At the age of 25, Douglas County’s new Solid Waste Manager Gabe Forrester had accomplished the career goals he set for himself when he graduated from Oregon State University with a degree in environmental science.
He had worked to protect fish at Columbia River dams for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and managed fisheries in Hawaii for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
So why did Forrester give up Hawaii for Douglas County, and fish for trash?
Well, it’s home, and the opportunity was there.
Forrester grew up at Susan Creek near Idleyld Park and attended Umpqua Valley Christian School.
After he graduated from OSU, the Army Corps of Engineers hired him as a biologist at The Dalles Dam. He also worked with Bonneville Dam and John Day Dam, all on the Columbia River.
Part of his job was to inspect the dams and the fish passages upriver and downriver. He said the most fun he had in that job was salvaging fish during the annual de-watering of the fish ladders. De-watering was done in the winter for maintenance, but some of the fish — and these were 15-foot, 1,500-pound sturgeon — get stuck and have to be wrestled into a tank so they can be netted and moved by crane to the river.
“They try to knock you down. It’s zero degree weather because it’s The Dalles in the winter, so you’re in this pool of water in your waders, and they’re swimming under your feet and you’re trying not to fall into the water because if you do you’re going to get hypothermia,” he said.
He also enjoyed going underneath, into the bowels of the dam to rescue fish. In the winter, it’s a big old ice cave down there, he said. There’s water spraying everywhere and you just hope that nothing breaks as you capture the fish down there.
“It’s pretty cool until they slap you in the face with their tail,” he said.
He then got hired by NOAA to manage Pacific Ocean fisheries. Part of his work for NOAA involved getting a purse seine fishery — a type of net fishing — in compliance with the South Pacific Tuna Treaty between the US and 14 other countries. It’s a move he said saved America about $64 billion.
It was his dream job, but it was expensive to live there and he wanted more stability for his children.
A single father, Forrester felt it made sense to return home when a job as a natural resources specialist for the county opened up in 2018. In that position, he managed Galesville Dam’s licensing with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the fisheries around it. He reached out to other county departments to help them with environmental compliance issues, too.
“I’m the type of person that has a lot of ambition and doesn’t feel exactly full unless I’m busy all the time and accomplishing things,” he said.
Then, this year, the county’s extensive search for a new solid waste director concluded with a promotion for Forrester.
Forrester, now 27, said he likes a challenge. And he said his background in environmental compliance translates well to his new position.
Forrester said his goal is to make the landfill operation greener and cheaper in the long run.
Eventually, the solid waste manager position will likely shift to a solid waste director position. That will happen when the solid waste department once again becomes independent and self-supporting, he said.
In determining the future of the landfill and transfer stations he now oversees, Forrester said the county needs to think not just about short term costs but long term costs. Challenges over the landfill’s leachate, for example, need to be handled with the creation of a treatment facility, he said. That costs more in the short run, but prevents raising fees in the future.
While he expects managing the county’s solid waste will present challenges, Forrester does not believe those problems are insurmountable.
“The way I’ve seen things always is if somebody’s done it before then it’s doable. And I know that landfills are managed in every county in the country and they’re doing it,” he said.
There are plenty of experts to turn to, he said.
“It’s not inventing a new medication to cure cancer. Every challenge that has to do with the landfill, every challenge that somebody has brought up over the last several years and what I’ve seen so far since I started here, it can all be overcome with effort from everybody,” he said.
He said his goal is to share data and reports to explain what’s happening and the reasons for decisions. Nevertheless, he said he knows his job will make him a focal point for controversy.
“That’s my job, is to be the punching bag. People can come in and they can voice their opinions and everything and it’s gonna come to me, which I’m fine with,” he said.