Prineville leaders weigh in on collaboration versus coordination as public lands strategy

Photo by | Jason Kaplan

Ranchers, environmental groups and civic leaders weigh in on public lands skirmish in Central Oregon.

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RELATED STORY: “How a little-known federal rule is driving a new battle over public lands in Crook County.”

The Rancher: Pete Sharp, part-time rancher, Central Oregon

Ochoco petesharpPhoto by | Jason Kaplan

Patriot Pete Sharp ran for a spot on the county court last year on a platform of God and Constitution. He lost, but that got him involved in politics and since then he’s kept his nose in it.

“I’m a pusher,” he says. “If you want something to get done, I’ll take a hold of the bone and gnaw on it.”  

Sharp, a 74-year-old Air Force veteran, is a Central Oregon Patriot co-chair and part-time rancher who also runs a business involving bulldozers used in firefighting. He’s been labeled a “radical” and says that might be true. Even so, he recognizes that Oregon Wild folks care about the forest, even if he vehemently disagrees with them.

For him — and he emphasizes he’s speaking only for himself — coordination is so important because the county and federal agencies get to sit at the table and negotiate on an equal basis. No special -interest groups allowed.

“The county won’t have control over the national forest or any other government agency, but it puts us on an even keel,” he says. “The county can lean on the government to adjust rules for what is best for the county.”

To do that, he says coordination gives the county better legal footing for challenging any federal moves that might contradict county plans.

“Coordination just makes people deal with reality.”

If the county court doesn’t invoke coordination soon, he says the naysayers will have to deal with Patriot wrath.

“If they snub their noses at us, we have the power to vote them out of office,” he says. “That’s exactly what will happen.”

The Environmentalist: Sarah Cuddy, Oregon Wild, Ochoco Mountains CoordinatorOchoco sarahcuddyPhoto by | Jason Kaplan

Sarah Cuddy, a 31-year-old Prineville native, had been soliciting local input among Crook County residents on an Oregon Wild plan to expand wilderness areas and create a national recreation area in the Ochoco National Forest when the Malheur takeover occurred. After that, she says, the tone at her sessions shifted dramatically.

“We had hundreds of people show up more based on ideological opposition to government influence than on content of the plan,” she says. “The timing was really unfortunate.”

She says the plan isn’t dead and that the work to bring people together on it is going to be “slow and painful” but necessary.

“People are already spilling over from the Deschutes National Forest because it’s getting so crowded over there,” she says. “All we have to do is look at the Green Lakes Trailhead on a Saturday in July to see the issues that recreation can cause.”

The problem with coordination, she says, is that it’s been oversold as a way for counties to tell federal agencies how to manage public land, which isn’t true. Worse, she says, is the precedent that combative calls for leaders to adopt policies crafted with limited public input could set.

“We have one of the most anti public lands and least environmentally friendly congresses in history,” she says. “If coordination is invoked and the natural resources plan passes, it won’t have a bearing on public land management, but it could set the tone on how public-land policy is made. That’s why we need to organize against it.”

It’s not that collaborative efforts are perfect. Oregon Wild has had issues there, too, especially in some areas of the state where “the token environmentalist” lends little more than social capital to the effort. Even so, she says she feels collaboratives are a “far more honest” version of coordination.

“Projects that raise our eyebrows to cut old-growth trees in the name of saving more old-growth trees, I don’t feel comfortable endorsing them, but at least there is an attempt to monitor the outcomes that we can circle back to,” she says. “Public lands in general represent democracy as a whole. We all have to care.”

The Politician: Betty Roppe, Prineville Mayor

Ochoco bettyroppePhoto by | Jason Kaplan

In 2012 Betty Roppe and Ken Fahlgren, a member of the Crook County court, the county’s governing commission, got an idea from something they saw up in John Day. There a collaborative effort was underway to come up with proposals on how federal agencies might manage portions of the forest. Couldn’t they do the same in the Ochocos?

In a word, yes, and the Ochoco Forest Restoration Collaborative was born.

Over the past five years, that group has worked to balance recreation, conservation and economic needs among a diverse array of stakeholders. There are private land owners, environmentalists, loggers and recreation advocates all onboard, and communication flows freely between the group and federal managers, who also attend collaborative meetings but don’t vote.

“Not everyone agrees with each other but we try to make decisions on a consensus basis,” says Roppe, 78. “The PAC maintains there is a significant difference between coordination and collaboration but really there isn’t that big of a difference from what we’re already doing.” 

For her, coordination in and of itself is another management tool, but the big problem with it lies with the proposed Crook County Resource Plan that would guide that coordination effort.

Last summer, after the PAC presented county commissioners with a draft of that plan, the three officials appeared prepared to adopt it without review as part of its consent agenda.

“I felt it needed to be vetted by the community first,” she says. So she spoke as a private citizen asking for debate. “People who wrote the plan were very unhappy with me for that,” she says.

The court agreed to hold a series of public meetings first.

“Some of those meetings were very contentious with shouting and name calling,” she says. “It got out of control. At times hundreds of people would show up. For us that’s huge.”

Commissioners ultimately shot the plan down in a 2-1 vote, but the PAC plans to introduce a revised version soon. Roppe hasn’t seen it yet, but she hopes that it won’t create more adversaries out of an already contentious issue or put local government in a legal hot seat.

“I don’t want to add things to this resource plan that aren’t enforceable,” she says.

The Businessman: John Shelk, Managing director of Ochoco Lumber Co.

Ochoco johnShelkPhoto by | Jason Kaplan

The story of Ochoco Lumber is, in brief, the story of Crook County. The company started Prineville’s second mill in 1938 and grew to mill 45 million board-feet a year across five mills staffed with 400 workers. By 2001 the company had “run out of logs” and closed every facility save one in John Day. Today the company employs 115 people and runs one of just four mills left in Oregon east of the Cascades.

Shelk, 73, says he feels coordination proponents believe he’s too soft on environmentalists, and maybe that’s why they haven’t asked him for any input.

“I’m neither a friend of the far left nor the far right,” he says. “We can’t go back to 1970s and cut huge amounts of timber any more than we can have no commercial harvesting at all.”

For his company, Shelk believes it’s best if both coordination and collaboration could work hand in hand.

“Coordination creates a rural voice that has a significant stake in the forest adjacent to its community,” he says. “The number and variety of voices that are heard also speak to responsible management.”

That said, he believes years of fire suppression coupled with no timber harvests have created a sense of urgency as forests become diseased tinderboxes.

“Trees have a nasty habit of growing,” he says. “What you have is proliferation of smaller trees that suck up moisture, nutrients and sunlight, so the forest becomes unhealthy. It can’t sustain itself.”

He believes coordination won’t move things along any faster, but it puts “another chair at the table.” That, along with collaborative efforts working side by side, might help thinning projects get bigger and bigger as the trust among stakeholders builds.

“There is still a long way to go,” he says.

A version of this article appears in the June issue of Oregon Business.