County Parks Director Brian Carroll stepping down after 25 years of building ‘premier’ system

By Scott Swanson
Lebanon Local

In 25 years, by nearly all accounts, Brian Carroll has guided the Linn County Parks Department to near-unparalleled success in the state of Oregon.

Under his leadership, county parks are bursting at the seams with campers during the summer months, and there are three more county campgrounds – River Bend, Cascadia and Clear Lake Resort – now than there were when he took over in May 1997.

Carroll and his staff now manage 33 park facilities, including six U.S. Forest Service campgrounds, as well as maintaining the Moyer House and Museum in Brownsville.

Overall, during his tenure, the scope of the county’s facilities has grown from a little more than 300 campsites in 1997 to nearly 600 today.

Carroll, 60, has announced – quietly – that he is retiring, and the county has advertised for a replacement.

“We’re starting to do interviews, soon,” Board of Commissioners Roger Nyquist said, adding that the group intends to find a worthy successor. “There’s no hard end date to this thing.”

Nyquist acknowledged that it was difficult to sum up Carroll’s impact on Linn County.

“It’s hard to communicate it all in a few sentences. He’s had to be one part builder, one part developer, one part grant writer.

“He really has developed the premier county parks system in the state. I’m so proud of what he’s accomplished.”

Former New Era publisher Alex Paul has known Carroll since 1997, when he wrote a story about the new director.

“His successor will benefit from Brian’s diligence,” Paul said, “but will also have some big shoes to fill.”

‘Humble, Likable Guy’

Those who have worked with Carroll attest, universally, to his engaging personality and his consideration for others, as well as an underlying sense of genuine selflessness. His laid-back, friendly demeanor is genuine, as is his focus on excellence and success.

Those are qualities, his bosses and others who have interacted with him over the years say, that have enabled him to accomplish what he has.

“A great guy,” said Milt Moran, president of Cascade Timber Consulting, who also chairs the county Parks Commission. “He absolutely respects other people, the concerns that they have. Really, really humble.”

“He’s a very likable guy who’s got great people skills,” Nyquist said. “He never cared about taking credit, who got credit – just about getting it done. He’s very comfortable in his own skin, what he could do. Never, never did he ever over-promise; he just always seemed to over-deliver.

“He’s a quality person who attracted quality people to work with him.”

“Brian has taken our county parks system and made it, I believe, the best in the state,” said Commissioner Will Tucker, who has served as the board’s liaison to the parks for multiple years. “He’s a tremendous, tremendous, tremendous partner, ally, and friend.”

He added that Carroll “calmly tries to understand both sides,” and that his reputation for achieving the department’s objectives has often assuaged concerns regarding his “new ideas.”

“His track record of delivering takes care of those fears,” Tucker said. “His reputation, his communication, it makes him one heck of a man. I just love him.”

Arriving in 1997. File photo

Escaping New York

Carroll, 60, came to Linn County from Whitman County, in eastern Washington, where he’d gone to work after graduating in 1986 from the University of Idaho with a degree in wildland recreation management.

He was attracted to the Linn County position because he and his wife Linda wanted to stay in the Northwest.

Born and raised on Staten Island in New York City, Carroll said he fell in love with the outdoors when his dad frequently took him camping and backpacking in the Catskill Mountains in New York State.

“I developed a love of the outdoors and met a few rangers there and just thought that was a cool job and that’s kind of what got me going for that,” he recalled. “I thought that would be a great career and then I always wanted to come out west and see see the West. I kind of wanted to escape New York.”

After briefly attending Michigan Technological University in Houghton, he moved on to Idaho.

“That was a great experience,” Carroll said. “With that, I just fell in love with the Pacific Northwest.”

He put himself through school, so he spent his summers and took some breaks to work for the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers “all around the country,” particularly in Nevada and Wyoming, he said. “But I could never wait to get back to the Northwest.”

After nine years in Whitman County, Wash., as the parks and recreation coordinator, Carroll wanted to move on and up, he said. His wife Linda was an Idaho native, and they decided “it was important to us to stay in the Northwest,” so when the Linn County directorship became available with the retirement of longtime director Dyrol “Burley” Burleson, he applied.

“Brian took the baton from Burley and ran with it,” recalled Paul, who has worked in Linn County journalism since 1985. “He had big shoes to fill 25 years ago, and he has had remarkable success.”

Carroll took over a department that was largely the creation of Burleson and Ozzie Shaw of Sweet Home, who was widely considered “the father of the county parks system” and served on the Parks Commission, which he helped co-found, for some 55 years.

“I had set a goal for myself that I wanted to be the director of a small- to mid-sized parks and recreation department,” Carroll said.

Brian Carroll stands above Green Peter Lake, where the county has greatly expanded camping facilities and opportunities. File photo

Twenty-Five Years of Progress

The department’s growth had seen a lull when he took over, Carroll said, and “it was just starting to grow again.”

“They saw a lot of growth in the ’60s and ’70s and then in the mid-’80s the whole timber crisis occurred and the county had a roll-back.”

Shaw and Burlison had put together a plan to make the department “more self-supporting,” he said, and when he arrived in 1997, “my job was to keep that train heading in that direction.”

“And we were able to do that.”

Under his leadership, the county staff built an entirely new 85-site, 90-acre campground at River Bend in Cascadia, which opened in the fall of 2005 and rapidly became one of the most popular in the county. They also nearly doubled the number of campsites at the 328-acre Whitcomb Creek Park, located on a peninsula at the northeast end of Green Peter Lake, to 85 sites.

Carroll also was a key player in Linn County’s acquisition, in 2007, of Clear Lake Resort, from the Santiam Fish and Game Association, which had built and operated the resort for 80 years, and Edgewater Marina and RV Park on Foster Lake, in 2014.

Last September the Oregon State Parks officially turned ownership of Cascadia Park over to Linn County, which had managed the facility since 2019.

The county has added multiple smaller facilities: Calkins Boat Ramp on the east end of Foster Lake in 2008, the Bilyeu Den Wayside in Scio, and multiple yurt installations and permanent cabins at various campgrounds, and boat-in camping facilities on the north shore of Green Peter Lake.

Its park offerings now range from rustic tent camping to huge, multi-family RV areas. Nearly all the work has been done, or at least supervised, by county parks staff.

At the Moyer House, Carroll and his staff have instituted displays that highlight Linn County’s first black settlers, and its cattle and sheep agricultural industries, Tucker noted.

“The Moyer House is really good history.”

Linn County’s parks operate without money from the General Fund; funding comes from reservations, grants, the Transient Lodging tax and RV and boat fees.

Carroll accepts a national award from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2014. File photo

Efforts Have Turned Heads

Many have noticed that success.

During the ceremony last fall marking the transfer of Cascadia State Park to county ownership, State Parks Director Lisa Sumption, at the Cascadia Park dedication, acknowledged in front of the audience, “Brian, you do have the best county parks system,” adding that “you set the bar really high for the state and the county.”

Moran said Carroll, while a government official, has become an integral part of the business community.

“He’s really been a great advocate for outdoor recreation in the county, but I consider him a business leader too. He’s really worked hard to strive to make remaining parks updated, keeping them in really really good shape. He’s stayed within budget. The Parks Department is pretty self-sufficient because of the revenue streams we have. That’s huge.”

Plus, Moran added, Carroll has been very responsive to the needs of the local business community.

“For lots of us private timberland owners, he’s very, very interested in hearing our concerns when there’s parks to develop near timberlands,” Moran said.

Nyquist echoed that: “He’s had great vision and he’s really been able to connect the funding dots, creating funding streams to improve the parks system and get things done without relying on county general fund money. Over time that has sustained him well.”

Tucker said the Parks Department contributes substantially to the local economies.

“Brian has dramatically increased the number of people who come to Linn County to camp and fish,” he said. “All that means more jobs, more people coming to town to buy equipment, food. These may not be the big-paying jobs, but these are good people coming to town, moving through in large part because Brian has built that organization the way he has.”

Team Effort

A major contributor to the department’s success, Carroll said, has been the staff, which has grown from nine full-timers when he arrived to 13, plus seasonal and part-time staff that often number around 50 during the summer months.

When he arrived, Carroll said, “I had a couple of really good partners in Richard Frick and Cheryl Johnston.”

Frick, of Sweet Home, was operations supervisor, and Johnston was the office manager. The other parks staffer who has continued throughout Carroll’s tenure is John Hefty, also of Sweet Home.

What was key, Carroll said, was that the staff completely bought into the goal of being self-supporting, which became a reality in 2011.

Carroll said he and the staff figured “that we were in control of our own destiny if, as a department, we could implement this model and make it work. I think we’ve been successful. We still have our ups and downs, without a doubt, but I’m proud of the work that we’ve done.”

The COVID-19 pandemic was one of those down times.

“When COVID hit we were right at the end of our fiscal year, and the state shut us down for a couple of months. Although we recovered far better than I thought we would, the next year was phenomenal. That put us back on track, which has been helpful.”

He said county commissioners have been supportive, providing the department with funding from the county’s transient lodging tax “and that kind of thing” when needed.

“I do believe the department is in the position to do some really wonderful things,” Carroll said.

Brian Carroll speaks during the official hand-over of Cascadia State Park to Linn County last summer. File photo

Trust and Cooperation

Another factor, he said, has been the department’s ability to work with other agencies – the U.S. Forest Service, the state, the Corps of Engineers.

The county’s management of the USFS campgrounds along Highway 20 east of Sweet Home, which began in 2010, “set the foundation for some of the other things that we’ve done with other agencies and opened our eyes to what we could do with partnerships,” Carroll said. “That’s something that I think has been a major focus during my time here.”

In 2014 the county was honored with a USACE Excellence in Partnership Award in recognition of the agencies’ longtime cooperation in the management of local parks and recreational facilities.

The county department operates two campgrounds in conjunction with the Corps, Sunnyside and Whitcomb Creek at Foster and Green Peter reservoirs, along with Lewis Creek Park on Foster and five boat launch facilities between the two lakes, and rustic camping at Green Peter.

The county has built a strong relationship with Corps officials, particularly Erik Petersen, manager of the Willamette Valley Project, which includes both local reservoirs.

“He’s done a stellar job,” Carroll said of Petersen. “That’s enabled us to work far more closely with the Corps and build what we’ve built over the past 15 years. They have given us the ability to expand and improve the facilities that are here and have certainly been a good partner.”

Moran said an example of that is the development of boat-in camping facilities along the shores of Green Peter.

Carroll, he said, “has been able to bridge some of those gaps with the federal agencies. He’s been able to do really good with that.”

Tucker noted that the Corps award was national: “Of all the counties and cities in the U.S., we were the one awarded. It really wasn’t the Board of Commissioners. It was Brian Carroll and the team he has put together. ”

The county parks staff was also recognized in 2001 by the state Marine Board as the Best Maintenance Staff in the state. Carroll noted at that time that his crew’s skill was noted throughout the state.

“When I go to get grant money for a project, the agencies know the quality work these guys do and they love providing a grant for us because their money will go so much further,” he told The New Era.

At that time, he said, Linn County could construct a new campsite for about $6,000, while the state’s cost for a similar project would be $26,000 per site.

Tucker said that although other counties, such as Jackson County, have quality parks, “what Brian has accomplished personally, Jackson County has a whole bunch of resources – an amphitheater, a drag strip, those kinds of things.”

“Brian has built relationships and he’s built a self-sustaining department. That is unusual. Most of those counties are still putting money into their park systems. We don’t have to.”

Paul, who started producing an annual parks guide for the county during his years as publisher at The New Era, said, “It has been an honor to work with Brian, first as The New Era publisher and for the last two years as Linn County communications officer. He is a first-class guy and Linn County has greatly benefited from his skills.”

Carroll points out highlights on a map of a proposed community forest corridor in 2013. File photo

Support from Superiors

Another contributor to the department’s success, Carroll said in a recent interview, has been the Board of Commissioners’ support.

“They gave us the freedom to do what we needed to do,” he said. “That’s not without oversight; they’re very aware of the plans that we’re working on. But they did not micromanage. They allowed us to do our thing, what we thought we needed to do.

“We’ve made some mistakes along the way, but overall, I think that I think they recognize that, you know, what we were trying to do was the direction that they asked us to go.”

Nyquist recalled how, when the county was negotiating with the longtime volunteers of the Santiam Fish and Game Association to acquire the operating rights to Clear Lake, a “substantial” competing offer arose at the last minute.

“Brian was concerned,” Nyquist said, noting that Carroll was clearly stressed when he met with commissioners to discuss the issue. “I said, ‘Brian, just add another zero to your offer.'”

That sealed the deal, he recalled, adding that Clear Lake has become one of the county’s most profitable enterprises.

“That’s just his legacy.”

At a meeting of the Sweet Home Chamber of Commerce, Brian Carroll points out planned improvements to Green Peter Lake. File photo

New World in Outdoors

Camping and outdoors activities, plus the demands of the public, have changed since he started, Carroll said, citing the prevalence of everything from high-priced powerboats to inexpensive kayaks and paddleboards, and mountain bikes. GPS equipment has given people the ability to more easily go off the beaten tracks as well.

He said county staff takes pride in staying abreast of new developments as they plan for the future.

“When I grew up, and I think for most of us of my my era, it was you went camping to get away from it all. Now you go camping and you take it all with you. People are going for an experience and they’re going for activities. Back then, you know, we used to go just to relax. Boy, there’s so many toys and opportunities to enjoy the outdoors now that weren’t there.”

The COVID-19 pandemic actually escalated the public’s interest in the outdoors, he said.

“It got people outside and I think it also allowed people to realize that all those activities they watch other people doing, they can actually participate in. I think those are all kind of exciting things, going forward.”

Getting Outdoors

Carroll said he looks forward to spending more time with his family as he dials things down in the office.

Carroll’s wife Linda is Dean of Healthcare at Linn-Benton Community College since 2015. They have three adult daughters, including identical twins.

“The nice thing is, even at work I get to enjoy the outdoors, but I’m looking forward to spending more time hiking and biking. I’ve had a great career. It’s been enjoyable, but the one impact is that my summers have been tied up with work. I look forward to being able to enjoy the outdoors more.”

As he leaves, Carroll has told commissioners that he’s willing to stick around and help his successor get up to speed.

There’s still a lot in the pipeline, he said: a revamp of Lewis Creek Park, the expanded camping facilities at Green Peter, and more.

“A lot of the infrastructure is 50 years old, especially in east Linn County,” he said. “I’d love to see some of the plans that we have put into place occur over time but I look forward to also seeing how it changes.”

He said he’s looking forward to seeing fresh leadership and how that affects the department.

“I hope that whoever takes over recognizes the opportunity that they have here and that they do have a great Board of County Commissioners and staff to work with,” he said. “If they take advantage of the opportunities placed in front of them, I think they can take this to the next level.”

“We’ll miss him,” Tucker said.