On a quest for common ground

Posted by Renee Magyar on March 16, 2011

Collaborative group is making headway towards a better future for the forests and the people of Grant County, OR


By Sandra Gubel

Blue Mountain Eagle

March 16, 2011

Over the past five years, a diverse group of people have been working through their differences toward a common goal: improving the resiliency of the Malheur National Forest and the communities that depend on it.

Participants say the group, the Blue Mountains Forest Partners, is making headway that will pay off in a better future for the forests and the people of Grant County.

The formation of the Blue Mountains group came as a new approach, collaboration, rose to the fore in federal forest management.

The members are drawn from different backgrounds and mindsets - loggers, mill operators, foresters, elected officials, environmentalists - to seek out common ground with restoration projects on the Malheur National Forest. Proposals prepared by the group and approved by a vote of all members are submitted for consideration by the Forest Service in its large landscape planning process.

So far, the Partners have completed proposals for three endeavors - the Dads Creek project east of Prairie City; Damon, in Bear Valley; and Soda Bear, surrounding Bear Valley and the town of Seneca.

"These projects are significant in size. We've gotten things done and we're proud of that. We've found common ground. We look to how we can work together. It's been a learning process," said executive director Irene Jerome. 

The process began back in the summer of 2006, when at least 30 people came together to try to seek solutions  against a backdrop that seemed grim. Across the region, wildfires had ravaged important timberlands that were weakened by disease, insects and overly dense brush and fuels. Mills were struggling and unemployment soared as litigation brought a formerly robust forest industry to a halt. The tentative partners disagreed on much, but agreed that something had to be done.

Local contractor Mike Browning is credited with pushing local folks to adopt a collaborative approach to the national forest lands. As the loose-knit group debated what that might mean, the nonprofit Sustainable Northwest was invited in to facilitate the meetings, providing a framework for continuing talks. The organization has 15-plus years of experience convening diverse stakeholders to begin a dialogue framed by specific values: an inclusive process, emphasis on stewardship, reinvestment in both natural assets and communities, and monitoring of results. 

Sustainable Northwest doesn't dictate the process or the solutions, but provides support so the community can decide what it wants to happen in the forest, said Maia Enzer, policy director for the nonprofit. She said the aim is to help find "durable solutions" for communities and the lands that people care deeply about, and to get away from the boom-and-bust cycles of the past. 

Some collaboration participants admit that longheld distrust and differences can make it challenging to build a level of trust required to craft a project. 

Enzer lauded the courage and tenacity of those who make the effort to come to the table and work through those differences. 

"What the people of Grant County have done through the Blue Mountains Forest Partners, in a short period of time, is commendable," she said.

BMFP's first project was Dads Creek, some two years in the making. The area, which had been harvested in the past, is located in the wildland urban interface - the territory where homes adjoin forest land. People worried that wildland fire and dwarf mistletoe would spread from the forest onto private lands.

The collaborative's goal: Keep that from happening.

Building a collaborative spirit took time; the group was new at it, noted Jerome, who has been a forester for industry and agencies, and now is an independent forestry consultant. They had to build on small steps.

"The common ground (that the group seeks) becomes very small, generally one or two points, which is really common. But we focus on that," she said. 

On details of the project, members work toward consensus, and after a vote of the entire group, a proposal that all members can live with, is presented to the Forest Service. While full consensus isn't always realistic, the partners aim to get as close as they can, Jerome said.

Work on Dads Creek involved several field trips, and at least 30 people took part.

"There have been a lot of bumps in the road, but the project was a success," she said.

In BMFP's second project, Damon, the partners fine-tuned the process, adopting a subcommittee process. One of the organization's subcommittees, the operations subcommittee, was formed to include representatives from various interests - Grant County landowners, industry officials, and representatives of several conservation interests, as well as independent members.

The subcommittee, elected by the full group, is responsible for work done on the ground of proposed projects. From their efforts, a mutually-agreed upon proposal was formed, and eventually brought for a vote of the entire group.

The operations committee is made up of Grant County landowners George Meredith and Roje Gootee, and industry representatives Dave Hannibal of Grayback Forestry and Mike Billman of Malheur Lumber Co. Representation by conservation organizations includes members Tim Lillebo of Oregon Wild and Susan Jane Brown of Western Environmental Law Center. Grant County Judge Mark Webb is an independent member, as is Patrick Shannon of Sustainable Northwest.

During work on Damon, the partners started working through the Grant Resource Enhancement Action Team (GREAT) to qualify for grants. Jerome was hired as executive director.

"Damon went more smoothly. We're learning to work together in the collaborative process. We took the lessons we learned in Dads," she said.

While the process isn't fast enough to suit some observers, those involved see the pace improving with each project.

Webb said the progress in collaboration depends on relationships that must be built over time. As those relationships mature, he said, the projects develop more quickly and cover more ground.

"It does seem glacial at times," he said, but he added that the Malheur is something of a holdout for strong views on both ends of the spectrum. That makes the deliberations more challenging.

"But I think we're doing remarkable work, really," he said. "In a year or two the main challenge will be funding. We're going to need the feds to fund more of the work needed to take care of the lands they are obligated to care for and manage."

Last year's collaboration planning for the Soda Bear Project spanned just seven months, from March through September.

The resulting proposal fits into the Malheur National Forest's strategy to reduce fire risk and restore forest conditions on large landscapes on the southern half of the forest. The project area, which includes Seneca, is at risk to wildland urban interface fires.

Forestry professors Dr. K. Norman Johnson and Dr. Jerry Franklin helped the partners in the work. An environmental assessment of the project is currently is expected out this month, and the work could go to contract this spring.

Jerome believes the partners' work will continue to evolve.

"We're still learning. We provide the best input we can. We think "how can we help communities move forward effectively?" It's critical to save our forest, but it's hard to do," she said.

Participants agree. Logging contractor Charlie O'Rorke got involved early on because he believes you have to come to the table if you want your voice to be heard, and if you want to move things forward. He said the participants are learning from each other and building on the narrow common ground they staked out at the start.

"On the controversial issues, if we don't reach total agreement, it's consensus-minus 1 or minus 2," he said. Even better, over time, "the projects are getting quicker and better, more economically feasible," he said. 

Others see collaboration as a way to break the deadlock on the forests. Webb said the legal framework in recent decades has been exploited by environmentalists to shut down active forest management, even when active management was the responsible thing to do.

"The collaborative is the one way to address the problem," Webb said. "It provides us with the ability to influence federal land management decisions on the Malheur in a manner the current legal and legislative framework would never allow."

What's next for BMFP? The partners are moving on to a fourth project, the Elk 16 project on the Prairie City Ranger District.

Jerome invites anyone with interest to get involved, as "participation - it's what makes it go."

To find details of meetings and field trips, visit the Blue Mountains Forest Partners website.