This is part of a weekly series introducing readers to individuals who are passionate about our Mid-Valley community.
The late afternoon sun casts a glow over the new Ankeny Hill Nature Center as one, then two, then dozens of bluebirds swoop low to the ground.
Tim Johnson grins in delight.
The scene culminates a long-held dream for Johnson, president of Salem Audubon Society.
For more than a decade, Johnson, along with other volunteers, put in countless hours planning, negotiating and fundraising to make the nature center a reality.
More:’15 years in the making’: $3.5M nature center at Ankeny Wildlife Refuge opens
The first phase of the center, located at Ankeny National Wildlife Refuge south of Salem, opened about a year ago.
Now, 50 to 100 people visit per day, in addition to school groups, volunteers and those who come for scheduled programs.
Visitors to the 25-acre center will find hiking trails, a nature play area, and an indoor/outdoor classroom.
They can get a look at cutting-edge research, tracking bird movements for example, or join scheduled activities.
Or, they can check out an age-appropriate backpack packed with equipment like binoculars, sketch books, magnifying glasses and nature activities.
“What a blessing it’s been to work on this project,” Johnson said.
Johnson became a Salem Audubon volunteer in 2008, shortly after retiring to Salem from San Diego with his wife, Carol Soderberg.
In fact, he said, it was the area’s abundance of birding and fishing opportunities that drew him here. He’s also deeply involved with Santiam Flycasters, and serves as its treasurer.
Johnson began his work with Audubon leading field trips, then moved into fundraising. He has been the group’s president for three years, and was treasurer for four years before that.
When he arrived, the group had long been trying to build a nature center, using a $1.35 million bequest from Mark Gehlar, co-founder of Oregon Fruit Products Co.
Gehlar made the donation in 2004, and died in 2005.
The group searched for a site for the center for years, then decided to approach the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about building it at Ankeny.
When it agreed, Friends of the Willamette Valley National Wildlife Refuge Complex joined the project as a third partner, aiming for a 2018 groundbreaking.
Many volunteers helped build the center, and continue to help run it. But Johnson is among the most dedicated, said Samantha Bartling, visitor services manager for the Willamette Valley National Wildlife Refuge Complex.
In 2022 alone, Johnson reported volunteering 580 hours at the center. That’s likely an undercount, Bartling said, and doesn’t include his hours representing Audubon.
“He is such an incredible human. He is one of the kindest, most big-hearted, generous, thoughtful people I know,” Bartling said. “He is such a pleasure to work with and I’m grateful to be on a team with him.”
Johnson said his driving philosophy has been to do what he can to make a better world.
“Ever since I was in college, I’ve found ways to volunteer for groups that were doing things I thought were important,” he said.
Helping create the nature center might just be the most important thing he’s done, he said.
What Johnson likes best about the center, he said, is that it’s open to everyone.
“It’s not just for us,” he said. “It’s for the schools, the city. Anyone who has an environmental mission can use this classroom for no charge.”
It’s also designed to introduce people to nature who may not have grown up with it.
“We wanted a place where people could just start and feel comfortable,” Bartling said. “It’s basically a nature playground.”
That playground includes tall grasses for children to run through, a fort-building area with limbs selected to be just the right size, and a tunnel of living red alder trees.
There’s a pollinator garden, and a bilingual story walk.
“There’s just something in us that I think naturally connects with earth if it’s given the opportunity,” Johnson said. “And that’s what this nature center’s all about. Giving people the opportunity.”
“It’s so rewarding to see people showing up and enjoying it, and having joy for this place,” he said. “That’s very rewarding.”
Johnson’s work isn’t done though.
The next phase of the project is construction of the Dave Marshall Classroom, named after the man who was instrumental in creating the Willamette Valley national refuges.
The covered structure will accommodate up to 30 students, and can double as a spot for observing wildlife in and around Peregrine Marsh.
Salem Audubon Society raised the money for the classroom, and is currently working with a contractor, Johnson said.
If you have an idea for someone we should profile for this series, email Statesman Journal senior news editor Alia Beard Rau at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tracy Loew covers the environment at the Statesman Journal. Send comments, questions and tips email@example.com, 503-399-6779. Follow her on Twitter at@Tracy_Loew