There’s no place like home

Posted by Renee Magyar on October 7, 2014

In her native town, Vernita Ediger is modeling a pathway of economic and environmental recovery for the entire West.

Vernita Ediger on her family's land in eastern Oregon

Conservation runs through Vernita Ediger’s blood. The daughter of a fourth generation ranching family in Oregon, she was born with intimate connections to the natural world.  

Growing up, Vernita spent weekends and summers on the family homestead near Mt. Vernon, which gave her an appreciation for the hard work it takes to make a living off the land. And her family taught her how to take care of it. They remove invasive weeds, save water through efficient irrigation, and rehabilitate streams by deterring cattle away from riparian areas. They even restore habitat by leaving some areas of the ranch “unproductive” so that wildlife can forage. Conservation and sustainability are firmly embedded in the family livelihood.

During the week, Vernita lived and went to school in the nearby logging town of John Day, which instilled her with a strong sense of community. A childhood steeped in natural resources taught Vernita of humanity’s inseparable ties to nature.

She points out that all people who make a living off the land – farmers, ranchers, loggers –must be good land stewards if they are to be successful and productive in the long-term. While producing food, wood, and the other necessities of our daily lives, they also protect habitat and ecosystems. Otherwise, don’t succeed for very long; they suffer as the land suffers.

Vernita grew up seeing contrasting models of natural resource management: those that were compatible as well as incompatible with the environment. It makes sense that finding ways to balance the needs of both land and people has become her life’s mission. She’s proving that working landscapes can be both productive to society and beneficial to the environment.

“Plus, when we stop the productive use of the land, we end up with subdivisions, and these have all kinds of ecological problems,” Vernita laughs.

A light in the dark

Like many young people, Vernita left home, went to college in the city, traveled, and got a taste of the world outside of the ranch and Grant County, Oregon, population 7,000.  She lived overseas, then spent several years in California and earned a Ph.D in environmental anthropology at Stanford.  

But Oregon called back to her. “I love this place. I couldn’t stay away,” she says.  Unlike many of America’s rural progeny, she gave up a promising career to return to her roots.

During her childhood, timber was the lifeblood of John Day and many other towns in the Northwest. The industry collapsed in the 1990s when a federal court order halted timber harvests. The national debate over the spotted owl had precipitated the crisis; over-logging was immediately blamed for the owl entering the endangered species list. In a domino effect, local businesses shut down, county and municipal income dried up, and communities fell apart. Only a handful of mills survived the crisis and operate today.    

Says Vernita, “People were filled with fear and a sense of powerlessness because these dynamics were outside the control of the community. There’s nothing like fear to make people put on their boxing gloves and fight instead of sitting down together to work out a solution.”

She left California to start finding solutions. She spent several years teaching leadership development and organizational management to various community leaders and small non-profit organizations in rural Oregon. This laid the groundwork for her current position leading the Blue Mountains Forest Partners (BMFP), a very successful coalition organized by Sustainable Northwest in 2006, right in her home town of John Day.

Vernita is its first full-time Executive Director. This eclectic group of environmentalists, industry interests, government representatives, and community activists works hard on a two-fold mission: forest health and job creation. As a unified entity, it advises the U.S. Forest Service on the design and development of restoration projects in nearby Malheur National Forest. The Malheur, at risk of severe wildfire, needs ecosystem rehabilitation.

Together, the BMFP and the Forest Service will restore up to 500,000 acres across the entire forest over the next decade – an unprecedented volume of acreage in a strikingly short time. It’s likely that no other national forest is being restored at this rapid pace or with the same ecological and social benefits.

A federal award of $25 million to Malheur National Forest and a 10-year stewardship contract between the Forest Service and a local company will triple the forest’s timber volume through critical thinning and wildfire fuel reduction. And it will bring back much-needed jobs to a county still reeling from the collapse of Big Timber. Proportionately, the jobs created and maintained will be the equivalent of 18,000 jobs in Oregon’s biggest city, Portland.

The contract is an especially important milestone. By nature, stewardship contracts restore the land by hiring local contractors and creating economic opportunities in rural communities. They’re dual investments in both land and people, driven by collaborative design and ongoing evaluation and monitoring of results. The contract in John Day is special though. Most contracts are short-term; this one is a decade-long commitment. It’s the first time in the region that such a commitment has been made to restore the health of the landscape and the health of the community, and Vernita is tasked with turning that dream-commitment into reality.

Members of the Blue Mountains Forest Partners visit a project in Malheur National Forest
Members of the Blue Mountains Forest Partners visit a project in Malheur National Forest

The leadership of the future  

Vernita will realize these ambitious goals, but she won’t stop there. She wants to make the process of accomplishing them inclusive and transparent. “I believe that everyone should have a voice,” she says. “The process of how we achieve our goals is as important – or more important – than the goals themselves.” Success hinges upon resilient relationships forged throughout the collaborative process.  

The truth is that collaboration is a tough business.  On average, it takes two years for a collaborative to agree on the design and development of a single land management project. The BMFP has the tall order of developing two projects per year for the next several years – quadruple the normal pace. Under this enormous pressure, Vernita must find ways to honor her stakeholders and still get things done.

A top-down approach to leadership, with a charismatic authority taking charge and making quick decisions, may yield faster results. Vernita calls this the “Let’s get in there and kick butt!” model. But her work requires something different.  A proverb says that the best leaders lead in such a way that the followers don’t know they’re being led. The philosopher Lao-Tsu put it this way: “When the best leader's work is done, the people say, 'We did it ourselves!'"  

That’s Vernita’s job. Her leadership is in service to others, helping people understand each other, see different points of view, and move beyond fear to a place of trust and open-mindedness. “By the time we come to agreement, it’s all of ours, it’s not mine. This isn’t my BMFP. This is our BMFP,” she says. In the end, the collaborative effort produces lasting solutions, lasting peace, and lasting bonds. Enemies become friends.  

The icing on the cake is that she gets to do this at home. “To be a part of this in my home community, there aren’t words that express just how purposeful that feels.”

A true Westerner  

Everyone knows the mystique of the West. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the pioneer, the cowboy, the gold miner, and the homesteader became part of America’s mythology. Rugged individualism, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, self-made success. The hardiest people prevailed through true grit and steel – on their own. It’s a romantic view still branded into the identity of many Westerners today.

But this mindset seems to be at odds with the collaborative model promoted by Vernita and several other leaders throughout the West. So follows the question: How does a community reconcile its founding culture, a culture that values autonomy above all else, with the idea of coming together and compromising to find solutions that work for everyone?  

Answers Vernita: “Even today, living on a big ranch, it’s easy to think, ‘Oh, I’m so independent.’ But you live there for a while and then you realize you have to maintain the fence with your neighbor. You have to figure out how much water to share with your neighbor. When you brand your animals, you often rely on the help of your neighbors. Then you help them during calving season. You have to work together to make it out here.”

In the daily grind of life, it turns out that the notion of the rugged individualist – the epitome of the West – is more myth than reality. The remoteness, the scarcity of resources, and the many other harsh conditions of the old frontier made it absolutely necessary for people to come together to survive.

Wallace Stegner described the West as “…the native home of hope. When it learns that cooperation – not rugged individualism – is the quality that most characterizes it and preserves it, then it will have achieved itself and outlived its origins. Then it has a chance to create a society to match its scenery.”

Vernita and her colleagues – and all the many unsung heroes of every collaborative group between the Pacific and the Rockies – are creating this society. In the last 20 years, forest collaboratives, rangelands networks, watershed councils, and other cooperatives have exploded. They’re rising from the ashes of the Timber Wars and other “jobs vs the environment” battlegrounds of years past. Capturing the true heart and spirit of the West, they’re showing us a model for people to live peacefully with each other and peaceably with the planet.  It can be the way of the future.

A deep legacy

Vernita and her community are driving their own evolution, and, in doing so, remind us of a larger potential. They not only embody the greatness of the West, but humanity at its best. One by one, person to person, one community at a time, that “best” potential is spreading.

One might ask Vernita what kind of mark she’d like to leave. Of course, she’d like to leave the BMFP a strong, durable organization. On a more elemental level, the inter-personal dimension matters just as much. “I believe that the best legacies we leave are the ways we relate to other human beings. If we inspire people to higher levels of integrity and trust, to live their values, to believe in themselves, to work for a greater vision in their communities, then we leave a much bigger legacy than any organizational legacy. Those legacies of the heart are really what matter most.”

The spirit of collaboration is one such legacy. Vernita’s brand of humanity is infusing hope of all sorts: hope into her hometown and that future generations will continue to call it home. Hope that we can live harmoniously with the land, respecting nature and conserving our planet. Hope that we humans can work past our differences on the surface for the sake of what unites us all, benefitting everyone. Thanks to people like Vernita and communities like John Day, the seeds for a better world are taking root.

This story was made possible with support from the Doll Family Foundation.