How a little-known federal rule is driving a new battle over public lands in Crook County.
The Central Oregon Patriots believe in guns, God and the Constitution, but they’re not a militia.
An annual membership costs $20, which may be paid in installments. Meetings happen on Thursday nights inside the Calvary Baptist Church off Main Street in Prineville. Members say the pledge, pray and then get down to politics.
“We’re known as a force in Crook County,” says Pete Sharp, 74, the group’s co-chair. “When we get behind something, the politicians listen.”
It was a cold night in January 2016, and a couple dozen Patriots had gathered around a big table. The Bundys had just taken over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in nearby Harney County with demands to end federal management of public lands. The Patriots officially stayed neutral on that ordeal. They had their own battle at home.
A conservation group, Oregon Wild, had been lobbying to strengthen federal rules covering portions of the 845,000-acre Ochoco National Forest that presses against Prineville, population 9,200, the only incorporated town in the rural 3,000-square-mile Central Oregon county.
RELATED STORY: Prineville leaders weigh in on collaboration versus coordination as public lands strategy.
The idea was to ask Congress to create a new national recreation area and expand existing wilderness areas.
To environmentalists and a cadre of hunters, anglers and equestrians, the forest desperately needs a long-term proactive plan to balance conservation, recreation and restoration. To the Patriots, many of whom were born and raised on timber and grass, the plot reeked of more government control.
That night in the adult Bible study room, the Patriots made their move. They cut a $1,000 check for members to form the Crook County Natural Resources Political Action Committee. That group would then assemble a team of “like-minded” individuals to draft a natural-resources plan for how the county should approach land-use issues when dealing with the feds.
If the Crook County government adopted that plan, commissioners would have better footing to invoke a little- known clause in federal laws to make sure those agencies made “good-faith efforts” to reconcile any federal land-use decisions at odds with the county plan.
The negotiations would be government to government; no environmental or other special-interest groups allowed.
That little-known clause is called “invoking coordination,” and Crook County is in the throes of figuring it out, a process that has led to fiery public meetings, misinformation, hope and frustration. What remains to be seen is what it might actually do.
“The Ochocos have a lot of opportunities with so many aspects and interest groups involved,” says James Good, owner of Prineville’s Good Bike Co. “Ultimately the Forest Service is going to have to hash it all out.”
Coordination has been on the federal books for decades, but rural counties are increasingly turning to it with heightened interest. To them, coordination’s victories hold enormous appeal.
Coordination has kept the Sonoran Desert tortoise off the endangered-species list, a move that preserved grazing rights for ranchers in the Southwest. Counties in Texas invoked it to reroute an interstate and a power line.
In Oregon at least four counties — including Wallowa, Crook and Malheur — either already have invoked coordination or are looking into it.
“It’s working quite well for us,” says Bill Harvey, a Baker County commissioner who has traveled to Crook County to speak about the benefits of coordination.
“I do believe that the people who depend on proper use of public lands do a far greater job at taking care of our lands. This is our home. This is worth fighting for.”
That locals-know-best battle cry worries some who say coordination’s power has been grossly oversold and that it only adds more bureaucracy. At worst, coordination threatens to pick at the scabs of old timber-war wounds or even to complicate widely respected efforts already in place that benefit industry, conservation and recreation alike.
“Coordination is often pitched to pro-extractive industry folks in rural areas as ‘set up a committee of your friends, write a plan, get it adopted by the county, and then you are in charge of the Forest Service,’” says Erik Fernandez, Oregon Wild’s wilderness program manager.
“It’s misleading to communities and has delivered very little to anyone in the West. The system isn’t broken.”
Since 2012 Crook County has worked closely with federal agencies on land-use issues through another tool called collaboration. Nearly every forest in the Pacific Northwest has a collaborative behind it now — Oregon alone has at least 25 of them — and each is built by representatives tied to a panoply of interests.
Loggers (who remember when the Ochocos fed 100 million board-feet of timber into Prineville’s five mills) must sit with environmentalists (who remember the clear cuts, the loss of habitat and erosion). Together, along with dozens of other groups, they work to find areas where they can get along and pitch proposals to the feds.
If coordination is an official government-to-government duet, then collaboration is an unofficial, polyphonic choir that the feds seem to tune in to.
“Forest management is very controversial, and if you get a diverse group of people agreeing on something, you’re kind of a fool not to do what they propose,” says Susan Jane Brown, a staff attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center. “Collaboration does enough to keep the timber industry afloat, and it means the Forest Service doesn’t get sued anywhere near as much by people like me.”
In Crook County, the Ochoco Forest Restoration Collaborative has worked to allow commercial thinning on thousands of acres and prescribed burns on thousands more acres. It has also worked to improve riparian conditions, fostered jobs and preserved clean water.
“Collaboration is really a trust exercise,” says Brown.
In contrast, she worries that “the coordination movement looks like the sage-brush rebellion. When you see change coming and you can’t stop it, sometimes the only thing you can do is make a lot of noise. It can get hostile, and I’m concerned that some of these extremely intolerant views will actually drive communities faster to extinction. And lord knows they’re barely holding on as is.”
Photo by | Jason Kaplan
Sharp, the Patriot, says he can’t speak on behalf of the PAC pushing coordination. But he insists that it has no designs on getting federal lands under local control.
“The Patriots have been accused of that, and the truth is I would like to see the state take over federal ground, but I’m not interested in going after that right now,” he says. “We have enough trouble taking care of what we have already.”
The Crook County Natural Resources PAC voted in May to decline interviews for this article, but Sharp says the land-use plan needed to bolster coordination “is not the Ten Commandments written in stone,” and that it can be adapted and changed as the county sees fit.
“It’s a guide,” he says.
In fact, it is taken almost verbatim from the plan used in Baker County.
The PAC as it stands now has grown beyond the Patriots and consists of close to 100 county voters divided into numerous committees that focus on agriculture, mining, access and recreation, among other topics. Jodie Fleck, an EMT at Rager Emergency Services, serves as the chair.
Until recently, Teresa Rodriguez, a Prineville city councilor, held the first vice chair.
Sharp says all active members could vote on what went into the draft resource plan, which clocked in at 57 pages and called for, among other things, that grazing permits be granted at historic stocking rates and that decisions be “firmly anchored” in data gathered through local, on-the-ground monitoring.
It also calls for land with “wilderness characteristics” not to be managed necessarily to preserve that wilderness, “as other resources may prove more valuable.”
More than 100 people — all of them Crook County voters — contributed ideas for the draft plan, but some residents complain that transparency and inclusiveness were an issue.
“The plan has been available for public review through the PAC, but I prefer to review and comment on official county business through official county venues,” Crook County resident Barbara Fontaine, the spouse of a retired wildland fire management officer, told commissioners during a hearing in August 2016.
“The PAC is a self-appointed group that wants to form a shadow government in Crook County by forcing the court to adopt their plan.”
The PAC has no official advisory authority with the county, but Seth Crawford, the county’s lead commissioner, believes it’s “imperative” to have a citizen advisory group.
“At this point we do not have specifics of what that group looks like,” he says, adding that he “definitely” thinks coordination is worth pursuing. “We’d have to come up with parameters for that board, sure. It’s a process.”
Photo by | Jason Kaplan
Proponents embrace coordination because collaboratives move too slowly for them, with a lot of debate for seemingly small steps because special-interest groups bog the process down, they say.
“With coordination, you can work out the best plan and don’t have to let one group of people dictate what happens for everyone else,” Sharp says.
And therein lies the crux.
Federal agencies can hold talks with local governments — which they already do anyway — but they aren’t legally bound to do what counties seek through coordination or even collaboration for that matter. If a county wants to keep an old logging road open, the Forest Service can still close it if federal rules say it must.
“I have to listen to everybody and not just the county,” says Stacey Forson, Ochoco National Forest supervisor.
Things so far haven’t turned out quite the way the Patriots assembled that night at the Baptist church had hoped.
The PAC spent months writing a draft natural-resources plan, but in August 2016 the County Court — the same as a county commission in other counties — shot it down in a 2-1 vote, saying the plan should go through the county’s planning commission first.
The PAC didn’t do that and aims to put a revised plan before commissioners “in the near future,” Sharp says, though he couldn’t give a date.
It could pass this time. The two commissioners who voted against adopting the plan, Mike McCabe and Ken Fahlgren, are no longer on the county court. If it doesn’t pass, Sharp says he’ll be the first to mount a campaign to get the naysayers out.
“I can guarantee I’ll do that, and I won’t be alone,” he says. “This has gone on for far too long already.”
Regardless of what happens, at its heart, the surge in interest in coordination in the rural West feels entirely predictable as the by-product of newly emboldened populism that’s only growing stronger. In a sense, it’s a chance for rural conservatives to take the mic and make themselves heard in a state dominated by intellectual elites. Isn’t that how good government works?
“Public lands are a good analogy for democracy,” says Sarah Cuddy, the Ochoco Mountain coordinator for Oregon Wild. “It doesn’t matter if you’re from New Jersey or Oregon. We all have a right to them. We all can participate.”