Nirvana on a backhoe

Habitat restorer Kim Erion's heartfelt connection to her work

  • Kim Erion rests while hiking a logging road she decommissioned eight years ago. It is overgrown now, almost indistinguishable from the rest of the forest.

    Cory Eldridge
  • gmattrichard, Istock


Name: Kim Erion

Age: 39

Hometown: Washougal, Wash.

She says, about the green jobs movement: "The whole thing makes me sick! It is giving Johnny Backhoe Sewer-Line-Extraordinaire a ticket to change his name because he failed at business and now can turn into Acme-Eco-  Habitat Construction."

Occupation: Independent road decommissioner, habitat restorer

Hobby: Custom historic-costume tailoring

This is an old logging road -- this gnarled, overgrown greenway deep in Oregon's Coast Range. Only one thing sets it apart from the rest of the ravine: There are no tall trees. Not yet, anyway. When Kim Erion last walked the road eight years ago, log-laden trucks could still rumble down it. Now she claws back salmonberry groves and sidesteps foxglove spires. Compact and kinetic like a wrestler, her ever-braided brunette ponytail pulled through her cap, Erion spots a log and shouts, "This is my log, and so is this one," then hugs the wood and calls it "my baby."

The log is her baby because she put it there. For a Forest Service road-restoration project, Erion, her husband, Jim, and their crew tore apart the road with bulldozers and excavators, churning the hard-packed dirt into loose soil. They contoured the hillside, removed culverts, restored the streambed and planted ferns. On the last mile, Erion clenched that log in the steel maw of her excavator and nestled it into place. Then the crew spread hay to stop erosion and make it easier for plants to take root.

The job contract didn't include the hay, but Erion believed the road needed it to heal. Her contracts also never require that she lose sleep if she doesn't place a fern just so -- but she does. Knowing where a rock or log should go is sensual for her, part of a deep intuitive awareness of the forest. "I could hear where the logs wanted to be placed in the stream cutbanks," she says. "I could sense where and when to replant existing rhododendrons."

She's restored nearly one thousand miles of old logging roads and revived thousands of acres of wetland and forest across the West since 1996, working for federal and state agencies. A scant handful of people do great restorations, the kind that repair a site instead of just covering the damage, say several federal contracting officers. Erion, however, is in a class of her own. "She takes these big excavators into streams to create fish habitats and you can't tell she was there," says Lois Tate of Washington's Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.

For three years before beginning restoration work, Erion and her husband ran a construction business, but a series of sour deals pushed them out. Then they decommissioned a road on the slopes of Mount Hood. Isolated in the forest, destroying one thing to repair another, Erion felt joyous. She called it Nirvana. Why not? Buddha found enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree; Erion found it atop an excavator.

Which is what separates Erion from other construction workers, and even from other Earth-lovers: She resides at the lonely crossroads of environmental idealism and backhoe pragmatism. "You have to know how to build a road first to know how to take it apart," she says. "You have to know machines can do good and harm. You have to be able to read the woods."

Erion grew up in a dying timber town outside Portland, where her father logged Mount Hood's forests and taught her to run the heavy rigs she now uses to decommission his old logging roads. He was the type of guy who would flick cigarettes into the forest, Erion says, then toss the pack after them. She was the type of 6-year-old who yelled at him for it. Her mom eventually divorced Erion's dad, moved to Portland and opened The Goddess Gallery, where she sold Roman, Egyptian and pagan idols, crystals and Mother Earth icons.

Beyond the influence of these parental poles, Erion says, she always possessed an awareness of the environment. When she was 13, her grandmother walked up a wooded hill with her and said, "Kimmy, this is your temple." This would seem a little New-Agey, except that the woman who said it raised a logger who raised a daughter who wants to demolish a dam.

When Erion talks about the possibility of destroying a dam, most likely in Northern California or southern Oregon, she cackles with glee. Given the chance, she'll do some "heavy whacking": use her bulldozer and excavator to rip out a mass of metal and concrete and dirt, then knead and reseed the ground and re-form the waterway. A decade or two later, nobody will even know Erion -- or a dam -- had ever been there. 

Cory Eldridge is a freelance journalist in Portland, Oregon.

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