Peter Avriett
Internship Report

 

Wallowa Resourcs


History
--derived from a recorded interview with Dianne Snyder.

For generations, Wallowa County depended upon a resource based economy with timber, agriculture and grazing being the dominant sectors of the economy. This dependence upon resource based jobs was, and is largely due to its isolation and size which inhibited it from diversifying through industrial developments. However, In 1991 Chinook salmon were listed as an endangered species. With it came a plethora of federal regulations, and a drastic reduction in timber harvest from the surrounding Wallowa Whitman National Forest. In 1994 and ’95 no timber was cut on federal land in Wallow County. This caused all three saw mills to shut down.

In January of ’95 a group of citizens in Wallowa County began to meet, and began posting their meetings in the local newspaper. During a time of incredible fear and polarization, these meetings were able to draw people together to discuss issues of resource management and environmental impact for the first time. As Dianne said, “over time, became a very proactive conversation and people actually began to think about areas that we should be improving, and what we should be doing, and how we should be doing that. . . At the time that was significant, it represented something different, something community driven.”

The non profit organization Wallowa Resources arose out of this community dialogue. Dianne was the first paid employee. Through the years she built up the organization to its current state of seven full time employees. Throughout this shift from a grass roots organization to an established nonprofit, Wallowa Resources has been able to maintain its initial focus through attempts at blending economy with ecology and including local citizens in the environmental equation.

Currently, I believe that Wallowa Resources is unique in its ability to blend the interests, agendas, and needs of private, federal, national parties that have a stake in the condition of the federal lands of Wallowa County. Through this mixture, they are able to identify the limitations of each party, and see how other parties can assist in overcoming these limitations.

This networking ability drew me to Wallow Resources. I hoped that through a summer internship I could achieve a more holistic view of resource management issues, as each project seemed to involve so many different parties. It was also my hope that I could learn the inner-workings of a nonprofit organization, specifically where funding comes from, what goes into carrying out an project, what kinds of hours people put in, and how much time is devoted to administrative-computer work in comparison to field work. I also hoped to learn how environmental/resource management issues are approached and dealt with differently in rural as opposed to urban and academic atmospheres. This question was prevalent throughout Semester in the West however our transient nature inhibited us from really putting down roots in one location and looking at a single organization for a prolonged period of time. It seemed like a summer internship could help me gain a new perspective on this question through the course of my two month stay in Wallowa County.

I arrived in Wallowa County with anything but an unbiased attitude. Having met with Wallowa Resources twice before, and with Nils once, I had an idea of what they were up to. Having studied environmental politics for three years at Whitman I became increasingly intrigued by local collaborative environmental organizations. Finally, coming back from Semester in the West, I was quite confident that this particular nonprofit was the one for me. Yet, despite all of these preconceptions I was continually challenged by the collaborative nature of the organization, and routinely surprised by the productivity of their manner of doing things.

One of the main reasons that I chose Wallowa Resources (WR) was because I knew it worked within a culturally rich community. Within my first week I was told and retold the heritage of the county, the lineage of individuals, and the history of WR itself. The first thing that really struck me was Wallowa Resources’ ability to use this heritage to its benefit. So often heritage and traditions fighting to stay afloat in small, resource extraction towns, are labeled as backwards and incompatible with the environmental movement as a whole. However, WR was able to use this tradition, knowledge and even the infrastructure to pursue their environmental agenda.

The most obvious example of how they used existing infrastructure was through the post and pole plant, a for profit business that Wallowa Resources owns a 52% share of. This project was established to tap into the rich knowledge of timber, mills and logging in order to tackle the problem of overly dense forests. The mill was established to create a market for small diameter wood which could potentially make the multi million dollar project of the USFS thinning out the areas forests economically self sufficient.

Wallowa Resources used the area’s heritage and knowledge by taking advantage of local people, by directly employing locals in the office, and regularly contracting out to and collaborating with countless others. I quickly learned that Nils and I were the only two people in the office who were not born and raised in Wallowa County. Diane Snyder, who started the program, was a fourth generation resident who grew up in a ranching family. Her sister was the secretary. The range management head grew up in Lostine, the neighboring town. The noxious weeds director grew up as a cowboy and used to run cattle in Hells Canyon. When Nils arrived five years ago, Dianne Snyder, the head of the organization, told him to just keep his mouth shut for the first year and learn all that he could. I decided to take the same advice for my first week or so.

It is not that people were unwilling to listen, or opposed to the concepts of environmentalism. Rather they just add the element of heritage. They believe that the local culture must be factored into each and every environmental proposal, project, and theory. This new “local component” served to stretch my understanding of environmental issues even farther, forcing me to re-evaluate my ideas in regards to this new element.

One of the main questions that arose for me while working for such a locally based organization is, how do they fit into the larger environmental community as a whole? It seemed almost comical how often people referred to a fictitious environmentalist over on the east coast, totally detached from the land but still using litigation to stop their local logging contracts. The question I always asked myself was, if these are public lands, then what is to say that that east coast environmentalist does not have the right to be concerned about the ecological health of any given sector of the nation’s public land, or the entire earth for that matter?

After rolling this question over in my head, I came to the decision that WR fills a vital nitch by establishing channels of communication on a national level. Through their commitment to remaining transparent, they release countless public reports on their projects, and their organization as a whole. These reports keep that east coast environmentalist informed on what actually is going on in the north-east corner of Oregon. These reports serve as an explanation as to why a certain project is being carried out and clearly explain the economic, ecological and cultural justifications. This transparency, and sharing of information, can help facilitate trust between differing stakeholders across the country. If there is concern with a proposed project, then that concern can be voiced based on this report, and voiced directly to Wallowa Resources.

It is my hope, that as people who are more detached from a local area find it easier to become informed on actual practices being carried out, then they will be able to voice their concerns directly to that local community without having to go through the bureaucratic structures that come with litigation, and other means of environmental action that have been used in the past.

Wallowa Resources also bridges communicative gaps between local citizens, who often feel that their voices are not heard, and federal organizations like the USFS. Citizens have often found it difficult to deal with federal agencies without extensive knowledge of their bureaucratic structures and the political processes involved with their functioning. In this manner, collaboration between local citizens and the USFS is more than just finding common ground; it is finding a common language!

By facilitating communication in these ways Wallowa Resources facilitates the sharing of ideas, and also breaks down the suspicions that come with a feeling of exclusion from land use decisions.

Main Projects

Research

When I first arrived, I was assigned a research project. After releasing a public report on the Upper Joseph Creek Watershed, WR got feedback saying that certain terms were not clearly defined or explained. These terms were: historical rate of variation, old growth, and biophysical environment. I also had to research the correlation between water retention and forest stand density, and how this affected in-stream-flow. The most interesting aspect of this project was that it was being released to the public. Previously, I had only written academic papers, where my thoughts and ideas never made it past the academic realm. However these papers were being released for all to read, and were to be written from an unbiased perspective. As exciting as it was to have actual purpose behind my work, it made the whole process a lot more difficult.

One of the main challenges was that the majority of my research was in forestry, an area that I was not only unfamiliar with but also wary of as an environmentalist. I remember one afternoon when I came across some information stating that the most drastic increases in in-stream-flow come when thinning happens near riparian areas. This obviously raised some concerns in my mind. However when I asked Nils he told me to include it. The purpose of this report is to educate the public and we need all the information that is out there, he said. This experience reminded me of some of the inherent challenges of the collaborative process. Sharing my information with the public I was unsure as to how it was going to be used. Would it be used as a justification of increasing logging along riparian zones?

In the end I was confident in the information I released. Including all the facts allowed inconsistencies to balance each other out. I was also confident because I knew that through my research I had become better informed in the subject matter with all sides of the argument, and that I would be better prepared to have a discussion regarding the subjects that I studied with someone who had any perspective on the issue. It was my hope that the same would be the case for the readers.

Noxious weeds

I worked a lot with noxious weeds over the course of my internship so I will not bore you with the details of pulling weeds, collecting bugs, releasing bugs, and taking inventory. Instead I will tell you about how my approach to the problem shifted greatly. While on Semester in the West, we met with Tamara who was a ranger on the Green River. The banks of the Green are overrun with Tamarisk. It is a huge problem and Tamara believed that the only way to approach it at this point was through the use of biological control. I, on the other hand, was skeptical.

I could not understand why someone would want to consciously release another foreign species, and one that they knew would immediately experience a population explosion. The nature of the cure seemed too close to the problem itself, and the uncertainty of what this insect would do in the new environment seemed too great.

After working with WR, I came to believe that the certainty of the devastation that these noxious weeds were currently having far out weighed the uncertainty of the cure. The exponential nature of biological control started to excite me as I realized it was the only way to counteract a problem that was increasing at an exponential rate. But most of all, I was convinced from hearing Mark, the head of the noxious weed program, talk about the successes that he has had with biological control in the past. It seemed like the only success he had at all came from these little bugs.

The Watershed Festival

One of the more fun projects I was involved with was the Watershed Festival. This new idea was being tried out to educate the local residents about their watershed. I got to participate in some of the planning meetings, which I really enjoyed because they seemed so similar to the meetings I have here at school while planning activities as the RA of the Tamarac house. It was great to see some of the skills I have developed through being an RA carry over into the outside world, and even into the professional field that I am interested in.

On the actual day of the festival, I got to run a booth that helped kids build bird houses, “habitat that you can take home” was the motto. The most interesting and challenging aspect of the festival was finding ways to make the topic exciting for children and to actively engage them while also educating them.

Clear Lake Ridge

This project was the most challenging because I worked independently on it. The goal was to move an existing water trough up out of a gully which received a lot of hoof traffic. A new trough would be placed up on top of the ridge, and would be powered by a solar pump. At first it seemed pretty cut and dry, but as I looked into it more I realized that the complexity lay in the fact that I had to work with The Nature Conservancy which owned the land, the rancher who was running the cattle, and a local engineer who knew about the logistics of the pumping equipment.

It was challenging to orchestrate meetings with all of them, but also quite rewarding as I was able to learn so much from each one of them. I felt like this was the clearest example of the collaborative process I was involved in, and it was interesting to see how everyone was able to benefit from the project and thus allowed things to move along relatively smoothly. The TNC and WR were happy because of the ecological benefits of moving the trough off of the slope. The land owner was happy because his cattle would no longer have to exert as much energy as they traveled up and down the slope. The engineer was just happy to have the job, and to be working towards a good cause.

Aspen Enclosures

One of the independent projects I worked on was monitoring the aspen enclosures. My job was to drive out to all the aspen stands which had been fenced off from cattle, deer and elk and see if the fences needed repair, fixing them myself if possible. Then I wrote the annual report describing both the aspen and fence’s condition. This was an interesting project because of the connection it had with my time on Semester In The West. While we were working with Mary O’Brien, we studied the ecological importance of aspen stands in a grassland environment. This past experience gave meaning to the otherwise routine project.

Working for WR this summer, the romanticized visions of environmental action I had developed in my youth and then built upon as an adolescent and young adult were quickly disassembled. It was not the romanticized activism of social movements, were people are shouting out their opinions into a loud speaker, and it is not the hands on, do it yourself activism of Earth day.

Through participating in the monitoring of the aspen stand project, I was able to learn about the actual lifecycle of an environmental project. This cycle begins with an idea. The idea must be well developed and planned out in meetings with all who wish to be involved. Then funding must be sought out which involves grant writing. Then the organization begins as scientific data, engineering plans, cost analysis and feasibility all need to meld together to form a logical project. After the plans are sufficiently established, the project is carried out. This component is quite often contracted out to someone who specializes in the specific need. Once the project is carried out the work is not done. Annual reports must be written, and the funders must be reassured that their money was well used.

Looking at environmental action from this approach, it seems like a lot of logistical, organizational, and computer work. But how then does this all pertain to the aspen enclosures that I was working on? Well, as my idealistic views of environmental action were deconstructed as I learned what actually happens in the real world, they were also reaffirmed through the increasing knowledge I gained about the causes I was working towards and their ecological importance. While I was writing up a reports on the condition of these aspen fences, I remained inspired and driven because I knew the importance of monitoring these ecologically vital micro habitats.

The camp

My last week I worked as a counselor for the Chief Joseph Summer Camp. I led two different programs, one was shelter building in the woods and the other was milk carton boat building. Other than just getting involved with kids, and getting them outside, the camp didn’t have much pertinence to my studying. However the history of the camp was fascinating.

The camp was first established in the 60’s when Wallowa County was extremely isolated from the rest of society. At the time the only real jobs that youth were exposed to were resource extraction based. The camp was established to link Wallowa County youth to “the outside world” and to expose them to other career opportunities. People of different professions were brought in from Seattle and Portland. Artists lead plays, Engineers built rockets, accountants ran the camp store. Knowing that just thirty years ago this county was incredibly isolated, to the extent that this camp was one of the only means of exposing the youth to outside professions gave me a whole new outlook on the area, its culture and its history.

Working for Wallowa Resources was one of the most inspiring experiences of my life. It inspired me in three ways. First of all, it was able to serve as an example of what in my eyes is a successful organization making lasting environmental and social impacts in a very difficult setting. Secondly I was inspired through my ability to partake in this process. It was great to apply the skills I have been building throughout my years of study in academia to the real world and towards an end that I care so passionately about. And finally, it was inspiring to realize even though I have so many shortcomings, I was able to make a difference none the less. This may seem strange, but it was truly inspiring to realize that I don’t need to know everything about an issue before I start working towards solving it, and then to realize that while working towards it, I was able to learn so much along the way.


One Semester in

So the conversations we were having, which was all about blending economy with ecology and understanding that people need to be part of the equation, but it’s also about engaging people in the decision making.


-- The notion was, in the very beginning, if we get our own plan adopted first the federal government can’t come tell us what to do. Right. So it was kind of this, let’s evade this government oppression. But what ended up happening is that people began to have conversations about what are the habitat features here, what are the threats to that habitat, and what is our level of responsibility to care for it. So it, actually,

-- But in 1994 and ’95 the timber harvest was almost completely gone. By ’94, actually, there was no timer cut from public land in Wallowa County, zero, none. And all three saw mills that were operating in the county shut down sequentially.

-- So we began to meet in Jan. of ’95, community group meetings, and eventually started posting them in the paper, but the point was to invite everyone, anybody who wanted to, but we realized was that we were really drawing the 80% in the middle. And so over time we’ve made a conservative effort to reach out to interest groups.

-- When we moved from being all volunteer and community driven, to having an organization, people were so busy, people were backing away. “Oh, we’ve got someone paid to do that now.” There was a huge transition, but in terms of people coming together, I think the way it happened was good.

-- So. And the importance of that came to me after I took the Executive Director Position.
So the conversations we were having, which was all about blending economy with ecology and understanding that people need to be part of the equation, but it’s also about engaging people in the decision making.

-- So after these two years of conversation, the nonprofit was born. And I was incredibly humbled when the community said to me “Diane, you’re the person to lead this initiative.” It was pretty scary, I knew nothing about nonprofits! But I had a lot of passion about the future of the community.

-- I’ve had to become almost an expert on Forest Service contracting. In order to get access for our local people, and in order to change this dynamic from a timber based economy to a restoration and maintenance and traditional components, there had to be that facilitator connected in with the work force.