Chance to educate public brings pair together at the Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge

by: BARBARA SHERMAN - Sue Sutter, left, of King City and Judy Albertson of Sherwood head out on the main trail of the Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge on a crips December morning in their role as volunteer rovers to answer visitors' questions and report animal sightings to the staff.

Sue Sutter of King City and Judy Albertson of Sherwood are in their element roving the pathways of the Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge.

In fact, they are official volunteer “rovers” and show up nearly every week to walk through the refuge for a couple of hours, answering visitors’ questions and offering help as needed.

Sutter took the first naturalist class that was offered at the refuge so she could work with students who visit, “but there were no buildings yet or contacts with school districts, so I started roving,” she said.

Meanwhile, Albertson took an orientation class at the refuge that presented the different volunteer options, including roving.

The two met when Albertson was ready to be a rover but didn’t want to do it alone, and they have been fast friends ever since.

Their roles have changed over the years as the refuge has been developed, and more people become aware of it and what the rules and regulations are.

“At first, they wanted us to educate the public about the rules, such as not riding bikes or walking dogs in the refuge,” Albertson said. “We did a lot of that initially, but now we don’t need to. It all comes with time and experience.”

They also are willing to pitch in and do whatever is necessary, such as sweeping leaves off the trails or even pruning blackberries to keep the paths clear.

“One time we came across a hawthorn tree across the path, and we tried to move it but couldn’t, so we reported it,” Sutter said. “Another time we saw a tree leaning across a path, but it was held up by another tree trunk. But later we noticed that the trunk had a split in it, so it was time to report it.”

Each time rovers complete a shift at the refuge, they fill out a form listing how many visitors they encountered, what kinds of questions they asked, and why they were there, Albertson said.

“Were they taking photos or walking for exercise?” she asked. “Did they have binoculars because they watch for birds?

“We also track and report what wildlife we see, and we get to know where some animals hang out, like a screech owl in a certain tree, which we can then point out to visitors. Otherwise, they would walk right by it.”

The women often see “regulars,” with Albertson noting, “We get to know them, and more often in the summer, moms come with their kids. For some reason, all kids like to drag sticks through the dirt.”

Sutter added, “The more often you come, the more you see. The odds go up you will see new wildlife, because they don’t stop and pose for us.”

One of the benefits of being a refuge volunteer is going “behind the scenes” to parts of the 1,300-acre refuge that are currently off-limits to the public, and Sutter was particularly impressed with a multi-hundred-year-old pine tree they saw near Gaston. “That was special,” she said.

“Another thing volunteers do is restore the land to the way it used to be,” Albertson said. “And we do bird counting. But some of the best things we do are interacting with the children who come. I appreciate the fathers who come with their little ones to show them nature. And this is a good place for grandparents to bring their grandchildren.”

Volunteers help in their own way, utilizing their own expertise: Albertson helped set up the computer system in the gift shop, and Sutter donated a piece of fabric featuring whooping cranes that she bought for a dollar or two at an estate sale and later saw it made up into a beautiful jacket by someone in the sewing group and up for sale in the gift shop.

Sutter also has donated at least a couple hundred Western red cedar starts that grow near her former home.

Why the women keep coming back week after week and year after year is because they love being out in nature to enjoy the sights.

“We call it our therapy,” Sutter said. “Sometimes you see many birds and animals, and sometimes not, but the clouds are always beautiful.”

They also like the interaction with visitors and directing them to the visitors’ center or telling them about ongoing programs.

“This is a good place to see what plants grow naturally in this area,” Albertson said, and Sutter added, “The names are by some of them, and there are botanist-led tours in the spring.”

The women, who recently received 500-hour pins for their volunteer work, also enjoy learning the occasional odd fact, such as the refuge’s new biologist telling them that from the 1930s to the 1970s, there were 600 nutria farms in the area, and when the market for their pelts died, they were all set loose, leaving their offspring to raise havoc with the environment decades later.

And Albertson points out the obvious: “The other thing about Sue and me is that I’m extra tall, and Sue is extra short, so she doesn’t catch all the spider webs for me. The spiders are very busy out here.”

Despite some days spent slogging through the rain or cold weather, Sutter said, “Each day is a new show. You don’t know what you’re going to see here, and you find so many interesting people.”

They both encourage everyone who lives in the vicinity to stop by the refuge, which is open at this time of year from dawn to dusk, and check out the wonders of nature that are literally in the back yards of local residents.

The refuge, which is operated by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, is located at 19255 S.W. Pacific Highway, Sherwood. For more information, visit or call 503-625-5944.

For those interested in volunteering, options include joining Friends of the Refuge, becoming an environmental education volunteer naturalist, or greeting visitors in the Wildlife Center and orienting them to trails, exhibits and activities.

For volunteer opportunities, contact Kim Strassburg, outdoor recreation planner, at the above number or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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