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Tuesday, June 2, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports >  Outdoors

Diana Roberts devoted life to making outdoors better for dogs and their people

Diana Roberts, who was an agronomist with the Spokane County-WSU Extension, shows samples of weeds to about 30 people who turned out for a walk to see what can be done about weed infestations on the South Hill Bluffs off High Drive in July of 2010. (Rich Landers / The Spokesman-Review)
Diana Roberts, who was an agronomist with the Spokane County-WSU Extension, shows samples of weeds to about 30 people who turned out for a walk to see what can be done about weed infestations on the South Hill Bluffs off High Drive in July of 2010. (Rich Landers / The Spokesman-Review)
By Rich Landers For The Spokesman-Review

Diana Roberts’ commitment to the outdoors included the dirty work of packing away buckets filled with poop left on public land by other people’s dogs.

What makes her especially remarkable, though, was her ability to convince South Hill volunteers that it was their doo-ty, too.

Roberts, founder of the South Hill-oriented Friends of the Bluff and the facilitator for skijoring at Mount Spokane, died on March 18. She was 62.

“Her compassion for all animals was the foundation for much of who she was and what she did,” said close friend Sue Niezgoda.

Her love for dogs and skiing merged in skijoring, a sport in which one or two harnessed dogs pull a skier tethered by a rope. But dogs were prohibited on the ideal venue of Mount Spokane’s groomed cross-country skiing trails 16 years ago. Many outspoken skiers weren’t interested in opening the door.

This was a challenge custom-made for Roberts’ expertise. She lined up a few supporters and met multiple times with state parks staff and the Nordic trails grooming committee. By the next season, limited skijoring was OK’d over designated trails on certain days during specific hours.

Roberts knew education was the other critical component to expanding opportunity. She organized clinics to give newcomers the skills, foster respect for the leash rules and instill etiquette for sharing trails while emphasizing the responsibility for immediately removing “brown klister” from the snow.

“We’ve earned the privilege to be on groomed ski trails and there’s nothing that will get us booted off faster than leaving our dog poop,” she told participants in the first clinic. “It’s very offensive to other skiers.”

Niezgoda, a Gonzaga University civil engineering professor, hit it off immediately with Roberts when they first met in a car pool for a group hiking trip to Sherman Pass. “Her dog put his head on my lap,” she said. “Diana immediately picked up on it and said, ‘You’re going to be a lifelong friend. He doesn’t lie.’”

The two women connected on many levels even though Roberts was a fervent vegan while Niezgoda is not. They’re both outdoorsy, independent and accomplished. “But Diana’s road to a Ph.D. was a lot rougher than mine,” Niezgoda said.

Roberts grew up on Rhodesia timberlands her father managed, where she learned about making forests fire resistant. She wanted to become a forester, but that wasn’t possible for a woman in her country.

She completed her college degree as civil war wound down. With Robert Mugabe becoming the first Prime Minister of Zimbabwe, she could see her hopes of post-graduate work in plant breeding would be dashed if she didn’t get out of the country. Her father ultimately was murdered by Mugabe’s mobs.

Roberts completed her master’s in South Dakota, came to Washington State University for her doctorate, and soon was delivered to Spokane in 1991 as an agronomist with the Spokane County Extension. Much of her work focused on using bugs to treat bug infestations so agriculture could rely less on chemicals.

Roberts became a U.S. citizen in 2007 and continued her ways of making things happen with hard work and persistence.

In 2010, I unwittingly yanked her chain with an outdoors column in The Spokesman-Review about the need to control weeds on city parks land along the South Hill bluff.

I challenged trail users to launch personal assaults on noxious weeds by hiking with a squirt bottle of herbicide and becoming a weed warrior.

“That’s chemical trespassing,” she argued in a phone call the next day.

Within a few minutes she’d clearly explained why an organized scientific-based approach would be more effective and environmentally sensitive.

She made her point without bruising my ego, but Diana’s wheels were turning.

Within a few months, the Friends of the Bluff (FOB) was born as Roberts sensed the priceless swath of habitat between High Drive and Hangman Creek was worth an investment of time and energy.

Roberts knew the bluff trails didn’t just need a weed management plan; they needed a holistic plan. She was the catalyst who got things rolling. In the very next year:

• A certified mountain biking trail designer was coaching volunteers on sustainable trail building.

• Weed control outings were organized.

• Jack Nisbet, local author, historian and naturalist, was leading educational wild plant walks.

• A neighborhood meeting on forest health issues was held, followed by development of a Fire Risk Reduction Plan.

By October 2011, forest thinning demonstration projects were underway.

Rolling into 2012, cleanups began with volunteers, including teens, filling dumpsters with trash gleaned from the slopes.

Roberts sensed another problem piling up on the bluff – the disturbing amount of dog poop littering the trails as public use increased.

Her plan was to passively encourage more pet owners to pick up after their dogs by putting out buckets for depositing used poop bags. Led by Roberts, volunteers known as the Doo Crew started taking turns collecting the bags from the buckets and hauling the waste away to a dumpster.

Asked why trail users shouldn’t be required to haul away their dogs’ mess, Roberts said, “Just by having the buckets out there we encourage people to be more aware.” Eventually it would be nice if everyone came prepared to pick up their dog’s poop and take it home with them for disposal. “But until that day comes,” she told me, “the Doo Crew will help make sure dogs are well accepted.”

A crew of 15 continues the effort in Roberts’ memory.

Pat Keegan, a bluffs trail user, answered her call for help getting the group’s nonprofit status in 2013. “I was just starting my own consulting business, and I didn’t really need anything more on my plate,” he said. “But she pulled me in and soon I was on the board.

“She was so good at seeing what could be done if people work together. She didn’t just ask for help, she enabled people to get involved.”

Roberts retired from the board in 2015 to make way for others to step up to take on planning for sustainable trails and more. But she never turned her back on the bluff. FOB named her the 2018 Volunteer of the Year. She was still coordinating cleanups last fall as cancer was ravaging her body.

Roberts promoted a Mother’s Day perennials sale to raise money for pet rescue. She fostered and trained abandoned dogs. She put her own beloved dogs to the best possible uses such as pet therapy for hospice patients.

When cancer rendered the gifted artist’s right arm useless, she learned to paint with her left. Despite a terminal diagnosis, she bought an $80 Sno-Park permit for last winter to make sure she could get up to Mount Spokane as long as she was able.

“I don’t know anyone else with her combination of strength, determination and will,” Niezgoda said.

Rather than mourn her death, friends are planning, as she wished, to celebrate her life in her birthday month of October at River’s Wish Animal Sanctuary northwest of Spokane.

“She was all about public education, problem solving, making things better, working collaboratively,” said Robin Redman, a friend who assisted Roberts in her final months. “And she did it without being adversarial or alienating.”

Angel Spell, Spokane Parks and Recreation Department assistant director of natural resources, said the city is considering a FOB suggestion to name a trail in Roberts’ honor. But at Roberts’ urging that trails not be named for people, one proposal calls for naming her favorite trail after one of her dogs.

“She was such a catalyst,” Spell said. “She was very no-nonsense with passion for the places and the space, and the people and the animals that get to enjoy that space.”

Roberts insisted on the engagement of partners and community members, Spell said. “For things like Friends of the Bluff, she provided that instant lift that sets it into flight. From the city’s perspective, we’re so grateful for her initiating energy and her stamina to see things through to a sustainable organization.”

Upon hearing of Roberts’ death, Nisbet said he wanted some day to lead a nature walk on the bluff in her memory. “I will take people to a tree that was very special to Diana,” he said.

“That’s going to be a long hike,” said Redman applauding the offer. “Diana loved every tree on the bluff.”


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