From the Ground Up The Unlikely Story of Stewardship in Lake County

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.

Old growth ponderosa pine on the Fremont-Winema National Forest.

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.

Lakeview, Oregon

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.

“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.

When stakeholders first came to the forest they brought highly divergent views with them. Asked to describe their priority in one word the responses were “timber”, “cows” and “beauty.” I encouraged the group to spend a lot of time in the woods. My roles for the fledgling collaborative was to be something of a chauffeur and event planner. The hard work paid off. A consensus slowly emerged around reintroducing fire to the landscape. Harvesting the big pines and suppressing wildfire had left the forests with too many small trees; trees that were at high risk to attacks from insects, disease and wildfire.

A dense stand of ponderosa pine may require thinning prior to the reintroduction of fire. Photo courtesy of Oregon Forest Resources Institute.
“We have a lot to lose out there. It's not just the trees, it's the clean water, it's the clean air, it's the wild life, it's the recreation values, it's the whole package,” said Dan Shoun, Lake County Commissioner.

Thinning: a Prelude to Fire

But, before forest service officials could reintroduce fire to the landscape, they needed to remove the small-diameter trees that would spread a fire to the crowns of the older trees and destroy what they were trying to protect. Removing small trees across thousands of acres of forest is expensive. The forest service often relies on selling commercial timber to help offset those costs.

A large pile of forest biomass on the Fremont-Winema National Forest. Forest restoration projects generate large amounts of low-value material which are generally burned.

They needed infrastructure—specifically a small diameter sawmill—that could efficiently process the small trees. The Fremont Sawmill in Lakeview could only profitably use logs at 15 inches in diameter. And without a stable supply of logs, the mill would not invest the $7 million required to upgrade the mill to process those logs.

It is an all-too-common dilemma. The infrastructure needed to achieve the vision did not match what existed in the community. Technology was available, but lack of trust and uncertainty about supply from forest service lands made new investment a risky proposition.

During the next decade, the collaborative and its partners slowly built trust and momentum to bring their vision to fruition. Convincing the national office of the forest service to rename the unit and reauthorize it for an additional ten years marked a turning point.

“We got on a plane to Washington DC, met with forest service staff at the national office including USFS Chief Dombeck. We convinced them to reauthorize the unit under the new name of federal stewardship unit. We found a way. We took a shared risk, stuck our necks out for each other and won. We came away feeling if we could work together on high-profile actions, we could make it succeed on the ground,” said Mike Anderson, senior policy analyst of The Wilderness Society.

Members of the Lakeview Stewardship Group in the field. Reauthorizing the Lakeview Federal Stewardship Unit solidified trust between diverse interests. Photo courtesy of Emily Jane Davis.

They started with a small stewardship contract that allowed the national forest to apply the value of the restoration byproducts to the long list of needed work on the forest. This authority—named “goods for services”—allows the agency to use the value of byproducts to pay for other work to be completed. Under a traditional timber sale, any revenues earned return to the federal treasury. Under this system, the national forest gets to keep the money.

Short on Money and Trust

The collaborative had to secure both money and trust: The forest service lacked the funds to get the work done and Collins’ management lacked confidence in the long-term supply of logs. A log supply that only lasted two to three years was of no use to them. They found the answer in a ten-year stewardship contract that provided stability to the mill and increased value to the forest service. With a ten-year contract in hand, Collins invested $6.8 million in a new small-diameter sawmill. Leaders in the collaborative credit the ten-year contract with saving the mill and the 100 jobs it supported.

Workers putting the finishing touches on the small-diameter sawmill in Lakeview, Ore. The collaborative's effort to secure a ten-year stewardship contract gave the mill confidence in log supply. Photo courtesy of Sustainable Northwest.
“The Collins Company could have left. Now they see a future here—a future restoring these forests,” said Jim Walls, program coordinator of the Lake County Resources Initiative.

More than Just the Trees

The ten-year stewardship contract does more than ensure a steady supply of small-diameter logs to the mill. It creates a funding mechanism that allows the Fremont-Winema National Forest to address other pressing needs on the landscape such as removing excess roads or improving wildlife habitat. “It’s important to the collaborative that the mill survives and we accomplish these ecological goals such as fish habitat improvement and wildlife enhancement,” said Walls.

Monitoring Informs Management

“Forest restoration is more an art than a science,” said Constance Cunningham, former forest supervisor of the Fremont-Winema National Forest. Her statement acknowledges the complexity of restoring forested ecosystems. Since its inception, the Lakeview Stewardship Group has used third-party monitoring and data-gathering to gauge the effectiveness of collaborative projects.

Claire Thomas, a former Lakeview High School science teacher who leads the Chewaucan Biophysical Monitoring Team, notes that the monitoring data acts as a bridge between divergent views. “Everybody comes to the forest with a lot of different ideas which may conflict with the others’ ideas. As we make decisions, it’s OK if we disagree on values, but we need to agree on the data to make decisions,” he said. “The monitoring program provides the knowledge to make informed decisions.”

Members of the Chewaucan Biophysical Monitoring Team gather data of forest soils. The monitoring team provides objective data to make informed management decisions.

The presence of a robust monitoring program smooths the path to common ground. When collaborative members know that their projects will be monitored and the results will be incorporated into future decisions, it facilitates understanding and encourages risk-taking.

“I don’t want to give anyone the impression we have all the answers,” said Walls of the resource initiative. “That’s why we have a monitoring crew on every project, from thinning to road removal to culvert replacement. Whatever it is, we gather ‘before and after’ monitoring information and enter it into a database so we can learn over time.”

An Integrated System

When I first arrived in Lake County in the late 1990s, community leaders had a vision of healthy forests and healthy communities but lacked the tools to get there. The last mill standing was antiquated and unable to process what needed to come off the land. Much of the forest needed thinning prior to reintroducing fire. Distrust and suspicion ran high among stakeholders. Over the next two decades, a diverse group of stakeholders imagined and patiently built an integrated system to restore a complex forested ecosystem, provide critical rural jobs and adapt to changes over time. Their hard work and innovation has won them national accolades.

A member of the Chewaucan Biophysical Monitoring Team gathers data. Many members of the team use their experience to enter natural resource fields.

Is it a perfect system? Not exactly. When I visited in June 2016, the mill was shut down due to lack of logs. But, the mill has since replenished their logs decks and reopened.

The saying goes healthy forests equals healthy communities and healthy economies. The expression underscores the links between our relationship to the land and our desire for sustainable livelihoods. Lake County’s unlikely evolution speaks to the need for an economy that equally supports social and ecological values. But it does more, it suggests that our relationship to the land is actually based on the very human qualities of trust and understanding.

Marcus Kauffman is the Biomass Resource Specialist for the Oregon Department of Forestry, marcus.kauffman@oregon.gov. Dan Bihn is an engineer/storyteller, dan@danbihn.com. Funding provided by the U.S. Forest Service and the Oregon Statewide Wood Energy Team.

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Photos by Marcus Kauffman, unless noted. Videos by Dan Bihn.

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