Michael Houck
Director, Urban Stream Council/The Wetlands Conservancy
Portland, Oregon

Mike Houck, Director of the Wetland Conservancy’s Urban Streams Council program in Portland, Oregon, an award winner in the Outstanding Wetlands Program Development category, has worked for more than two decades to bring attention to wetlands and wildlife in urban environments. In the Pacific Northwest, where city dwellers are used to finding nature outside the urban environment, Houck has taught them to look inside. He has shown them urban wetlands and other habitats worth watching, restoring, and protecting.

Houck’s involvement with Portland’s wetlands dates back to 1970, when he worked as a member of the Portland Audubon Society to protect Oaks Bottom, a wetland within sight of Portland’s downtown. Audubon worked with neighborhood groups and others to convince the city council to designate the land as the city’s first urban wildlife refuge.

In 1982, Houck became Portland Audubon’s urban naturalist. In that role, he created a reliable, objective inventory of wetlands and other wildlife habitats in the Portland area and made the inventory a central t ool on the desk of city and county planning staffs, commissions, and elected officials. While at Audubon, Houck began to organize a series of “Country in the City” symposia, bringing experts from around the world to discuss protection of urban habitats. As a result of these programs, metropolitan water quality agencies are using multi-objective strategies to manage for fish and wildlife habitat, recreation, open space, and aesthetic values in their pollution and flood reduction programs. Since 1989, Houck has been volunteer director of Portland Audubon’s Metropolitan Wildlife Refuge System Project, working to establish a regional system of urban wildlife refuges.

In 1993, Houck helped found the Urban Streams Council, which now facilitates projects throughout the region. For example, in North Portland, the council is helping young former dropouts earn high school credits working on an ecological restoration project near the Columbia Slough. The council also provides support and advice to local citizens groups that focus on a variety of watershed problems in the Portland metropolitan region. The council is reaching out to the business and the corporate community in Portland to invite them to become better stewards of the wetlands on their property. It presents workshops for developers on nature-friendly land uses. Working with Portland State University’s Center for Urban Studies, the council has compiled a database of over 50,000 people in the area who have expressed interest in urban natural resource, watershed, or planning issues. They are coding this list geographically.

Soon they will be able to identify concerned citizens living in a particular watershed or near a particular stream. Though the council has a regional focus, as a part of the nationa l Coalition to Restore Urban Waters (CRUW), its work has attracted national attention. With Ann Riley of California’s Urban Creeks Council and other grassroots activists, Houck helped organize the highly successful CRUW/Friends of Trashed Rivers conference last September in San Francisco. For the first time, river groups from all over the country came together to discuss urban waterway restoration. In typical Houck style, he served, as the need arose, as planner, coordinator, master of ceremonies, speaker, facilitator, stage hand, and social director. In the last ten years, Houck has dealt with just about every government agency in the Portland area and has served as a member or advisor to more than twenty local boards, committees, and task forces. Northwesterners have always treasured the natural beauty of their countryside. Through his tireless studying, teaching, and testifying, Mike has helped them realize that nature lives inside their cities as well. Along the way, he has become something of a local celebrity, Portland’s Urban Naturalist, and has come to personify the Northwest’s love of nature and commitment to integrating wetlands and streams into the urban infrastructure.

— Kenneth Rosenbaum, Environmental Policy Consultant