Oregon: Grant County supervisor, judge block citizen input in forest stewardship

While the armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge grabbed the world’s attention, a quieter struggle over federal lands is being waged by those trying to use elections and the levers of government. Their grandparents and great-grandparents wrested a living from the West’s rugged landscape. 

But now, the forest commissioners say, the government is tightening access to the same natural resources by closing roads and curtailing logging and other industries that allowed previous generations to be self-sufficient. 

Rural Land Battle Smolders: In Grant County, the dissolution of a citizens’ forest commission fans anti-government flames

JOHN DAY — On a recent wintry evening, members of the Grant County Public Forest Commission walked into the warmth of a rustic diner and took seats at their customary table for their bimonthly meeting. 

They voiced anger and frustration. At this meeting, they were officially a non-entity. 

A judge this fall dissolved the commission at the behest of a former county supervisor who worried it was becoming a risk, citing the takeover of a federal wildlife refuge in a neighboring county. 

While the armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge grabbed the world’s attention, a quieter struggle over federal lands is being waged by those trying to use elections and the levers of government. Their grandparents and great-grandparents wrested a living from the West’s rugged landscape. 

But now, the forest commissioners say, the government is tightening access to the same natural resources by closing roads and curtailing logging and other industries that allowed previous generations to be self-sufficient. 

The commissioners feel they lost, by the stroke of a judge’s pen, a tool voters gave them to fight back. 

Kim McKrola, a local, voiced the concern of many: “I would think we should have more say, because what does the federal government know about what’s going on around here?” 

With 1,700 residents, John Day is Grant County’s biggest town, named for a fur trapper who in the early 1800s survived being robbed of everything by American Indians but trekked with a compatriot to safety. The second longest free-flowing river in the continental United States also bears Day’s name. 

Created by voters in a ballot measure 14 years ago, the forest commission was tasked with determining the fate of public lands, which comprise 66 percent of the county’s 4,529 square miles. 

Hours before the meeting at the Squeeze-In Restaurant & Deck, forest commissioner Jim Sproul drove his pickup up a canyon and into the Malheur National Forest. 

“My great-grandfather came here in the 1870s. He started the Humboldt Mine,” the 64-year-old said. A pin on his cap proclaimed support for Sheriff Glenn Palmer, a sympathizer of the refuge occupiers’ cause. 

Sproul looked at skeletal trees killed by a 2015 fire that burned 43 homes and more than 172 square miles. He blamed the U.S. Forest Service, saying it let the forest grow too thick, allowing the blaze to crown and become a “huge fireball.” Sproul wants the agency to open more burned areas for loggers to salvage trees. 

At the Squeeze-In, commission members voiced more complaints. 

“You’re missing the point,” growled Commissioner Mike Smith from beneath the brim of his cowboy hat. “The point is, they want to make it so you can’t make a living in rural Oregon, so you have to leave.” 

Others nodded assent. 

Commissioner Dave Traylor said he suspects the government and environmentalists want to create a 200-mile-wide corridor from Canada to Mexico, with only animals present and no humans. 

Federal officials say no such plots exist. 

District Ranger Dave Halemeier noted the Forest Service has increased its transparency. 

“We meet with the public before we even have an idea of what we want to do in an area,” Halemeier said in an interview. “Historically, we’d come up with a plan and then present that plan, and now the public’s involved in developing that plan.” 

Malheur National Forest Supervisor Steve Beverlin said he had productive talks with a forest commissioner about modifying rules for gathering firewood, but faced hostility at commission meetings. 

“It was difficult to engage because they wouldn’t share information,” Beverlin said 

Mark Webb, whose petition for judicial review led to the commission’s dissolution, said he felt it was growing too close to Palmer and his “increasing belligerence toward federal government.” 

The leaders of the wildlife refuge takeover were planning to meet with Palmer when officers intercepted them on Jan. 26. State police shot and killed LaVoy Finicum as he appeared to reach for a pistol. 

Sproul said he had invited takeover leaders Ammon and Ryan Bundy to speak to residents about the Constitution and states’ rights, with no ulterior motives. 

“Anyone who says there’s a militia here is a liar,” Sproul said. “But are there patriotic citizens here? Hell yes.” Forest commissioners say no one informed them of the petition. 

Judge W.D. Cramer ruled Sept. 14 that the ballot measure that created the commission violated the U.S. and state constitutions and federal statutes. In explaining his ruling, Cramer said he “may have personal views that align with many on how public lands are managed (or not), and views on how those who live close to the land should be heard.” But “facts and the law” dictate a decision. 

Webb heads another organization, Blue Mountains Forest Partners, which describes itself as a diverse group of stakeholders who work to improve local forests and communities. He said his group and the forest commission have similar goals but “radically different” approaches. 

“The public forest commission thought they had authority to tell the county (officials) and the national forest how to manage public lands. But Blue Mountains respects the framework … we have to operate in.”

Webb ran in the May primary for one of the commission’s seven seats. His name was removed from the ballot because of a technicality, Grant County Clerk Brenda Percy said. Webb told The Associated Press he ran in case his petition failed, so he could “inform or redirect” the commission, which he said was ineffective. 

The forest commission, meanwhile, is planning to appeal the judge’s decision and has been in contact with the secretary of state’s office, which manages elections, to seek a remedy, Sproul said.

The Register-Guard

Andrew Selsky/AP

Free Range Report

3 comments

  • John George

    If you really look at what is unfolding, it’s a battle for who speaks for local residents and how they use public resources.

    Mr. Webb, executive director for the Forest Service supported Blue Mountains Forest Partners (Collaborative) worked hard to disband the forest commission. A commission that friends of Mr. Webb’s sat on for years, and never once questioned the legitimacy of the commission. Mr. Bevlerin, supervisor for the Malheur National Forest, told forestry leaders that if road closures were opposed, no harvest would come off the forest, meaning “partners” of the “Collaborative” would not see their 70 million dollar “Stewardship Contract” come to pass.

    So, what were Mr. Webb and Mr. Beverlin to do, could they sit back and watch “their” collaborative not be the sole “voice” on the Malheur National Forest, No. Could they sit back and watch people they supported for the commission lose in the primary and see their “influence” dwindle to nothing, as the forest commission could be used in Grant County directly “Coordinating” on projects in the county? No.

    They were left with only course of action, disband the commission, steal the voice from the people of Grant County, and remove the last effective tool the people had to affect change on bad projects. This, doesn’t not even mention Mr. Webb’s growing influence and wage as the executive director of the collaborative, that is in direct conflict with the commission.
    Were Forest Service “Collaboratives” formed to bring people together, or to control a message? Seems more to the latter anymore. Do what the collaborative says, and you can proceed, go against the collaborative, and they send in their executive director to kill public participation.

    Nice model you have Mr. Webb and Beverlin, maybe you should take it nationally, oh wait it already is.

  • Billie Jo George

    Your article leaves out the names of those who ran for a seat on the Commission and their interest in the Malheur National Forest. Russ Young, Owner of Iron Triangle Logging, sole contract winner of the Malheur National Forest 74 Million Dollar Stewardship Contract, Dave Hannibal, Grant Co. Manager , Grayback Forestry and Sub Contractor for Iron Triangle Logging Member of the Blue Mountain Forest Partners Collabortive, a partner of the Malheur National Forest. King Williams, Consultant for Iron Triangle Loggin, King Inc , also a member of the Blue Mt. Forest Partners Collabortive, father of Zach Williams , Forester for Iron Triangle Logging. member of the Blue Mt. Forest Partners Collaborative Zach was not a candidate . Mark Webb, former Grant Co. Judge who is now the executive director for the Blue Mt. Forest Partners , his position on the collaborative is a paid position. He later dropped out of the race , I don’t believe he could hold a paying position on the collaborative and run for a elected position in another area. The people they ran against and who beat them out are Dave Traylor Veteran and Forest User, Jim Sproul, Real Estate ,Native of Grant Co. Tad Houpt, Logger, Mike Smith, Rancher, Jim Boethin, retired Oregon Fish and Wildlife. Each one of these men have a great deal of knowledge to bring to the table in deciding the future of our Forest with open mines and no pocket lining at the end of the project. These guys beat out the special interest group so Mr. Webb just did away with them.

    I hope between John’s comment and mine we can help you and your readers understand what has taken place in Grant Co. Mr. Webb manipulated the voters of Grant County, took there choice away from them to get control of the decision making on the Malheur National Forest For Personal Gain not just for him but all those named above. These people are manipulating the economic future of Grant County . Our future is not bike paths and tourism, our future is logging and wood products .

  • Jim Sproul

    The forest commission even though nullified by the Circuit Court Judge at the bequest of Mark Webb executive director of Blue Mountain Partners ( a 501 C3 tax free entity) continues to have biweekly meetings as instructed by the voters of Grant County. We have never been either informed or apprised of the so called legal proceedings filed and tried by the Circuit Court a oversight I am sure. We plan on in the very near future calling upon the voters to reinstate the Forest Commission to its rightful duty under the law. Interesting as it may seem the County Court through Commissioner Britton have budgeted for $50,000 in the current year for a Natural Resource Advisor a position exactly the same as the Forest Commissioners being replaced but not controlled by the people of the County but by the Court. I wonder whom of the previous posts names will come to the trough. It’s dam well past time for a investigation into the money trail that leads to the same characters. Also I find it odd that the same County Court claimed to know nothing of this proceeding yet paid their attorney $7500 to try the case. When elected officials whom have taken a oath of office fail to represent their constituents or lie then recall becomes the only recourse!!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *