Wallowa Resources

Posted: May 2, 2005
Written by: 
Robyn Morrison

Wallowa County, Eastern Oregon

Objective: To promote community, forest and watershed health while creating family-wage jobs and business opportunities from natural resource stewardship.

History: Eastern Oregon's Zumwalt Prairie, one of the nation's last intact native grasslands, stretches from Hells Canyon west to the Wallowa Mountains. Surrounded by ranchland and pine and fir-covered foothills, the towns of Joseph, Enterprise, Wallowa and Lostine dot the Wallowa River Valley. Ranching, timber, and tourism have made these small communities possible.

Photo courtesy of Wallowa Resources
The "timber wars" that wracked the Pacific Northwest through the 1980s and early 1990s had left a legacy of fear, bitterness, despair, and contention among many residents of the valley. Declining timber supplies on federal lands, a string of lawsuits and competition from Canada and the southern United States made it difficult for Wallowa County's forest products industry to operate profitably.

The listing of the spotted owl under the Endangered Species Act had also forever changed timber towns in the Cascades. And in Wallowa County, the Chinook salmon - proposed for listing under the federal law - became the spotted owl of the Interior Columbia Basin. Polarization between natural resource users and the environmental community had come to gridlock.

By 1992, a collaborative group of farmers, ranchers, private forest owners, tribal officials, and Forest Service personnel had started quietly addressing salmon habitat restoration. The county officially adopted the restoration plan outlined by the stakeholders in 1994. That same year, county officials and residents embarked on a visioning process and strategic plan for economic development that identified one primary goal: retaining Wallowa County's natural resource-based economy.

Out of this visioning process emerged a group that focused on how to benefit from restoration-based forestry on a long-term basis. Helped along by Sustainable Northwest, a Portland-based organization that promotes sustainable development in the Pacific Northwest, community members galvanized around applying sustainable resource use and conservation-based development across the county, eventually settling on Wallowa Resources as the group's name.

Accomplishments: Wallowa Resources was one of the first groups in the nation to sign a Memorandum of Understanding with the Forest Service. Signed in 1999, the document centered on working cooperatively on watershed management issues in the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest. The group was also one of several to receive a five-year Ford Foundation grant for community-based forestry.

The group has partnered with private landowners, the Nez Perce Tribe, and the Forest Service on a long list of projects that includes restoration work along the Wallowa River, treating noxious weeds, and surveying plant and animal species.

The group also partnered with a local timber mill on several projects, including a retooling of the mill's equipment to handle small-diameter trees. The agreement provided Wallowa Resources with a small equity position and a 50 percent share of the management. But competition from imports and lack of adequate capital closed the jointly run mill. Rather than allow the small-diameter processing machinery the group had purchased to sit idle, Wallowa Resources created a new for-profit business. Located in the town of Wallowa, the post-and-pole facility specializes in value-added wood products.

 Photo courtesy of Wallowa Resources
Beginning in the fall of 2004, Wallowa Resources and Oregon State University will launch a pilot field studies program that offers courses in natural resources management and community-based forestry where students will live and study in Wallowa County. Money received from tuition will be reinvested in an outdoor education program for local schools.

Working with the Forest Service and local guides and outfitters, Wallowa Resources is developing the Nature and Heritage Program. The project, slated to begin in 2005, is designed to attract tourists seeking a working vacation to Wallowa County. Paying guests will join in efforts to restore some of the many historic structures located on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, such as ranch buildings, miner's cabins, and fire lookouts.

Wallowa Resources and the Hells Canyon Preservation Council have made significant inroads building trust between the two groups. In June 2004, the Forest Service announced the first timber sale that wasn't appealed in nearly a decade. The two groups, along with a large, diverse number of stakeholders, are in the process of establishing a long-term Stewardship Authority in the Upper Joseph Creek Watershed and completing the Lower Joseph Creek Watershed Assessment. This represents a major breakthrough in balanced collaborative work.

Challenges/constraints: Continued budget cuts and understaffing within the local Forest Service district continue to plague joint projects in Wallowa County. And a busy fire season means that funds allocated to projects are funneled away to pay for battling forest fires.

In Wallowa County, (population 7,000) the shock of staffing cuts within the federal agency, coupled with the decline of the timber industry, can't be under-estimated. The Forest Service once employed nearly 300 workers in Wallowa County and now has only 42 on its payroll. In 1990, the wood product-manufacturing sector boasted 408 jobs, while today it struggles to maintain 85.

For more information see http://www.wallowaresources.org/
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