This morning, Houck looks nautical and intrepid with his white goatee, flat tweed cap, diamond-stud earring, and signature fox-sly expression. During the past four decades, perhaps no single person has affected Portland’s landscape more significantly than he has. Though Houck is little known locally outside the wonky communities of politicians, planners, and activists, he has chalked up numerous national and international commendations. This month, the Garden Club of America will present him with another: the Frances K. Hutchinson Medal, an honor he’ll share with the likes of historical environmental heavyweights such as Rachel Carson, Stewart L. Udall, and Lady Bird Johnson.
Fusing a genteel understanding of his native city’s green sensibilities with old-fashioned, often heavy-handed agitation (his every e-mail signs off with the slogan “Endless pressure, endlessly applied”), Houck’s rakish approach and salty vocabulary call to mind an outback environmentalist in a timber-town barroom. But he is also an unabashed urbanite. He coined the title “urban naturalist” for the Audubon Society job he invented for himself in 1980, which he still fills part time. In 1999, he established his own organization, the Urban Greenspaces Institute. From that pulpit he has played strategic roles in issues ranging from Metro’s 2006 natural areas bond measure to getting greens, farmers, developers, and local officials to agree on a 50-year growth plan for the metro area.
’There’s nothing that says a group of interested citizens and groups can’t come together to put forward a plan for Ross Island.’ —Mike Houck
But bobbing in his boat on Ross’s eastern side, far away from meeting rooms and negotiating tables, Houck takes a simple naturalist’s delight in spotting the surrounding wildlife, and, with his polyglot’s vocabulary of bird calls, often talking to it, too. “Common mergansers, couple of ’em,” he says. “And check out the GBH”—birder shorthand for the great blue heron standing stolidly on a distant bank.
Houck has been thinking about Ross Island, in one way or another, since 1970, when, as a grad student at Portland State University, he lobbied City Council to protect Oaks Bottom. In 1988, he wrote the management plan for the area. (Houck collaborated on the plan after he posted his own homemade signs declaring the Bottom a “wildlife refuge,” a designation that was soon picked up by local newspapers.) This long and personal history makes him an expert on this small stretch of river—and probably the individual most invested in bending Ross Island’s future to his will. To that end, Houck and some allies, gathered under the ad hoc banner of the Friends of Ross Island, stand determined to propel the islands into the public consciousness.
“We don’t see a comprehensive plan coming from anyone else anytime soon,” Houck says. “We see our job as taking the bull by the horns on this thing.”