A town defends a peacemaker

District Ranger Linda Duffy opened her door to the community

 

ASHLAND, Ore. - A collaborative group in southern Oregon says its Forest Service representative was punished for doing too good a job. For nine months, District Ranger Linda Duffy worked on a watershed management plan with a diverse community of environmentalists and logging advocates in Ashland, Ore. But on Nov. 19, 1999, just as the 40-member Ashland Watershed Stewardship Alliance reached consensus, Duffy broke the news: She'd been demoted because, according to her supervisor, she "lacked management skills."

"One thing that has been important to me is to work with you in a way that you will trust your government," Duffy said at a press conference in November. "The spirit of trust is sharing the truth, and the truth is that I've been removed from my job."

She said her supervisor, Mike Lunn, had reassigned her to an interagency position west of town where she would be stripped of all decision-making power involving the watershed. Duffy says she felt blindsided, especially since she'd always received high performance evaluations.

"Mike seemed to be supportive of my work; he attended a field trip with a community group," says Duffy. "I believe in the possibility of the Forest Service working with citizens for shared solutions in an environment of trust and collaboration. I don't know how I can serve in that role without the ability to make decisions."

Although Lunn assured residents that the reassignment would capitalize on Duffy's ability to work with community groups, Ashland locals were stunned.

"I'm enormously disappointed. She's worked well with citizen groups and they've given her high praise," says Ashland Mayor Cathy Shaw. "The timing raises my eyebrows; it's either political or very insensitive."

Getting the public on board

Most people say Duffy had helped rebuild a relationship between locals and the Forest Service. In 1998, trust had evaporated after the district released a draft plan for the 14,500-acre delicate watershed in the mountains above Ashland. Ninety years of fire suppression have turned the watershed into a tangle of overgrown ponderosa pine and fir trees, brush and deadfall - perfect kindling for a conflagration. The agency proposal called for a combination of prescribed burning, removal of underbrush and logging to reduce flammable vegetation. The $1.36 million project would have been paid for through the sale of logged trees from 452 acres of the site.

Many residents accused the Forest Service of disguising a timber sale as fire-hazard reduction work; the idea was so negatively received, a group of people wearing ski masks stormed Duffy's office to deliver a letter of warning against implementation.

Yet less than a year and a half later, when the district released another draft plan, Duffy had defused the situation. After many heated debates between traditional foresters, who warn cutting is necessary to save the watershed, and environmentalists, who oppose any logging of large trees, the alliance formulated a report that most members agreed upon.

"We want phased implementation of the project, by starting to take out surface fuels like smaller trees in the high-risk zones nearest to Ashland, while monitoring areas where the Forest Service had wanted to log and where there is more contention," says member Jeff Fields, a forester for the nonprofit Rogue Institute for Ecology and Economy. He explains that the agency had wanted to implement the timber sale first to generate revenue for the rest of the project, even though that acreage isn't necessarily high-risk. "We're looking to flip-flop that process."

Alliance members laud Duffy's efforts to open the door to community involvement in managing the federally owned watershed. They say she returned civility to the discussion by inviting the director of a local pacifist organization to mediate, and she was willing to listen to and incorporate alliance ideas.

"We feel so lucky to have her here," says alliance member Mark Stella. "The bosses up high are saying she's doing what the Forest Service should do in the future."

Hopes had grown that a partnership between citizens and the district could act as a nation-wide model of collaboration.

Then came the news of Duffy's demotion. Shaw and other community members vowed to protest.

A community up to bat

"You put yourself on the line," alliance mediator Ruth Coulthard told Duffy. "We'll go to bat for you in any way we can."

Immediately following the November press conference, phone calls flooded Lunn's supervisor, Regional Forester Nancy Graybeal. Community members began circulating petitions calling for Duffy's reinstatement, and residents kept Duffy's home phone ringing with their calls of support. Duffy says she was overwhelmed by the community reaction.

"A woman stopped me when I went to get a cup of coffee and threw her arms around me," says Duffy. "This was a woman I don't know. She said how disappointed she is in the Forest Service."

Within one week of Duffy's reassignment, Graybeal announced she was reversing the decision and reinstating Duffy. Graybeal also called for a review of Duffy's removal.

"Both Mr. Lunn and myself agree that Linda Duffy has carried out her collaborative efforts in superb fashion," says Graybeal. "We need her to continue these efforts. I am asking for a regional review of the situation to be undertaken."

Although alliance members are relieved that Duffy has been reinstated, they still wonder what went wrong. The Forest Service will not publicly release its findings when the review is complete because it involves personnel issues. Duffy herself won't learn the results of the review unless action is taken against her.

"I speculate she was doing her job in a different style than many of the people in the Forest Service, especially people in mid-level management who have been there a while," says alliance member JoAnne Eggers. "She's so open to the public. She's tried to be clear and honest about what's going on in the Forest Service. I guess her supervisors felt threatened by that openness."

Vickie Aldous is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings.

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Vickie Aldous


YOU CAN CONTACT ...

  • Ashland Watershed Stewardship Alliance, c/o The Rogue Institute of Economy and Ecology, 762 A St., Ashland, OR 97520, 541/482-6031; www.rogueinstitute.org;
  • Forest Service, Ashland Ranger District, 645 Washington St., Ashland OR 97520 (541/482-3333), www.fs.fed.us/r6/rogue.
High Country News Classifieds