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Alumni Profiles
reed magazine logoDecember 2010

On a Wing and a Prayer

Bob Sallinger ’91


Bob Sallinger

photo by Jarod Opperman

It is a late July evening at Portland’s city hall. The chamber, typically sparse when the city council deliberates the finer points of municipal finance, is packed with business boosters, longshoremen, and environmentalists.
They are here to debate one of the most important local issues in recent memory: whether to industrialize 300 acres on Hayden Island.

Located north of Portland at the confluence of the Columbia and Willamette Rivers, Hayden Island has a split personality. Its eastern half is an depressing example of development run amok: an ugly tangle of freeway offramps, big-box retail, anonymous hotels, and goliath parking lots. A Hooters restaurant beckons motorists with a neon wink.

The western half, however, is an oasis of untouched forest, home to 100 species of fish and wildlife, including bald eagles, salmon, turtles, and songbirds. Business and industrial interests argue that developing this half of the island could unlock Portland’s industrial power and create blue-collar jobs.

Leading the charge against the project is Bob Sallinger ’91. Wearing jeans, a short-sleeved button-down shirt, and a baseball cap, he is one of the first to testify. “This is the last big parcel we have to protect,” he tells the council. “It is unique and irreplaceable.”

As conservation director of the Audubon Society of Portland, Bob is one of the city’s most visible environmentalists. He oversees all of Audubon’s conservation efforts, and is involved in local, state, and federal policy issues. He also manages the Wildlife Care Center, which cares for over 3,000 injured birds each year. And he still finds time to monitor peregrine falcons nesting in Portland’s bridges.

Driven by a deep love for birds and a desire to protect them from the ravages of the urban landscape, he rises before sunrise and works at least 70 hours a week.

“This is my passion,” he says. “A lot of this is what I would do for fun.”

Originally from Boston, Bob spent a couple of years at Columbia University before he first came out west to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. “I hated living in the city,” he says; he wanted to reconnect with nature. Then he met a fellow hiker who gave him a Reed course catalog; inspired, he transferred to Reed.

Knowing that a solid foundation in the sciences was essential to understanding and advocating for wildlife, Bob majored in biology. He logged many daylight hours in the underground bio labs during his time at Reed. He worked with professor David Dalton [biology, 1987+], and wrote his thesis on the effect of pollution on Peking soybean and birdsfoot trefoil.

He volunteered for the Audubon Society while at Reed, and worked there on a part-time basis after graduation helping rehabilitate injured birds. “I was so flighty, they didn’t want to give me a real job,” he says.

They also didn’t pay him very well—for a time, he lived in a Volkswagen bus parked near Audubon’s offices.

Hiking experiences were formative for Bob—they made him realize that the landscape is interconnected, an insight that drives his work in urban conservation. “We’re raising a generation that is not connected to the landscape,” he says. “For too long we have written off the urban landscape. The challenge is to get people to take responsibility.”

The city council voted to begin developing a plan to industrialize West Hayden Island. Bob wasn’t surprised—and he isn’t deterred. The Sunday after Bob testified at city council, he celebrated his 43rd birthday. He took his wife, naturalist Elisabeth Neely ’94, and their two children to West Hayden Island. “I wanted to remind myself why I’m working on it,” he says. “It is an island of green in a sea of gray.”

—Amanda Waldroupe ’07

reed magazine logoDecember 2010