On an icy-cold winter morning in Swan Creek Park, Scott Murdock was the first to show up for a trash cleanup. As he stumped over the fresh snow with a garbage bag, he’d already been scouting the park before anyone arrived, informing organizers which areas had the most trash.
After five years of volunteering for Metro Parks Tacoma’s CHIP-In program and the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium’s horticulture team, Murdock has racked up a whopping 4,760 official hours of ripping ivy and blackberry, spreading mulch, and reclaiming land for wildlife in parks around Tacoma.
But to Murdock, it’s just a part of something he’s done ever since he retired: Giving back.
“I was born in Seattle, grew up in Olympia, and apart from three years working in Idaho, I’ve never lived outside Washington,” said Murdock. “Growing up, I did a lot of hiking with the Boy Scouts. I loved it.”
But working-life intervened, as it often does. Murdock’s a civil engineer who spent the bulk of his career inspecting bridges and ferry terminals for the Washington Department of Transportation. When he retired in 2014, he realized he wanted to get back to hiking – and to give back to those mountains, trails, and forests he loved as a boy.
He’d already spent years volunteering for other groups like Wilderness Volunteers and the Washington Trails Association (WTA), even spending weeks at a time doing carpentry projects at Holden Village, a retreat center in the North Cascades. A longtime Northeast Tacoma resident, he helped restore Julia’s Gulch, a lush ravine running down from the upper neighborhood to the water.
He volunteered for CHIP-In at Alderwood Park – and was hooked. “It had a lot of ivy and blackberry,” said Murdock, who lived close by. “So I said I’d like to take care of it, to give back.”
Since then, the tall, laconic engineer with a thick white beard has served nine years as park steward, a volunteer who commits to regular monthly hours at a particular park and helps organize other volunteers. He’s been a regular at Alderwood and Browns Point Playfield, helping other stewards at Franklin, Titlow, Dickman Mill, and Swan Creek Parks. He also volunteers at Point Defiance Zoo, helping the horticulture team keep on top of the extensive botanic gardens there.
“Scott’s years of commitment and passion for assisting with the zoo’s botanical collection have been outstanding,” said zoo horticulturalist Bryon Jones. “The horticultural team looks forward to his weekly visits and his keen eye for detail which he brings to maintaining our grounds and plant collection.”
And his service hasn’t gone unnoticed by others. He won Tacoma’s 2019 City of Destiny Award for environmental sustainability, and another in 2021 as part of the zoo team. But he brushes off those accolades with a quiet humility, focusing more on what’s still to be done.
One recent day, that was English ivy. Starting around 8 a.m. at the natural trails on the northern edge of Browns Point Playfield, he pulled the invasive vine off towering madrona and fir trees, piling it up to break down naturally. As he worked, he pointed out other massive ivy piles and hummocky areas of salal, sword fern, and huckleberry glistening with dew.
“That was all blackberry when I started,” he explained.
Spending up to 20 hours a week working in parks as he does, educating the public is a part of the job. One day, clearing all that blackberry, a local resident complained that he was taking away all the habitat for birds. “I explained to her that what I was doing would let native vegetation grow and thrive, which provides much better food for birds than blackberries,” he said.
Other benefits of clearing invasive plants include the ability of Metro Parks and WTA to create more trails, thus protecting plants from human feet and encouraging walkers to explore. Murdock has also found that bringing back wildlife discourages unwanted human use, like teenage parties or trash. It also helps Metro Parks maintenance crews, lightening their load so they can focus on other areas like playgrounds, spraygrounds, playfields and restrooms.
For Murdock, the benefits of volunteering are intensely personal.
“It keeps me busy,” he said. “It’s my exercise program. It’s a great feeling to give back, and I can look around and see what I’ve accomplished. I feel really connected to the neighborhood.” With a smile, he added that “if it’s raining heavily, I might not go out. I’m getting lazy.”
Information about joining work parties or volunteering with Metro Parks Tacoma is available at metroparkstacoma.org/chip-in.