- Associated Press - Thursday, February 4, 2016

BEND, Ore. (AP) - Oregon Wild’s proposal to declare 300,000 acres of Ochoco National Forest land as a national recreation area has been widely opposed by the residents and officials of Crook County for the land use restrictions that many say such a designation could lead to.

But another factor contributing to the staunch opposition, according to recent comments at public meetings and gatherings as well as interviews with The Bulletin, is the conservation organization’s history and reputation in Prineville and elsewhere.

Some locals know Oregon Wild as a group that in the past has damaged local industry with its proposals and lawsuits, regardless of intentions, and they haven’t failed to bring that up at meetings about the proposal.

“I’d say that 90 percent of people around here know about Oregon Wild’s history because it’s been brought up so much in so many of the meetings,” said Pete Sharp, who was born and raised in Crook County and filed to run for county commissioner this year. “We had quite a few that brought up (Oregon Wild’s) history because they went online and looked it up. People know that they’ve been doing bad things for us for a long time. It’s not necessarily the same people now as it was then, but you know, you have trouble siding with the group that helped destroy the timber industry.”

For its part, Oregon Wild said that focusing on the past, and particularly an old reputation for litigation and conflict, isn’t productive to the current conversation that’s taking place in Crook County. Rather, collaboration is the path the group is focusing on now.

“In the ‘90s, there was a lot of fighting and a lot of lawsuits,” said Erik Fernandez, Oregon Wild wilderness program manager. “Lawsuits nowadays are few and far between, and collaboration is everywhere. We’ve had 10 to 15 years of moderate success with collaboration, so I think there’s a fair amount of history and legs to that. I think with some people, they’re still angry about the ‘90s, and that’s their right. But arguing about the ‘90s isn’t the way forward.”

Still, some in Crook County remember the past.

According to the Oregon Wild website, before its name was changed to Oregon Wild in 2006 to prevent people from confusing it with a government agency, the group went by the Oregon Natural Resources Council. And in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the ONRC was involved in lawsuits statewide and regionally that Crook County residents say have created a distaste for the organization locally.

“They can’t be trusted. They have a reputation of saying one thing but really meaning something else,” said Greg Lambert, who owns Mid Oregon Personnel in Prineville, adding that people would be against the proposal whether or not Oregon Wild had the reputation it has.

“It’s a well-deserved reputation - if they don’t get their way they’re going to file a lawsuit. Their history gives us the ability to listen to what they’re saying and know what they actually mean. They use words and phrases that sound very good, but when you look at how they’ve implemented those words in other scenarios, it turns out they’re not so good.”

Lambert didn’t offer specifics, but more than 50 lawsuits that list Oregon Wild as the plaintiff have been filed in Oregon and regionally since 2004, according to Pacer, an electronic court database, and more than 100 that list ONRC as a plaintiff have been filed since the late ‘80s. And some of those suits, one of which went to the Supreme Court in 1989, can be hard for those affected to forget.

For instance, many Oregonians, including those in Crook County, know the ONRC as an organization that played a role in the litigation and appeals that led to the northern spotted owl’s controversial listing as an endangered species in 1990, an event some claim played a large part in the decline of the logging industry. Even though the controversy surrounding the northern spotted owl, which resides in Central and Southern Oregon and elsewhere but not in the Ochoco National Forest, didn’t have much effect on Crook County, county residents remember.

“While the spotted owl didn’t affect us particularly, there were numerous appeals and lawsuits that the old Oregon Wild group participated in in Central Oregon and Eastern Oregon,” said John Shelk, who owned Ochoco Lumber before it closed in 2001. “And to the extent the community still remembers those activities, there likely is still an aura of mistrust for their organization and a questioning of their motives.”

Shelk, as a member of a collaborative local group that brings together representatives from various local industries and organizations, including Oregon Wild, said that despite Oregon Wild’s reputation in the community, collaboration is the way forward. But clearly many community members don’t see it that way.

“The collaborative that these groups participate in, we have very good relations at this point,” he said. “But I don’t know if that extends to the larger populace. Obviously they didn’t respond too favorably to the proposal, and I think that there’s been so many restrictions placed on public lands in the last 25 or 30 years that when given a chance to participate in the discussion - and keep in mind that the larger community wasn’t consulted back in the ‘80s when the timber sales were being appealed and litigated - that when finally given a chance to give their opinion on land management on public lands, they spoke awfully loudly and awfully clearly.”

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Information from: The Bulletin, https://www.bendbulletin.com

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