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Applegate Partners

The Northwest's timber wars are well reported; what is less well known are the communities that are working together to steward their lands and waters. Applegate is one of those communiites.

At 4,000 feet above sea level, Jack Shipley is able to experience two things that he feels strongly about: flying and the Applegate watershed of southern Oregon. Looking down from the cockpit of the Cessna 172, the Applegate appears lush and majestic, varied and alive. Visible from this distance are farmlands and forest, rock formations, and the Applegate River itself, with tributaries that stretch into the Siskiyou Mountains like the fingers of a giant hand.

Even from so far above, you donit have to look hard to see ecological trouble spots. The patchwork of clearcuts, the maze of logging roads, and sluggish brown streams, are all signs that a once pristine valley has felt the effects of logging, mining, and grazing. "From up here," said Shipley, "you can see all our sins."

Less obvious to the airborne observer are the effects of years of fire suppression, dense undergrowth, and a large build-up of fuel caused by high levels of insect damage, which together increase the chances of catastrophic wildfires.

The Applegate Watershed encompasses approximately 496,500 acres, by definition including all land where rainfall eventually makes its way to the Applegate River. This land supports many rare plants, endangered and threatened species including the bald eagle, the peregrine falcon, Townsend's western big-eared bat, the California wolverine, and the northern spotted owl. According to residents, the Applegate is a bridge, a key link in the long-term connections and continued dispersion of plants and animals throughout the region.

For centuries, Native Americans managed the land, carefully protecting and nurturing the plant and animal species upon which their lives depended. They were followed by the European miners and ranchers, who cleared and built and logged and mined until the Applegate was on the verge of an ecological disaster and the residents were deadlocked in bitter conflict over the land.

Connie Young, a third-generation Applegate farmer, comes from an extended family of farmers, loggers, and miners. She remembers the years before the Applegate Partnership as a time of hardship and hostility as her family and neighbors squared off against the growing environmental movement.

"I understood their point of view, but I felt they really didn't try to understand our point of view," she says. "I saw loggers relatives and friends carrying guns into the forest to protect themselves."

The loggers responded to the activists who were shooting at their trucks, chaining themselves to logging equipment, and forming human chains to block cutting. The Yellow Ribbon Convention in Grants Pass galvanized loggers who flew the ribbons from their trucks and tied them around their arms.

In 1993, Shipley, then vice-president of Headwaters, a local environmental organization, was growing tired of the us-versus-them mentality.

"Everything Headwaters was doing was confrontational," Shipley says. "What was evident to me was that we might win a battle, but the war just kept raging on. So I started looking for a different way."

It was then that Shipley met Jim Neal, a logger from Redmond, California. When they found they shared many of the same goals for the Applegate, the two began questioning other environmentalists and loggers. The responses they got were surprisingly similar. Both sides were looking for a way to end habitat-destroying forestry practices without crashing Oregon's timber-driven economy.

Shipley and Neal invited farmers, ranchers, environmentalists, educators, officials from natural resource agencies, loggers, and residents to weekly round-table discussions. Soon the informal meetings became a coalition of people who agreed to work together toward the long-term health of the Watershed. The Applegate Partnership was born.

The many diverse viewpoints had the potential to spark disagreements, but participants found common ground in the powerful love they share for the Applegate. "We came from different backgrounds," says Shipley, "and yet we agreed on almost everything that we talked about."

The crisscrossing private property lines and boundaries of two counties and five state and federal agencies complicated the process, but the group chose to look at the whole watershed and its interconnected human and ecological issues.

"Practice Trust - 'Them' is 'Us'"

Three months after the Partnership began, Connie Young reluctantly agreed to attend a meeting, persuaded by local farmers who wanted to have a voice in the group. Young describes herself as a "no nonsense" person who wanted nothing to do with environmentalists. "They were the enemy," she says.

When she did attend a meeting, she was amazed at how well the different factions got along. "All I'd ever heard was one side yelling at the other," Young recalls. "And here I'm seeing environmentalists and farmers talking reasonably and actually listening to each other. That's what kept me going back."

The Partnership maintains an even balance between members from various walks of life. In the past many of these groups communicated solely through threats and insults, but today the sense of connection is almost tangible.

When considering projects, a common question is "Who else needs to be at the table?" If a key person is absent, the group will wait before moving forward. The Partnership makes decisions by consensus. The hot button issues that are certain to cause strife in the group like timber sales in roadless areas and the preservation of the spotted owl have been shelved for the present to give the Partnership a chance to work.

That's not to say members never disagree. However, they do so with respect as well as frankness. It is on these occasions that the Partnership's motto comes into play, "Practice Trust - 'Them' is 'Us'."

Members wear a button with a red slash through the word "they" to remind themselves to avoid blaming. "Every time you get into one of these [environmental] conflicts, people always talk about how 'They did this,' and 'They did that,'" says Shipley.

"There is no 'they,'" agrees Young. "It's all 'us'."

Instead of acting on the half-truths that inevitably accompany "they" statements, the group puts energy into tracking down concrete information to use as a foundation for decision making.

Forest Stewardship

Once the group had developed its decision-making process, they worked with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the US Forest Service to develop a forest-health analysis of the Applegate. From there, the Partnership embarked on what would be one of its greatest successes: the sale of timber rights on Thompson Creek.

The Applegate analysis underscored that the Thompson Creek area was more than just timberland. It was oak woodlands, brush fields, home to scores of wildlife species. And it was an ecosystem that had been thrown out of balance due to an overcrowded forest.

"When we decided to eliminate fire from this ecosystem maybe 80 or 90 years ago, ... we put ourselves on a crash course with ecological disaster," said Shipley. The usual timber sale, involving clearcutting and new logging roads, would exacerbate Thompson Creek's already precarious condition.

After numerous discussions, the BLM and the Partnership took an unprecedented course of action. Instead of dictating to the timber companies what kinds of harvest practices to use, the BLM established guidelines and asked the companies bidding for the timber how they would accommodate those goals. Boise Cascade won the bid with their plan to log with helicopters, build few new logging roads and close old ones, and only harvest trees 13 inches or less in diameter. "

Instead of taking the biggest trees and leaving the worst, they took the smallest trees and left the best," said Shipley. Not only was the process much less intrusive than the usual clearcutting, but it opened up overcrowded areas and turned a fire hazard into improved habitat.

Supporting Farmers

As Partnership members looked at the watershed as a whole, they saw that they would need to extend their reach beyond timber.

"We started to understand that we really had to help the farmers and ranchers, the loggers and homeowners -- all of these people are part of the big picture," says Shipley.

The Partnership's inclusive approach was put to the test when it tackled a problem on Billy Joe Hunter's farm. During the winters, local dairies often boarded their cows at Hunter's farm. According to Jack Shipley, there were always too many cows on too little land. "The place runs right over the middle of Forest Creek, and everybody used to complain that the farm looked bad and smelled bad."

The group initially had misgivings about approaching someone who they believed would be oblivious to their concerns for the creek. Young argued that Hunter was "good people" who simply couldn't afford to fence off the creek on his property. In the end, the group approached Hunter with an offer to find state funding to help replant riparian areas around the creek and build a fence to keep cows out. "He was just tickled to death and very cooperative," recalls Young.

Alone, the farmers can't afford some of the measures environmentalists would like them to take. "The small farmers just aren't making it," says Young, whose husband works a second job to make ends meet.

And there are good reasons to support farmers and ranchers, Shipley believes. "Replacing farms and woodlots with subdivision is not an environmental benefit," he says.

Projects such as the one on Hunter's farm helped repair damaged relationships between farmers and environmental activists, showing all in the Valley that the two sides could indeed work together.

A Vision of the Applegate

The Partnership still has its detractors on both sides. Young often finds herself confronted by other farmers who accuse her of compromising her basic beliefs. Some of Shipleyis old environmentalist colleagues feel that he's being co-opted by industry.

Both, however, feel that for there to be progress in the Applegate, there must be an effort to find common ground. As proof of the effectiveness of the collaborative approach, they need only point to what has been accomplished: the Thompson Creek sale and other sustainable timber harvesting, the replanted riparian areas, a local park they took over when the government could no longer fund it, and the clearing of dense underbrush that threatened to surround an isolated subdivision with wildfire.

Both Shipley and Young feel that the greatest success of the partnership has been the way it has changed relationships and healed much of the disunity in the area. "It hasn't been a bed of roses," says Young. "But we've discovered that each of us can give, and we can come out with a mutual agreement."

They have found community in their shared vision of making "future land management in the Applegate watershed ecologically creditable, aesthetically acceptable, and economically viable."

Although there are some issues that are still too raw, too polarizing and time consuming for the Partnership to fully confront, Shipley feels that the community has strengthened enough for them to "nibble on the edges" of these issues.

They have built a partnership in the strongest sense of the word where there once was only discord. Says Shipley, "My wife and I were seriously considering moving to Mexico some years ago because we were having difficulty connecting with the community. Since the Partnership has occurred, we have found community." Email Signup
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