By Oliver Lazenby
While looking around Birch Bay State Park’s BP Heron Center during a meeting last month, Ted Morris felt a sense of pride as more than 60 people discussed plans for the future Birch Bay library. On that Monday, the center filled a role Morris hoped it could when the idea was conceived in 2002.
“It was just a cool feeling to see all those people funneling in and to think we wouldn’t have a place to do this if it wasn’t for us,” Morris said.
Morris retired late last month after 20 years as head ranger at Birch Bay and Peace Arch state parks and 43 years with Washington State Parks. The BP Heron Center, a log building that hosts interpretive and educational programs and community meetings, may be his most visible legacy. But it’s just one of countless projects he took on that went beyond his job description as head ranger.
Morris’ accomplishments include helping to form the Friends of Birch Bay State Park group, getting the boat launch and playground built at Birch Bay State Park, restarting the dormant Blaine-Birch Bay Park & Recreation 2 (BBPRD2) and forging relationships with businesses, nonprofits and government groups.
“Ted left an impression on the community and the direction of the park,” said Jason Snow, who worked with Morris for the past 20 years and will take over as park operations manager. “He elevated it.”
At 61, Morris feels he has more to offer and will continue to work in the community, he said, just not full-time. He will continue as director of BBPRD2, an organization he calls his baby.
Morris acknowledges that not all park rangers take on the amount of community-based projects he does, or add to park infrastructure the way he has. He strives to help people experience the same joy in parks
that he’s felt.
“The joy and excitement of adding things and seeing them used and improving a park that’s going to be there forever – that’s probably what drives me,” he said. “That type of thing is not work. That’s my volunteer time, my give-back time.”
Much of Morris’s success comes from his ability to make connections and work with diverse groups toward a common goal. Working with BP Cherry Point, True Log Homes, Friends of Birch Bay State Park and various other volunteers allowed Morris to secure more than $100,000 in grant funding for the BP Heron Center and get it built primarily by volunteers.
Through BBPRD2, which he helped reestablish in 2005, Morris made partnerships that helped fund and install the Blaine Marina Park and the Blaine Boys and Girls Club pavilion building. With Whatcom Land Trust, the district acquired land at California Creek and the two organizations are working to fund and plan a park there.
The district is currently working with Whatcom County on the Birch Bay Community Park, and working with private property owners to secure easements for a trail from the Canadian border to Point Whitehorn.
“He’s been very instrumental in working with all these agencies,” said Heidi Holmes, program manager at BBPRD2. “He has a great connection with people and a great enthusiasm.”
Growing up on an apple orchard in Bridgeport, a remote town on the Columbia River east of Chelan, Morris knew he wanted to work outside. In high school he got a job as a park aide at Alta Lake State Park, about 20 miles east of Bridgeport.
“I really enjoyed fishing, hunting, being outdoors and I thought that’s what I wanted to do rather than be behind a desk,” he said. “That job came up and the rest is history.”
Morris worked as a park aide while earning a two-year natural resources degree at Spokane Community College. By the time he graduated, he thought he wanted to keep working for state parks.
“I knew I enjoyed it. It’s nice to solve problems for people – to help someone with their tent that won’t go up or who knows what,” Morris said. “By then I had a taste of things like cleaning the restrooms that weren’t quite as much fun, but you take the good with the bad.”
Through a federal government training program, Morris took a year-and-a-half long course to become a park ranger 1, the lowest level ranger job, and then got hired at Birch Bay State Park. He embraced the change and hoped to stay; the inland native even bought scuba equipment.
But it wasn’t meant to be. Budget cuts in April 1980 (Morris knew the month, as well as details and costs for various decades-old projects) made his position part-time, and rather than stay, he left for a full-time job at Deception Pass State Park. After three years, he tired of one of the most popular state parks in Washington and left for another ranger job at Wallace Falls State Park, west of Stevens Pass, a wilderness by comparison.
“Wallace Falls was just a great park, with beautiful hiking trails. I learned how to steelhead fish there on the Skykomish,” Morris said.
Three years later, in 1986, he returned to Birch Bay State Park, and once again, his stay was temporary. After three years of working while earning a recreation degree at Western Washington University, Morris packed up for Fort Simcoe Historical State Park, on the Yakama Indian Reservation east of Mt. Adams.
“The theme here is you pretty much have to move around to promote. Rarely are you at the same park,” he said. “A job opens here and you move.”
Four years later Morris moved on to Ike Kinswa State Park east of Chehalis, before finally returning to Birch Bay State Park in 1998.
That year, he and his wife had their first of two children. Morris had climbed about as high as he could as a ranger without getting a position that required more office work. Finally, 18 years after purchasing scuba gear, Morris was at Birch Bay State Park to stay.
Morris collected plenty of stories during his 43-year career, and some of his favorites come from his 26 total years at Birch Bay State Park.
He saved three stuck skunks at Birch Bay – one that got locked in a crab trap at a campsite and two that stuck their snouts too deep into Yoplait yogurt containers. The first skunk to get stuck in a yogurt container was wobbling around the campground bumping into things and scaring campers when Morris heard about it.
“I remember I put on rain gear, thinking I was going to get blasted,” Morris said. “I grabbed the yogurt container and pulled and it didn’t come off and I’m thinking ‘oh no, he’s gonna get me.’ So I grabbed and swung and pulled it hard and it came off. The skunk just looked at me and took off.”
In fact, Morris didn’t get sprayed in any of the skunk incidents.
Since people like to drink at campgrounds, Morris also has a mental catalog of what he calls “dumb criminal stories.”
“I had a kid steal an ice chest from a campsite, and he left his prom picture with his name on the back, his Washington state ID card and a reminder card for an appointment a couple days away with his probation officer,” Morris said.
Morris called the probation officer, who couldn’t wait to call the young offender.
Another highlight is the underage man who denied drinking alcohol, until Morris pointed out the nearby red Solo cup had the man’s name on it.
Much of the ranger job, however, is less exciting. Morris’ daily work changed seasonally: upkeep and helping visitors filled summers, while winter allowed time for bigger maintenance projects.
The work gave Morris ample time to get to know camp hosts and employees.
“One of my greatest joys is just the friends I made over the years and rangers that I still have great relationships with,” he said. “When you work with people for that long, they become almost more than friends. That’s a big plus to my career.”
A not-so-new head ranger
Though Morris has managed Peace Arch and Birch Bay state parks for 20 years, he expects his retirement to be a smooth transition. Jason Snow, who started as a ranger at Peace Arch and Birch Bay the same year as Morris, took over.
“Jason will be great. He’s built great relationships at Peace Arch and I think he’ll continue great relationships with the community,” Morris said.
And to ease the transition, Morris left the facilities well maintained until the end.
After an afternoon break on the second-to-last of about 10,000 workdays, Morris stood up from a picnic table, picked up a castoff chocolate milk container from a nearby table, and returned to work.