On Thursday afternoon, Austin Tomlinson was walking the derelict, overgrown railroad tracks along the Twilight Eagle Sanctuary near Knappa with his dog, Porter.
He stopped periodically and snapped photos as part of an annual monitoring effort to see how the land is evolving amid conservation.
Working as a land steward with the Columbia Land Trust is a dream come true, said Tomlinson, a South County native who left for his education in the applied sciences before slowly piecing together a living back home.
“When I left for college, I knew I was going to be back here,” he said. “It was just kind of like, ‘How?’ It took me six years until I found this opportunity.”
After graduating from Seaside High School, Tomlinson left for college at Humboldt State University, where he earned a bachelor’s in rangeland sciences with a focus on soils. As a college student, he interned with the North Coast Land Conservancy, where he first took an interest in restoring and conserving natural environments.
After college, Tomlinson became a project manager for a forestry consultant analyzing the health of timber stands. But the job involved constant travel, and soon he was burned out.
Within a couple of years of graduation, Tomlinson was back on the North Coast. He spent five years in temporary positions, augmenting his income by fishing in Bristol Bay, Alaska.
“I was always here, but I was just doing seasonal (work), just trying to scrape by, which isn’t bad,” he said. “I still got to do the things I love, to travel and stuff, but I was just living paycheck to paycheck.”
In 2015, he was hired by the Clatsop Soil and Water Conservation District, and two years ago landed a highly competitive job as a land steward with the land trust, competing against some of his friends for the opportunity.
Tomlinson oversees 29 properties along the Columbia River, from the mouth and Washington’s Long Beach Peninsula to Rainier. Much of his time is spent in the field monitoring the properties as part of accreditation with the Land Trust Alliance, which includes yearly checkups on species diversity, encroachment of invasives and nearby development that can affect a property in conservation. He also oversees restoration projects such as pulling invasive species.
Tomlinson tries to expose local students to conserved lands and local opportunities in the field, inviting teachers interested in class field trips to contact the land trust.
He recently purchased a house in Gearhart with his partner, a local nurse he’s known since middle school who also moved back after spending time in Southern California and New York City.
“A lot of people I went to high school with just couldn’t wait to leave,” Tomlinson said. “It was a small town. They just wanted to get out. And of course I wanted to do the same thing, too, but I always knew we lived in such an awesome place. I knew I wanted to be here. It had everything that I wanted — the natural environment, the ocean, close to the mountains. It was just like, ‘How do you do it?’”