By Melissa Hart

On a tranquil bend of Oregon’s McKenzie River at sunset, AAA member Scott Kinney and his partner Julia Beck were out studying trout populations when they found themselves grappling with a massive trout on the end of their line. “After an epic battle, I eased the fish up next to the boat, and Scott scooped it out of the river,” Beck said. “A tin blue cylindrical tag poked up from near its dorsal fin. It was a re-capture!” She and Kinney combined their two favorite hobbies—fly-fishing and science—to volunteer with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, studying the effects of stocked hatchery trout on native populations of the species. Biologists attached radio transmitters to wild trout, and Kinney and Beck used drift boats and a small charter airplane to track which areas of the river the trout were using, and how far they moved to spawn.

Across the Pacific Northwest, volunteer opportunities abound in both wilderness and urban locations. Not into tracking giant trout? You can plant Doug fir seedlings in an area decimated by wildfire, or care for injured and orphaned wildlife at a rehabilitation center. Spend a morning picking up microplastics as you stroll a mile-long section of windswept beach or survey bird and butterfly populations in Central Oregon.

Care for Your Public Lands

Volunteer Vacations hit the trails

A volunteer group assembled by Cascade Volunteers and First Nature Tours rides a section of the McKenzie River Trail as part of the McKenzie Regenerative Travel Project during summer 2021.

Cascade Volunteers is the 501(c)(3) friends group of the Willamette National Forest, connecting people and communities to the area through education and volunteerism. Executive Director Alyssa Archer described various ways in which people can get involved, with activities that range from trail maintenance and invasive weeding to serving as wilderness trailhead hosts.

“Hosts get to hike and educate folks about the principles of ‘leave no trace,’” Archer explained. “It’s also an ideal program for people with mobility issues because volunteers can either stand or sit at the trailhead to answer questions from hikers.”

She recalls a particularly successful event that staff hosted after a 2018 fire at Terwilliger Hot Springs burned 11,555 acres, including an old growth conifer forest. A large crew of volunteers planted 500 seedings that day. The organization also offers certifications in first aid, CPR, and chainsaw and crosscut saw use. “These public lands are yours to care for,” Archer said, “and it’s great to get out there and give back.”

Those who volunteer at least sixteen hours receive a Northwest Forest Pass. It’s good for a year’s worth of day use fees at all Forest Service-operated sites in Washington and Oregon. People who volunteer 250 hours receive a one-time annual National Parks and Federal Recreation Lands Pass. This gets them into more than 2,000 federal recreation sites for free.

Volunteer Vacationers walk the beach at the SOLVE Oregon Beach Cleanup in Cannon Beach

Beautify Your Surroundings

If you’d prefer to organize your own volunteer project, SOLVE—an environmental nonprofit based in Portland—provides online event registration, promotion and safety waivers to your group free of charge. Larissa Gordon, communications and outreach coordinator, said, “We partner with community members who want to make a change, and we provide the tools and the resources to make that change.”

SOLVE has supported scouting troops and neighborhood organizations, and an Earth Day beach cleanup led by a 14-year-old student. They also assist with a massive clean-up campaign facilitated by the Portland-based group Remove by Bike whose members clean up urban areas inaccessible to vehicles.

Urban volunteering vacation by bike

A volunteer with Portland-based Remove by Bike clears up trash.

“We get a lot of volunteers who are done just driving by litter and wishing for something to change,” Gordon said. “They’re asking what can I do right now? How can I get involved on a ground level?”

Staff at SOLVE lead monthly cleanup days in downtown Portland. Events often attract between 150 and 300 volunteers who spend two hours picking up trash. It’s crucial work, Gordon said, because most of the debris they remove had a high probability of entering a storm drain or the Willamette River.

There’s a calendar of upcoming volunteer events on the SOLVE website, searchable by region and interest. You can sign up for invasive removal, native planting, site maintenance or litter cleanup. Adopt a beach, park, a river or other waterways, and staff will help you recruit volunteers to make your beautification dreams a reality.

Regenerate as You Recreate

Want to combine hard work with a weekend of fun and adventure? Kieron Wilde, owner of First Nature Tours, combines volunteerism and outdoor recreation in what he calls “regenerative tourism.”

On the Willamette National Forest Tour, volunteers stay at Horse Creek Lodge and enjoy a group dinner at Obsidian Grill. They then spend Saturday morning helping to clear trails, install mountain bike maintenance stations or plant trees.

Tree planting is part of many volunteer vacations

A volunteer plants trees as part of First Nature Tours’ work to clean up trails near the South Fork of the McKenzie River.

After half a day of volunteering, First Nature staff take participants mountain biking or white-water rafting depending on the season. Then, at dinner on Saturday night, community stakeholders and local business owners offer insights into the impact of wildfires on the region. There’s music and an outdoor gathering, and then on Sunday morning, they volunteer for another half day. “It’s about going somewhere and leaving it better than you found it,” Wilde said. “It’s about engaging with the local community on a deep level and fostering a sense of stewardship.”

First Nature also offers an Olympic Peninsula Adventure in which volunteers help to regenerate salmon habitat with the North Olympic Salmon Coalition and the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe river restoration project. “You get to interact with [the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe] on the Olympic Peninsula and learn about their culture,” Wilde said. “You also get to have some fun hiking in the Olympic National Park.”

Create Thrilling Memories

Scott Kinney, who volunteered with Julia Beck to study wild trout, ended up doing most of the data analysis and creating a website to document the project. He also created a Facebook page for a representative trout he and Beck nicknamed “Floyd”. The Oregon Fish and Wildlife project resulted in a significant discovery.

“By marking wild trout with those little blue tags and counting how many were caught again over several years through a massive volunteer effort, we found that when hatchery stocking was stopped, native trout populations tripled,” Beck said. “It was thrilling to play a small part in such a huge success story for wild trout conservation.”

How to Get Involved and Volunteer


Mobilizing volunteers across Oregon to participate in litter clean-ups in forests, beaches, rivers and more.

Oregon Spring Cleanup, April 23
Multiple statewide events including beach cleanups along the Oregon coast.

McKenzie River Trust

Focusing on the wild McKenzie River and works to preserve the surrounding land.

Friends of Finn Rock Reach Meets for cleanups on the first Friday of every month from February through November.

Connecting citizens with federal offices for outdoor and nature-based volunteer opportunities.

Cascade Volunteers

Conducting education and stewardship on the Willamette National Forest.

Trash Club Boise

Dedicated to keeping Boise clean through litter cleanups scheduled year-round.

First Nature Tours

Combining tourism with volunteerism for Pacific Northwest guests to clean and maintain the land.

Morrison Knudsen Nature Center

Engaging youth and adult volunteers as gardeners and interpreters in Boise.

Melissa Hart is the author of Better with Books: 500 Diverse Books to Ignite Empathy and Self-Acceptance in Tweens and Teens. She lives in Eugene, Oregon.

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