The (sometimes) unsung heroes striving to protect the Eastside for future generations
When it comes to being green, the Pacific Northwest already is a deep shade of emerald, according to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. The organization has Washington ranked eighth in the country on its 2016 State Scorecard for energy efficiency. Despite this standing, it seems there always will be room for improvement as long as our culture continues making strides toward 100-percent sustainability. With this in mind, we searched the Eastside for environmental stewards who protect land, educate youth, and operate eco-conscious companies in their day-to-day lives. The people we found are inspiring.
Ranger, Bridle Trails State Park
Bridle Trails State Park in Kirkland lies on 482 acres, mere minutes away from the urban center of the Eastside, yet to hike the park’s pristine 28 miles of trails, one would hardly know they were in a booming metropolis.
Hikers also may not notice the maintenance work being done behind the scenes. That’s all on Ranger Matt Birklid, who mows the grass, weeds the walkways, cuts the drainage ditches, repairs broken equipment, replaces light bulbs, and maintains structures and pastures. Essentially, he does it all.
Birklid is everywhere, but he’s sort of easy to miss. Save for his State Parks baseball cap, he doesn’t look like the stereotypical uniformed ranger. He dresses in a flannel shirt, olive khakis, well-worn rugged boots — and has a wide smile on his youthful face. He’s unable to hide his love for his job.
“This, this is my life,” he said, gesturing around him as he stood on one of the park’s paths.
Four years ago, Birklid — looking for a change — landed in the lower 48 from Alaska, where he was raised. Immediately, he looked for work and found it in the meat department of a local big-box store. He said he was making a living, but he wasn’t living his life. He was miserable.
“In Alaska, sometimes I would have inside jobs, but I would still get my fix of just going outside and going anywhere, but you can’t really do that here. It is so easy to feel cooped up,” he said. “There is no outside anywhere; I knew I had to find something that would allow me to do that for eight hours a day.”
With no professional outdoor experience, Birklid searched for, applied, and received his current job based on his Alaska upbringing and love of the outdoors.
“It’s the culture up there to appreciate and embrace nature,” he said. “It has helped me a lot for this job, because you get put into situations where you have to thrive under pressure; you have to be able to think on your feet and have a good general base knowledge with an aptitude to learn. All those are Alaska life, because everything is harder up there.”
All around Bridle Trails, populations swell thanks to blossoming startups and expanding companies. Meanwhile, Birklid walks the trails, protecting the grounds and the indigenous species that also hope to continue to call the area home.
Vice president of corporate planning, Edifecs
As the small, red Nissan Leaf he was driving cruised almost noiselessly through the winding road leading to Bellevue-based Edifecs, Ravi Soin, the company’s vice president of corporate planning, pointed out the numerous electric vehicles and the vehicle-charging stations that had been installed throughout the surrounding business park.
Before the healthcare technology company moved to its current campus a few years ago, no such chargers could be found.
“It is very encouraging,” Soin said. “It has caught on, and I see some of the new buildings (where) they are adding EV chargers to the garages.”
Edifecs didn’t stop at EV stations: The Leaf that Soin drove was one of four from the company’s fleet that are available to employees to sign out anytime.
“A lot of our associates are working remotely, so half of our employees work in India or Eastern Europe or the rest of the United States,” Soin said. “When they come back to headquarters, instead of renting cars, we developed a program where they can go on an internet site and reserve one of the four electric Leafs that we have.”
In addition to spearheading the implementation of electric vehicles, Soin has his hands in every part of Edifecs’ eco-friendly culture. He has implemented conservative paper-printing programs, which, he said, save approximately 120 trees per year. He oversees the company’s living wall of 300 plants. And of course, Soin supervises the recycling and composting efforts, ensuring his fellow employees are using the proper bins, which has been far less trouble than he expected.
“Our associates are asking for it; they want to do it,” Soin said. “Our CEO has been very passionate about green, sustainable living, and it has percolated through the associates.”
The sustainable living has been percolating through Soin, as well. In the five years since he began working at Edifecs, Soin enrolled in programs at Washington State University to obtain a forestry certificate. Now, he spends his weekends volunteering with his family to maintain the Eastside waterways, bringing his personal and professional lives full circle.
“I do a lot of work restoring aquatic areas like creeks and preserving salmon habitats in the area,” he said. “It is nice to bring a lot of that back in-house to Edifecs.”
Corey Weathers and Eric Gertsman
Co-founders, Homegrown Trailers
One summer day in 2013, Corey Weathers decided to share his love of camping with his two daughters, who were then 3 and 6 years old. Once at his campsite, it didn’t take long for the father of two to realize that camping with small children was less than idyllic.
When he returned, Weathers began to research different types of travel trailers and recreational vehicles to accommodate his young family on subsequent outings, but he couldn’t find a suitable eco-friendly solution.
“I was really kind of appalled, one because of the size of the vehicle needed to tow most travel trailers, and two, the lack of inspiration and the lack of design and lack of general sustainability that actually went into travel trailers,” Weathers said.
So, with a bit of inspiration from his 6-year-old — who innocently asked her father whether he could build a treehouse on wheels — and help from some friends in the construction field, as well as the consultation of co-founder Eric Gertsman, Weathers built his own 94-square-foot sustainable travel trailer in just six months.
The result was treehouse-like, to Weathers’ daughter’s specifications, which made it family-friendly. Weathers himself likened the creation to a cozy cabin on wheels. The lightweight, nimble wooden trailer featured solar panels, a 12-gallon water tank, a composting toilet, and bunk beds, and it fit into a standard residential garage, allowing users to go completely off the grid or host out-of-town relatives in their garage.
It would be another year or so before Weathers and Gertsman officially formed Homegrown Trailers in Kirkland, but now the duo’s earthy rental trailers have been booking steadily, and invoices for custom orders have come rolling in.
“We want to get people out into nature and on road trips so they’ll take the adventures that inspire us; that is a big part of our mission,” Gertsman said.
“Besides,” said Weathers, “in the Northwest there are only so many good weekends you can go camping.”
Volunteer docent, Friends of the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery
As bright-yellow school buses full of wiggly grade-schoolers glide to a stop in front of the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery in early fall, Kirsten Hardisty stands off to the side waiting for her assigned group of 10 to 15 students to make their way to her.
For the last five years, the real estate agent-turned-stay-at-home-mom has stood holding a bright-red stuffed salmon — which she affectionately refers to as Susie the Salmon — high above her head so the children can find her with ease.
This is hardly necessary, though, as Hardisty — who works as a volunteer docent for the hatchery — looks like a cartoon character, with her knee-high striped socks, a shockingly orange skirt, and a large fisherman’s vest loaded with key chains and pins proclaiming things like, “Put nothing but rain down the storm drain.”
“I want to keep their attention,” Hardisty said. “I’ve noticed that the more out of the box I can be, the more I keep their attention.”
Hardisty also wears a necklace made of garbage to help the children visualize the types of creek-side trash that can be harmful to salmon and other animals. These necklaces have become such a hit with the kids that other docents have made similar ones.
During each tour, Hardisty speaks to the children about her grandfather and the home he purchased on Whidbey Island when she was 11 years old. She tells the children how she used to stand on the beach and cast her fishing line, catching salmon near the shore. She tells them how big and plentiful the fish were. Hardisty’s family still shares the property, but she finds it hard to reconcile present-day experiences with those from her childhood.
“I talk to (the children) a little bit about how that is a really short period of time to see such big changes,” she said. “Over the course of my lifetime, the salmon have gotten smaller, they’ve gone deeper.”
Hardisty said those drastic changes are why she has continued to volunteer at the hatchery year after year, hoping to inspire future generations of environmental stewards.
“The hope is that someday — not all of them but one or two of them — will be in a political situation where they can have that singular voice that will fund programs like this, or that will fund other programs that will help the environment and work toward sustainability,” she said.
Service support technician, Eastside Fire and Rescue
Each morning, Brian Gilomen dons his bright-yellow, reflective jacket, an overloaded key ring hanging from his belt — filled with keys that unlock numerous doors across the Eastside. Behind those doors lie the nerve centers for each of Eastside Fire and Rescue’s stations.
As the service support technician for emergency responders, Gilomen has been the sole maintainer of the department’s 16 buildings for the last 20 years. He said no two days ever have been the same, and he seldom knows where each day will take him. One day, he could be working on an antiquated boiler, tucked away into the corner of a station built in the 1930s. The next day, he could find himself fixing the radiated flooring in the department’s most contemporary stations.
“They challenge me sometimes, it definitely keeps you hopping,” Gilomen said. “All our facilities are scattered throughout the county from (Issaquah) to Tiger Mountain, to North Bend, Carnation, and Sammamish, so I have to figure out my priorities and what is necessary and try to schedule routine stuff like filter changes and glycol testing, lots of stuff that is always on a schedule that you try to keep.”
Gilomen has an almost-encyclopedic knowledge of the inner workings of each station’s systems, including the highly-energy efficient LEED-certified Fire Station 72 on Northwest Maple Street in Issaquah.
The station is equipped with an 8,500-gallon, above-ground rainwater tank used for toilet flushing, laundry, irrigation, and truck washing. Solar panels on the station’s roof not only keep everything running, but they also put excess wattage back onto the power grid. Advanced lighting and energy controls shut down when they sense first responders leaving the station on a call, going so far as to turn the oven off to prevent cooking fires, ironically enough.
Station 72 is one of the more complicated stations on Gilomen’s route. “I call this room the submarine room because of all the pipes, it is a lot of stuff crammed into a little space,” Gilomen said as he walked into a large closet inside the station’s fitness center. Despite the massive tangle, Gilomen knows exactly what each pipe does and will tell you about them in detail if asked.
“I try to learn all the time — like with the solar panels and the rainwater collection — I never knew what that stuff was (before Station 72 was built),” he said. “Sometimes it is challenging but it’s always rewarding. I feel good trying to make these guys’ jobs easier. It is hard enough what they do, it is nice to help out where I can.”
More than making the first responders’ lives easier by making sure everything functions as it should, Gilomen realizes that his primary function is protecting the protectors.
“The highest priority for my job is the safety and security of the guys in these buildings,” he said. “The building can burn down for all I care just so long as these guys are safe on the way out.”
This article originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of “425 Business.”