Honoring a hero of the Willamette restoration movement

It takes transformative leadership to be a true hero of the river restoration field.

As a business owner who makes his living restoring native Willamette Basin habitats, Rosario Franco is quite literally transforming this important watershed, tree-by-tree and acre-by-acre.

The Willamette River Initiative is proud to have presented Rosario with the River Hero award in December 2017. The award recognizes his outstanding contributions to the effort for a healthier Willamette.

“Rosario is respected and admired by so many people in our Willamette River restoration community,” WRI Director Allison Hensey said as she presented Rosario with the award during the initiative’s December grantee meeting. “He and his crews are doing the work everyday of healing this river system.”

Rosario Franco, owner of the R. Franco Restoration planting company, accepts the River Hero award during the Willamette River Initiative’s grantee celebration dinner, Dec. 13, 2017.Rosario got his start reforesting timberlands in the Oregon Cascades, before taking his first restoration planting job in Portland in the the mid-1990s. By 2006, he had launched his own business, R. Franco Restoration.

Rosario and his crews soon became indispensable members of the Willamette Basin restoration movement, known for their specialized knowledge of native plants and habitat restoration, their project planning, planting and landscape maintenance skills and their commitment to the cause. With their help, the pace of Willamette restoration has increased dramatically over the past decade.

Rosario estimated he and his crews have planted more than 14 million trees and shrubs since the early 2000s, including 900,000 last planting season alone. It’s not uncommon for them to put 50,000 plants in the ground in a single day.

Despite the staggering volume of work, Rosario knows his sites intimately. He visits six or seven times before planting ever begins, spending two to three years clearing weeds, surveying the landscape and deciding which plant species are best-suited for the area. Often, he and his crews know their restoration sites better than the landowners.

When asked why he does this work, which requires long days of physically demanding labor under stormy winter skies, Rosario's passion shines.

“You fall in love with a project,” he said. “You see the changes, you see how (the work sites) look when you started and then, every year, how they change. That makes you want to learn more and do the best every time.”

Today, Rosario employs more than 30 people full-time, year-round. He trains his employees not just in the technical aspects of the job, but why the work is essential to protecting our drinking water and creating fish and wildlife habitat. As a result, Rosario's employees are skilled, knowledgeable and passionate about the work they do for our rivers.

“We depend on Rosario and his crew, and could not meet our goals without him,” said Jeff Baker, stewardship manager at the Greenbelt Land Trust, which has worked with Rosario to plant more than 300,000 trees and shrubs in the past five years.

In fact, said Kathleen Guillozet, Willamette Model Watershed Director with the Bonneville Environmental Foundation, he is “among the most respected conservation leaders in the Willamette Basin.”

But beyond his reputation as an invaluable work partner, Rosario is known for his kindness, dedication and humility. That “care factor,” as North Santiam Watershed Council Executive Director Rebecca McCoun put it, is what sets Rosario and his crews apart.

“Rosario treats each site as if it’s his own personal property,” McCoun said, and restoration outcomes are better as a result.

Rosario's contributions to the river extend beyond his day job. He has been a leader in the Willamette restoration community’s cross-border exchange with restoration groups from the Rio Laja watershed in the Mexican state of Guanajuato, welcoming visitors into his home and providing learning opportunities for forestry students from the watershed northwest of Mexico City. Rosario has also shared his knowledge and experiences during speaking engagements throughout the region.

We are fortunate to count him as a hero within our river community.