LAKEVIEW, OREGON — Perched on the easternmost edge of Oregon timber country, where scattered mountain ranges fade into the high desert, the hamlet of Lakeview is an apparition. All indications suggest that it should be dead and gone, a casualty of its own lust for timber, the global economy and an era of tightened environmental rules.
But arriving in
Lakeview on a summer evening, a visitor can immediately sense the
town’s pulse. Trucks come and go on the main drag. Young
couples and Forest Service firefighters huddle over burgers and
shakes at the Dairy Queen. Kids toss each other into the town
swimming pool, their shouts echoing through streets crisscrossed by
cats and coveys of quail.
Climb the hill above town, up
toward the faded "L" and a thicket of radio towers, and, if the
wind is just right, you can smell the main reason there’s
still life here. Over the dusty scent of dried grass and sage,
you’ll catch a sweet-sour breath of wet wood. Look down
on the compact downtown. Follow the main street north, past the
giant cowboy who holds up the Safeway sign, past the cemetery
filled with old Irish names, and you’ll see the source:
The Fremont Sawmill and the mist of sprinklers in the lot, keeping
decks of logs wet so they’ll stay fresh.
mill, owned by the Portland-based Collins Companies, is one of only
a handful in eastern Oregon that have survived the last decade,
thanks to the ingenuity — and the chutzpah — of
the residents of this tiny town of 2,500.
remembers how close Lakeview came to dying. In 1996, Harlan closed
the sawmill in Paisley, 40 miles north of here, when it became
clear that the supply of timber on national forests was drying up.
On the "west side" forests in the Cascades and along the coast,
environmental lawsuits and the listing of the spotted owl and
marbled murrelet had put a kink in the flow of timber from the
federal forests —and eventually led to the Northwest
Forest Plan. Here on the "east side," the plan didn’t
apply, but facing another round of lawsuits, the Forest Service had
hastily written up a rule that banned cutting any tree over 21
inches in diameter. In Harlan’s words, the agency, "by
edict, shut the forests down."
The Paisley mill was one of
two remaining in the county, down from five a decade earlier. When
it closed, 25 people lost their jobs, says Harlan, and the town
lost a significant chunk of its economy. "It was a huge blow," he
says. "Almost everyone was there to watch the last log go
Rather than resigning themselves to a similar
fate, community leaders in Lakeview, including Harlan, did
something unprecedented for a timber town. They invited the
environmentalists to visit.
"I wanted people to leave
their guns at the door and talk about what’s happening
out on the forest, and where we can go from here," says Harlan.
Rancher Jane O’Keefe, a county commissioner at
the time, trekked to Portland, Seattle and Washington, D.C., to
talk to state and national environmental leaders. In July 1998,
Lakeview hosted a meeting with 90 environmentalists, scientists and
Forest Service officials, including then-agency chief Jack Ward
"We had been brought to our knees by polarization,
by the conflict industry," says Thomas today. "We were desperately
looking for some kind of ability to work with people in consensus
Not everyone wanted to work together: The day of
the meeting, greens were greeted by a sign that read, "Go Home Eco
Nazis!" Nonetheless, the meeting led to a longstanding partnership
that revolves around a 495,000-acre chunk of the Fremont-Winema
National Forest that is in desperate need of
On its face, what’s
happening on the Fremont-Winema is many
environmentalist’s worst nightmare: The Lakeview Federal
Sustained Yield Unit was created in 1950 under a law designed to
guarantee a steady stream of federal logs to mills in timber
communities. But activists have long argued that the ecological
health of forests should trump economic concerns.
things worse, in 1998, as Lakeview began to push to re-authorize
the unit, many Northwestern environmentalists were still feeling
burned by another experiment in local forest management. The Quincy
Library Group had proposed a sweeping plan for 2.4 million acres of
national forests in Northern California. But the Forest Service
wouldn’t adopt the plan, so the group took it to
Washington, D.C., where, despite the vehement objections of many
environmentalists, they helped push it through Congress (HCN,
12/17/01: Quincy collaboration heads to court).
first year and a half in Lakeview was really tough," says Martin
Goebel, president of the Portland-based nonprofit Sustainable
Northwest, which helped organize the meeting in July, and the
series of planning sessions that followed. "There was increasing
skepticism (among environmentalists) that rural communities could
care for the land."
Those doubts seemed to be confirmed,
in fact, when an initial survey of the sustained-yield unit showed
a forest in rough shape. "The community didn’t know how
bad the forest was," says forest ecologist Richard Hart. "The
forest lives and dies by the soil. But there are areas where 70
percent of the ground has been driven over. They tractor-logged it.
They just backed up to every tree."
But the locals in
Lakeview convinced environmentalists that they were willing to
change their ways, and over the next few years, the newborn
Lakeview Stewardship Group drew up a set of management goals for
the unit. Local contractors would continue to receive preference
for work in the unit, but the restoration of forests and
watersheds, rather than providing logs for the mill, would have to
come first. The group also agreed to let scientists closely monitor
Mike Anderson, a resource analyst for The
Wilderness Society in Seattle, says he was skeptical at first, but
he’s now a regular participant in the stewardship group.
"It can’t be pigeon-holed as a local control effort," he
says. "It doesn’t have that county supremacy or wise-use
mentality to it. It’s much broader than that."
After a few more visits to Washington, D.C., members of the group
were able to convince a new Forest Service chief, Mike Dombeck,
that their experiment in local management was worth another chance.
One of the last things Dombeck did before leaving office in 2001
was to reauthorize the unit for 10 years and adopt the stewardship
group’s management goals. It is one of only a handful of
sustained-yield units still in existence.
the scientists, agency staffers and environmentalists
peer over its shoulder, the community of Lakeview is essentially
managing a half-million-acre chunk of the Fremont-Winema National
Forests — and that’s just the
The stewardship group is now drafting a
long-term management plan for the sustained-yield unit. The
group’s nonprofit arm, the Lake County Resources
Initiative, is training local loggers and contractors to do forest
restoration, and helping local operators win contracts on the
national forest. Ecologist Richard Hart and the local science
teacher, Clair Thomas, are teaching high school and college kids
from Lakeview and neighboring communities how to monitor the
"The science we’re
using makes specialists nervous — it knocks their
intellectual egos around," says Hart, who spends his summers
teaching students how to detect everything from soil compaction to
root rot. "They say, ‘You can’t teach college
kids this stuff.’ " But one faculty member at Washington
State University has already offered each of these kids a full-ride
scholarship to his forestry program.
And the Fremont
Sawmill, the town’s largest private employer, has
survived. Paul Harlan and Collins Company practice eco-friendly
forest management on the company’s private timber lands,
which were some of the first in the nation to win "green"
certification from the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) (HCN,
6/24/02: Can green-certified lumber make it?). The mill has
retooled to handle smaller diameter logs, and added a swing shift
to get enough volume through with smaller logs.
augment the timber coming off nearby forests, Collins is importing
logs from other areas where mills have gone belly-up, says Harlan,
who was recently elected to his second term as president of the
U.S. board of the Forest Stewardship Council. The company recently
bought a trainload of logs salvaged from a burned forest near Lake
Arrowhead, near San Bernadino in Southern California.
Nonetheless, the Fremont-Winema National Forest is an important
source of logs, and the stewardship group has helped keep them
flowing: Last year, when the Oregon Natural Resources Council
appealed two salvage sales on the Fremont, the stewardship group
— with its environmentalist members acting as ambassadors
— convinced ONRC to agree to a compromise. The sales
provided one-third of the Fremont Sawmill’s raw material
for the year.
The Lakeview collaboration has had ripple
effects in the environmental community, says The Wilderness
Society’s Mike Anderson. Anderson helped put together a
guide to collaboration for environmentalists, and says the
experience in Lakeview has made his group more comfortable with
such efforts. It paved the way, for example, for The Wilderness
Society to work with ranchers in Idaho’s Owyhee country
(HCN, 12/8/03: Riding the middle path).
next for Lakeview? The Lake County Resources Initiative this summer
finished a feasibility study for a power plant to be fueled by the
slash that is coming off the forests. The idea was the brainchild
of Lakeview high school students. Residents are also working to
restore a native red band trout fishery by doing work on both
public and private lands.
Rancher Jane O’Keefe
says the community has come to accept the new way of doing things.
"The forest needed some healing, and that was pretty tough for
folks to hear," she says. "But I think people understand that the
world is changing."
National Forests 541-947-2151
Lake County Resources
Sustainable Northwest 503-221-6911