be honest, I was a little nervous about this interview.
Nik: Oh, this is a friendly crowd. All twelve readers of this are drawn to people too. Except for the RCs who are reading this; they’re here for the data. But people can be pains in the butt, too, right?
Deborah: They can be…
Nik: I love volunteers, all our Reserves run on volunteers, but…
Deborah: It’s a delicate balancing act and you definitely have to have a thick skin and be prepared to go the extra mile. Make sure you can communicate well and often. That’s key.
Nik: Do you have volunteers that have been around with you for fifteen years? Or do they cycle through?
Deborah: They cycle through, although we’ve had ones that have served eight, ten years or more. They do a lot of different things—everything from docenting to helping with school programs and field research. I recently have just started trying to get more volunteers to help us take video and pictures, and add to our social media.
Nik: More than half of the Reserve are in rural communities, small towns. After fifteen years, does everybody around South Slough know Deborah Rudd?
Deborah: That has become a thing. It seems like every event is the same group of people managing and doing things. A lot of our volunteers also volunteer for other organizations, but I try to embrace that and look at it like that gives them more talent. We even promote other volunteer opportunities or share our volunteers with other groups. I feel like that’s much better than trying to be in competition with everybody.
Nik: Yet you still have to create a core of volunteers that want to keep coming back. How do you do that? How do you spoil your volunteers?
Deborah: The first thing is the Reserve itself. It naturally draws people who want to protect the place. That’s something we’ve tapped into, especially with our newest program: trail stewards. We say, “Hey you can be involved: all you have to do is keep walking the trails, report when you see a tree down or something amiss.” They can do something as little as that, and then it can grow.
We try to reward our volunteers by keeping them involved with certain decisions and updating them if their work is accomplishing something. I would like to be able to do more. It would be great to take them all to a fancy dinner!
Nik: Public relations hat time: How many visitors per year, how many miles of trails, how many programs are you running? Give us some South Slough stats!
Deborah: During non-Covid times, about 10,000 visitors a year. We can’t really count our trail hikers because we don’t have a way to measure that yet. We have five miles of trails total right now. We have a circular, two-mile loop on our south end that’s much more isolated and a 3.5-mile trail up near the Reserve Visitor Center. The stewards tend to hike those for us and keep an eye on them. The trails at the visitor center are more regularly maintained, there’s restrooms, kiosks, signs, etc.
Nik: What’s the most gratifying part of your job?
Deborah: I’m just amazed that people are so eager, that they want to help so much. Some of this work is physically challenging and yet they have smiles on their faces. It might be pouring rain, they’re out there pulling ivy or helping to reroute water on a trail, they’re covered in mud, and they’re just smiling and happy to be doing it. You couldn’t pay some people to do that kind of work.
Nik: In the last couple of years, **for some reason** people have rediscovered the outdoors, and we’ve all seen more public pressure at the Reserves. Same for South Slough?
Deborah: We never really had this issue before, but we were one of the few places people could come when the shutdowns came. We were getting inundated with cars and people were leaving garbage everywhere. We did a TV announcement and some social media, we put up some signs, and we worked to get the bathrooms open. That minimized some of it, but the rural road we’re on has had some vandalism. People come and shoot the signs and that’s increased recently with the pandemic.
Nik: How has social media changed how you engage the public?
Deborah: When I first started, a lot of my work was heavy on volunteer and intern coordination. Outreach consisted of putting together a paper newsletter, folding all 3,000 of them, and mailing them off. Getting word out about things is faster now; it’s taken some time for me to catch up. Our state partner hired a young person straight out of college, who I collaborate with quite a bit now. If you don’t set a schedule and a timeframe, you feel like you constantly have to post things. It could just never end.
Nik: In small communities, Facebook becomes the local town gossip, right?
Deborah: I actually have notifications that come to my phone so I can keep track of all of that, just in case.
Deborah: For the most part, the engagements have been really positive. … We have had people ask weird questions.
Nik: … ?
Deborah: When we present something about a research project or program, people always want to know if you can eat it!
Nik: I guess that’s … engagement?
Deborah: Sure! Even if it’s a visitor from somewhere else who might never come back, I hope they feel some ownership once they’ve been here. Oftentimes we’ll say “it’s your estuary” because we’re part of the State of Oregon, we’re on public lands, and we’re technically their employees. For the most part, the locals do feel that way.
Nik: I know in the Pacific Northwest in particular, there’s a really long history of Indigenous settlement and use. In Oregon’s Bay Area, sloughs have been harvesting and gathering places for millennia. Is there a local Native population that you all work with?
Deborah: Historically, the Confederated Tribes of the Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw Indians were heavily represented on the Reserve. The local Coquille Indian and the Siletz Tribes as well. We try to collaborate with them whenever we do anything with the land. They’re part of our management commission and advisory boards; we ask them to do education—we’ve had classes about native plants and medicinal uses of plants the public really seemed to enjoy.
I feel like we have a good relationship, though it can always be better, it can always grow. We’re remodeling our exhibits and we’re hoping to continue to add things the tribes would like to see. They recently donated a piece of an old Native canoe and we have that under glass. The South Slough Reserve belongs to them, it’s their place. There are places on the Reserve where we know not to go because they’re sacred to them.
Nik: What’s your sacred spot at the Reserve?
Deborah: It’s a wooden deck overlooking our Hidden Creek marsh, which is also one of our sentinel sites. It’s a great spot to talk about biodiversity. When we kayak, we go past there and I always look for that spot. We have a bench that’s dedicated to one of our former staff who passed away, which makes it more special. Sometimes in the summer certain marsh grasses have a peppery smell, so it even smells nice when you walk there.
Nik: What’s next for South Slough? It’s the Golden Age for federal conservation funding, I hear. Any plans in your corner of the world?
Deborah: Being the first Reserve, there weren’t accessibility guidelines and so all these years, our doors and bathrooms have not been accessible. Through a new NERRS PAC grant, we’re going to upgrade our exhibits to make them more accessible and reach more audiences in a more diverse and modern way. We’re going to upgrade with digital elements, make things more hands-on and at different levels. We have a Diversity, Equity & Inclusion committee and are trying to make sure we’re reaching different audiences that we probably were not reaching before. If the space is truly for everyone, then we need to do our best to reach everybody.