Dangerous Liasons

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Social and environmental bridge-building seems to be spreading in Oregon.

There’s a flurry of traffic on the unpaved roads that serve as thoroughfares 30 miles south and a little east of Prineville in Central Oregon’s high desert. Compared to most summer afternoons in this lonesome country, anyway. Trucks and other four-wheel-drive rigs, each chased by a cloud of reddish-brown dust, are converging on a livestock watering trough beside Salt Creek Road. Near the trough they turn down a smaller gravel road and follow it through the juniper and sagebrush to a white, turn-of-the-century house surrounded by cottonwood, elm and apple trees. Smiling folks pile out of their vehicles. Hands are shaken and casseroles, cakes and other delicacies delivered to the kitchen before 20 or so people find their way to a circle of chairs on the shady front lawn.

People sitting on lawn chairs in a circle on a front lawn.

A meeting of the Bear Creek Group, a watershed organization south of Prineville, at the home of Dick Nelsen and Louisa Horton. People are saying, “Let’s get together and get something done,” says Crook County extension agent Tim Deboodt, who works with the group. Photo: Tom Gentle

The mood shifts a bit as a meeting begins. But it’s relaxed, not formal. Moving to the left, each person in the circle introduces himself or herself and says why he or she is there. Some are more talkative than others, but they all seem to know the opening ritual, except for a couple of guests from Corvallis. After a short discussion of what’s on tap for the day, everyone climbs in vehicles to go sightseeing. During several stops the residents of the white house, Dick Nelsen and Louisa Horton, point out what they’re doing on land they own and land they lease from the federal government. They seem particularly proud of the native grasses and other plants in an area along Birch Creek where they’ve changed the timing of cattle grazing.

Later back on the lawn of the white house, as the sun sinks near the horizon, the sounds of wild creatures in the surrounding countryside mix with those of humans discussing what they saw on the tour. Locals politely question the two guests from Corvallis. What do urban people over in “The Valley” think of us—of ranchers? What do “environmentalists” up in Portland think we’re like? What are they like? How can we communicate with them?

Eventually, after the group works through its agenda, the meeting breaks up and people share a leisurely potluck meal. The Milky Way is twinkling overhead when folks head home.

You just read about a gathering of a single organization named, simply, the Bear Creek Group. But it’s an example of a phenomenon that’s swept through Oregon the last few years like wildfire: so-called working groups, natural resource coalitions and watershed councils. These three aren’t exactly the same, but they share many of the same operating methods and goals. And every one of them hopes to influence something important to all Oregonians. They hope to improve how we take care of soil, water, grass, trees, fish, wildlife and other precious natural resources.

Is the hope justified?

Man wearing cowboy hat talking to woman while sitting in tall grass with trees in the background.

Rancher Doc Hatfield (in cowboy hat) discusses the ecosystem at Sycan Marsh in southeastern Oregon with Linda Rexroat, who manages the marsh for the Nature Conservancy. Looking on are other members of the Oregon Watershed Improvement Coalition, or OWIC, an organization made up of ranchers, loggers, conservationists, environmental advocates, scientists and others. Photo: Tom Gentle

“There are 11 or 12 families in our group and we all live right here near each other in the watershed,” says Runinda McCormack, who coordinates the activities of the year-old Bear Creek Group. “We just want to make our watershed better, and we’re doing that.

“Before, we didn’t know the neighbors as well,” adds McCormack, who ranches with husband Jeff and their kids Holly (8) and Tyler (6) and Jeff's parents and brother. “We’d wave when we passed each other. But now we stop and chit-chat. We’re finding out about each other’s values and how we all do things.”

The Bear Creek Group is one of several working groups around the state that have grown out of a program called WESt (Watershed Ecosystem Management), explains John Buckhouse, an extension specialist and agricultural experiment station researcher in Oregon State University’s Department of Rangeland Resources.

The Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, a rancher organization, established WESt with funds provided by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and administered by Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality, says Buckhouse. Runinda McCormack coordinates the WESt program statewide for the cattlemen’s association in addition to participating in the group in the watershed where she lives.

“The reason I’m involved is that the Extension Service is involved in its educational capacity,” says Buckhouse. “Runinda and I form a team, more or less. She invites people to the first meeting [when a working group is forming]. I come out and talk about what they can do on their land, rather than just sitting back reacting to new regulations.

“We have three basic rules,” he says. “Everything the group does needs to be ecologically sound, economically sustainable and socially acceptable. Over the years in my extension work I’ve found that problems usually are related to one of these three things. You have to have ecological reality—you can’t grow bananas where bananas won’t grow. My travels in the Third World tell me that impoverished people can’t take care of the environment, and if neighbors can’t agree they can’t get things done.”

Three men standing outdoors talking together.

Extension agent Paul Heikkila, center, helped start the Coquille Watershed Association, the state’s first watershed council. Here he chats with farmer Rick Deadman, left, and another landowner. Photo: Tom Gentle

The working groups around the state have help from more than Buckhouse and a number of county extension agents who participate. Researchers from OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences and experts from state and federal agencies such as Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, U.S. Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service are helping people learn more about their watersheds.

“About eight of the working groups are really very functional,” says McCormack, “and the other six are continuing to meet from time to time.” She notes proudly that groups have done things such as changing livestock grazing practices, putting fencing around damaged areas in the riparian zone near streams to prevent grazing and allow recovery, planting willows along stream banks to stabilize them and provide shade to cool the water for fish, reconstructing ditches, changing irrigation systems, and drilling wells and using springs to keep livestock from drinking in streams.

“I figure anything that helps us learn more about the environment, with our neighbors, has to be good,” says Jim Hart, another rancher who’s a member of the Bear Creek Group.

But other types of environmental education efforts in the state are creating situations that make their members pretty nervous—more dangerous liaisons. One is the Oregon Watershed Improvement Coalition, called OWIC. It’s kind of the granddaddy of natural resource coalitions, a decade old.

“OWIC is the closest thing to anarchy there ever was,” says Bill Krueger, the head of OSU’s Department of Rangeland Resources. The group has a diverse membership and “you can’t have power over people with different points of view and have it work,” he explains. Krueger and Wayne Elmore, a Bureau of Land Management biologist in central Oregon, organized the group through the national Society of Range Management.

Four people standing outdoors talking together.

Photo: Tom Gentle

The coalition is made up of more than 20 ranchers, foresters, environmental advocates and university and government scientists, all representing organizations. The idea was to get people together who were usually on opposite sides in fights over the environment, along with scientists who could provide helpful information. Krueger recalls inviting people to the first OWIC meeting in 1986.

“I told them we really wanted to sit down and talk a little bit and see if we could find some common ground to begin to work together instead of fighting all the time. But that if it all fell apart, it’d only be one meeting and we’d look on it as a big experiment,” says Krueger. “Everyone thought it was kind of a silly idea. But they said, ‘This is kind of intriguing. We can go to one meeting.’”

Over the years a few people have dropped out for logistical and philosophical reasons, but OWIC hasn’t fallen apart. It’s continued to meet at sites around the state where members can inspect the landscape when they’re discussing issues. And the group has sponsored demonstration projects in cooperation with private landowners and public agencies.

“OWIC has done little by itself,” says Krueger, “but it’s given people some insight into the feasibility of working with other people in ways they might not have otherwise.”

“I think OWIC’s been very beneficial in stimulating positive changes on the ground—not trying to force something down people’s throats,” adds Fred Otley, who ranches on Steens Mountain near Burns. Besides participating in OWIC, Otley is president of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association and belongs to a WESt working group on Steens Mountain.

“My bias is that environmentalists are still very much in the minority at our meetings,” says Lew Curtis, an OWIC member and retired Portland social worker who’s state treasurer of the Sierra Club. “But I think it’s extremely important to keep the communication open. I listen to them and I give my opinions and they listen to me. The group has really hung together. We may not always agree, but we respect each other.”

OWIC’s most far-reaching work may be that it inspired, and with several other groups helped write, House Bill 3441, the legislation that established the Governor’s Watershed Enhancement Board. Through that program, Oregon now has 52 watershed councils in various parts of the state and 12 more forming. Governor John Kitzhaber appointed Mike Golden, a retired administrator with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, to be his state watershed advisor. Early efforts, focused on southern Oregon’s Rogue Basin and northeastern Oregon’s Grand Ronde Basin, are about three years old.

“To be authorized the councils must be recognized by a local county government,” says Golden. “They have to be balanced with representatives from local businesses, the environmental community, landowners, agriculture and timber companies. And the county commissioners are almost always involved.

“There’s still polarization on natural resources issues,” he says. “Some just don’t believe it’s the right way to go. They’d rather take the route of legal challenges. But the Governor is a really strong supporter of the watershed council movement—community-based activities that keep us from needing more top-down regulation. The councils are working to that end. I think we’re right on the forefront of what’s going to be a real landmark in resource management.”

Paul Heikkila, a marine extension agent in Coos County, heartily agrees. In 1994 Heikkila helped start the first council, the Coquille Watershed Association.

“Like most coastal streams, the Coquille River reflects 150 years of human use for various purposes,” says Heikkila. Coho salmon stocks in the watershed are 10 to 15 percent of the historical average and other fish species are in trouble, too. The watershed’s problems include reduced water quality, blockage by culverts, modification of wetlands, stream bank erosion caused by agricultural and other activities and damage out in the stream caused by logging and other practices.

But a diverse group of watershed association members—fishermen, farmers, loggers and representatives of companies and federal, state and local agencies—have pitched in to change that.

“One of the strengths is it’s a neighbor-to-neighbor approach, and we’ve tried to be very sensitive to landowners rights,” says Heikkila. “But there’s been a tension, a special motivation—the threat of endangered species listing for the coho. People see the handwriting on the wall and many have been very cooperative. One landowner donated his bottom land so it could be restored to wetland.”

Man wearing cowboy hat. Bearded man wearing glasses.

Photos: Tom Gentle

But Heikkila acknowledges that the process of building trust precedes the council, with roots going back at least 10 years. “And we still run into cynics,” he says.

One person who’s not cynical about the various kinds of natural resource coalitions, councils and working groups in Oregon these days is Erik Fritzell, the head of OSU’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, whose faculty members offer their expertise to groups trying to learn more about various ecosystems. Fritzell moved to OSU from the University of Missouri a little more than a year ago.

“When people ask me what’s the biggest change between the Midwest and Oregon, I usually say people here don’t seem to have the tradition of talking to each other. Not that they don’t have problems in the Midwest. But, quite frankly, there’s a well-appreciated culture of diverse interests working things out back there. I couldn’t believe how quickly people started shouting at each other when I first got here.

“I’m not a big fan of regulation. It’s not a very good solution to anything. I’m a believer in education in its broadest definition. So I think some of these things going on in Oregon are potentially very important. I’ve seen what can happen when people work together.”

Published in: Economics, People