Conservation Neighbor Ron Leonard

Most likely you have a handful of teachers that stand out in your memory, that turned you on to learning, or to a new topic, or a career path. When you reflect on those teachers, what characteristics come to mind? Chances are, your special teachers possessed passion for their subject, demonstrated caring for their students, thought of themselves as lifelong learners, maintained an air of positivity, were flexible and responsive, and might even have had a sense of humor. Conservation Neighbor Ron Leonard, a self-described “lifelong educator,” possesses all those traits and more.

Benton SWCD staff first met Ron in 2016 when he and his wife moved back to Corvallis, the town of their alma mater. The move came after almost 40 years in Eugene where he taught middle school history, math, science, and technology. Ron became involved with Benton SWCD because of Salmon Watch, a program with which he was already intimately familiar.

According to Shannon Richardson of Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife, “Ron is one of the founding teachers that participated in the original Salmon Watch program under Freshwater Trust. As an early adopter, Ron brought countless students into the field to observe spawning salmon, joined his students in service-learning projects, and helped other teachers embrace the outdoor classroom for their own students. After volunteering alongside him for several years, I had the privilege of working more closely with Ron starting in 2012, when we both served on the leadership team that sought to revitalize Salmon Watch in Lane County schools. As a life-long educator, Ron brought to that group a legacy perspective and commitment to outdoor experiential education that was unparalleled.”

Naturally, the Linn Benton Salmon Watch (LBSW) steering committee was eager to add Ron to our team, where he happily represents the teacher’s perspective AND the volunteer’s. He became LBSW’s star field trip volunteer, specializing almost exclusively in riparian ecology. Ron attends our volunteer trainings where he shares his passion for the riparian station with new recruits and offers a special session on working with students. He also makes himself available to Salmon Watch teachers as a resource for bringing Salmon Watch into the classroom and preparing students to learn outside.

Ron teaching riparian ecology in the rain.
Ron teaching riparian ecology in the rain.

Ron’s dedication doesn’t end there. Since 2016, students from College Hill Alternative High School have been participating in Salmon Watch in a very special way. First, they attend a field trip as students, then they receive training and return as volunteer instructors. Ron is instrumental in preparing the students to teach, and admits that one of his favorite memories is “training students of the College Hill Alternative High School to deliver the Salmon Watch program and then watching them grow in knowledge and confidence as they in turn deliver the program to elementary school students.”

Ron teaching volunteers how to use the spherical densiometer.
Ron teaching volunteers how to use the spherical densiometer.

Ron supports Salmon Watch in other ways, too. Linn Benton Salmon Watch is a collaborative effort of Calapooia Watershed Council, Benton SWCD, South Santiam Watershed Council, Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife (ODFW), and Siuslaw National Forest. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this important education effort runs on a shoestring budget, with support from the steering committee organizations, Corvallis School District, Benton County, and intermittently from grants. The business community supports this program by offering dine-outs. You are likely to find Ron greeting diners as they arrive for their meals and thanking them as they depart.

Ron with Salmon Watch supporters at a dine-out.
Ron with Salmon Watch supporters at a dine-out.

As Shannon Richardson explains, Ron’s passion for outdoor education drives him to “seek out and contribute significantly to the most worthwhile outdoor educational pursuits, giving his time and expertise freely.” So naturally, he is involved in more than just Salmon Watch, and this commitment adds to his value as a Conservation Neighbor. According to ODFW fish biologist Karen Hans, “Ron has been volunteering to assist with the Egg to Fry Program salmon and trout egg deliveries to Corvallis area schools for several years. Ron participated in the Egg to Fry Program when he was teaching so he recognizes the value of the program. He is very dependable, great with the students, and helpful to teachers. Ron always has a positive outlook on life and a smile on his face. He is a joy to work with.”

Calapooia Watershed Council’s Salmon Watch coordinator, Kristen Daly, describes how Ron serves their programs:

“As the fifth grade field trip programs changed hands within our organization, Ron has been a constant. He has been taking part in our programs longer than most of our staff have been with the Calapooia Watershed Council (CWC)!

“Ron is a true champion of environmental/outdoor education for children. He is our #1 volunteer at the CWC, always coming to several days of our events. Without Ron’s dedication, I firmly believe we would have to reduce the size/reach of our 5th grade programs; his impact is that great.

“At one of our programs, Ron leads students on a tour of Talking Water Gardens in Albany. He is wonderful at this (of course) and the students on his tours always have a great time while learning about wildlife, wetland habitats, and human impacts on water quality. He also sees mink on his tours more often than anyone. He is a mink whisperer! It’s such a treat for the students!

“Ron has a special way with the students. To see him gain and hold their attention is such a welcome sight, as so many struggle to keep students engaged. I love when I have the opportunity to watch him work. We are so fortunate to have Ron as such an integral part of our organization, and I am thrilled to see that he is being honored by Benton SWCD!”

And it may come as no surprise that Ron is involved with OSU Extension Benton County 4-H. According to 4-H agent Maggie Livesay:

“He has become the macroinvertebrate guru for the field-based FOCUS (Forests, Organisms, Creeks yoU Study) program held at Beazell Memorial Forest each spring. His talent for relating to youth is evident as he instructs the students to reach around and feel their vertebra and then launches in to the difference between macro and micro. Even his corny ice cream joke is sure to get a laugh. (Ron will get this)

“Ron supports the 4-H Wildlife Stewards Program in a variety of ways from listening to student presentations at the annual 4-H Wildlife Stewards Youth Summit, teaching at Science Nights, judging natural resource exhibits for the Benton County Fair and helping with the STEM Outdoor Learning Camp. Ron was recognized as one of 4-H’s Outstanding Leaders in 2018.

“4-H has been blessed to have Ron as a volunteer. His positive attitude, pure enjoyment and talent for teaching are a gift to youth in this community. Congratulations Ron!”

Quotes like the ones shared above make it easy to see that being an educator is at the core of Ron Leonard’s identity. In closing, I leave you with these final remarks from ODFW’s Shannon Richardson, “My time of learning and exploring the world with Ron started much, much earlier, however, when I only knew him as Dad. Some of my earliest memories are of wandering with him up Mt. Pisgah, outside of Eugene, looking at spiderwebs in the bushes, and camping along the McKenzie River, turning over every rock to look for critters in the water. The lessons I learned from him about catching crayfish, what beetle kill looks like in trees, the value of an adventurous spirit, and putting yourself in the path of learning have shaped who I am as a professional and a parent. Simply put, I’m one of the many people who have benefited by learning from Ron—I just have had the benefit for much longer than most.”

On behalf of the many students, volunteers, and teachers who have benefited from the dedication of this lifelong educator, we thank you, Ron Leonard, for being our Conservation Neighbor.

Want to hear more from Ron? Read his interview.