A Story of Stewardship

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After completing graduate school in 1998, my first job was working for Sustainable Northwest in Lakeview, Ore. where I coordinated diverse interests involved in federal forest restoration and local jobs. The Fremont-Winema National Forest has one of the last sustained yield units in the country. Created in 1950 to provide jobs from a steady supply of federal timber, the 660,000-acre designation gives sawmills within the unit right of first refusal on federal timber sales. By 1996, four of the five mills in Lake County had closed. The Collins Company had just shuttered their mill in tiny Paisley and the future of the last mill standing—the Fremont Sawmill in Lakeview—looked bleak. The community’s relationship to the forest needed a reboot.

After the closure of the Paisley mill, local leaders feared the last mill would close. They reached out to a broad group of environmental and industry interests to rethink how the unit could advance forest restoration and support local jobs. They formed the Lakeview Stewardship Group and began a dialogue. The collaborative agreed that the reintroduction of natural fire was vital to forest restoration but the infrastructure needed to implement their vision did not match what existed in the community. The solution lay in jettisoning the tired claim of jobs versus the environment and working toward a new system that recognizes the importance of both.

TRUCKING LOGS, CATTLE DOGS

Lake County is a classic mix of agriculture and timber. Log trucks stacked with ponderosa pine roll past flatbed pickups carrying fierce cattle dogs who patrol the truck bed. Rolling sagebrush scrub gives way to pine forests topped by dramatic basalt ridges. Rivers you’ve never heard of tumble down steep slopes, snake through open meadows, drain into alkaline lakes and evaporate in the desert sun. The Fremont-Winema National Forest grows the last trees before the Rockies.

The county seat of Lakeview sits at 4,800 feet. When I was considering the job, former county commissioner Jane O’Keeffe told me that in Lake County, people love their children just like everywhere else. The only difference was, it might snow during the fireworks show on the Fourth of July.

“NAKED IN THE SAND PIT”

Community leaders O’Keeffe and Paul Harlan of Collins Company envisioned a forest management system that balanced ecological, economic and community values. They understood that building this future meant putting all the options on the table.

“IT WAS TIME TO GET NAKED IN THE SAND PIT,” SAID PAUL HARLAN OF THE COLLINS COMPANIES.

Harlan’s colorful invitation signaled that they were serious about discussing what people wanted and how to get there. What resulted was one of the nation’s most durable and effective federal forest collaboratives. In 2014, the Chief of the U.S. Forest Service recognized the Lakeview Stewardship Group with the Meeting America’s Needs Award for incorporating ecological restoration and community values.

Lakeview, Oregon. Photo courtesy of Sustainable Northwest.

It was an unlikely place to start a revolution. Remote and hardscrabble, Lake County was known more for the fierce independence of its residents than inviting outsiders in to help solve their problems. But local leaders knew their backs were against the wall. The era of cutting old-growth ponderosa pine that helped build the local economy was long over. Environmentalists and timber interests fought in the courts and the community was caught in the middle.

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