A long-standing tradition at the Chieftain is to review the major news stories for the previous year.
This year’s selection of the top story was simple. Mother Nature’s fury was unfurled at Wallowa County residents in early 2017, making it the worst winter 40, 50 or 60 year, depending upon who you asked.
Summer wasn’t a prize either as hot temps broiled the landscape and smoke from wildfires stung the eyes of county residents. Despite predictions of another horrible year, 2018 dawns with mild temps and sunshine.
The No. 2 story –– the continuing saga of wolves in the county –– has been in the top 10 for several years and will likely continue to be debated throughout 2018.
We hope you enjoy reading our review of 2017 as much as we enjoyed bringing it to you.
Year in Review was compiled by staff writers Kathleen Ellyn and Steve Tool
1. Mother Nature tried to kill us
It was the year of the Snowpocalypse across the nation and Eastern Oregon did not escape the record snow and cold temps.
The worst winter in more than a decade took its toll.
President of Wheatland Insurance Kay Hunkapillar reported 18 collapse claims and 21 water damage claims in Wallowa County to her agency alone. Farmer’s Group Insurance agent Les Bridges of Enterprise reported six collapsed building claims.
Perhaps the most dramatic destruction was the J. Herbert Bates Mill planer building in Wallowa. The iconic building looked like it had been hit by a tornado.
Frozen pipes, leaking roofs and long cold and uncomfortable waits for overbooked plumbers greeted residents. Cities sent out public works employees to help dig up frozen lines and issued water-use overage forgiveness, encouraging folks to keep water trickling in all the sinks in the house.
Repeated snowfalls dumped large quantities of snow, partially melt and then more snow fell.
Ranchers, who had deliberately built their hay and storage sheds with steel roofs so the snow would slide off, were flummoxed by Mother Nature’s fury. The consistency of the snow combined with below freezing temperatures of the unheated buildings created a situation where the snow stayed put.
The summer that followed brought near-record heat and wild fires across Oregon and the Northwest. The county did not suffer a reprise of the fire-fear of 2015 when the Grizzly Bear Complex Fire came within a few hundred feet of burning down the town of Troy and had ranchers scrambling to save cattle in the area.
However smoke from surrounding fires darkened the skies across the county, impacting the health of some and derailing adventures for some tourists.
Views from the Wallowa Lake Tramway were obstructed for several days.
2. Controversy over wolves continued
Wolves played a large part on the Wallowa County stage in 2017. Continued calls from ranchers to get rid of additional wolves were heard. Environmentalists pushed to protect wolves and railed against ranchers and their plans.
The year of controversy began when USDA Wildlife Services accidentally killed a Wallowa County wolf with an M-44 cyanide trap in February. That resulted in the agency’s removal of all such traps in Wallowa County.
In March, the state moved into Phase 3 of its Wolf Management Plan as at least eight breeding pairs of wolves were found in the state for three consecutive years.
In April, the yearly wolf count by the ODFW showed an increase of two wolves. less large gains than in previous years. The agency said it did not believe the growth to be a trend and noted the loss of seven wolves from lethal take or other causes. It also noted that inclement winter weather hindered sightings and that the 112 wolves were confirmed and other wolves were probably present but not counted.
Wallowa County ranchers suffered nine confirmed depredations by wolves. The Harl Butte Pack was responsible for most of them, resulting in the harvesting of four wolves from the pack by the ODFW. As depredations continued into the fall, the agency authorized more lethal takes of the pack but did not carry any out.
A long-awaited Oregon Wolf Management Plan was introduced late in the year. Dissatisfaction expressed by nearly all stakeholders in the document resulted in a temporary delay in its implementation until 2018.
3. Library district makes it to the ballot
Wallowa County will have to wait until the May 2018 ballot to know the rest of the story, but a vigorous group of library lovers has been leaping tall hurdles in a single bound ever since the county announced the closure of the County Library in early June.
A $1.1 million budget shortfall was cited as the reason for the closure, and county residents are still discovering the impact for library services county-wide. There were plenty of other losers in the budget cuts: the county ceased operating garbage transfer stations and the Wallowa County Sheriff’s office lost $122,466.
The garbage issue was cleaned up in record time as cities with transfer stations signed contracts with Rahn Sanitary of Enterprise and Sheriff Steve Rogers made tough decisions.
The library issue remained in the news throughout the year.
A group of citizens created the Wallowa Valley Library Foundation and determined a taxpayer-funded library district was the best bet to retain and grow library services. The group snagged a grant for a feasibility study and hired a consultant. Joseph, Enterprise and Wallowa opted to sign on to let their citizens vote. Lostine opted out.
Commissioners eventually agreed to keep the county library open with reduced hours until May.
Once the district made it to the ballot, the foundation formed a Political Action Committee to educate the populace and drum up votes. The PAC committee was in full swing as the year ended with a variety of committees headed by volunteers preparing to take the message to voters.
The district will cost taxpayers 65 cents per $1,000 of assessed value on home and agreements over who will pay the upkeep on the library buildings should the measure pass are being crafted.
4. Housing crisis hits Wallowa County
Wallowa County began tackling a long-standing housing crisis stifling economic growth with a series of Brown Bag Luncheons at the Josephy Center in Joseph in July.
Over the coming weeks and months, citizens learned that, contrary to economic development studies done years earlier, there was an across-the-board shortage of housing for all income ranges. Medical professionals were living in trailers at RV centers for more than a year, two-income families were moving from one substandard home to another, elderly and disabled sat on waiting lists for months for an apartment and families with three children stacked up in two bedroom apartments — all for the same reason, lack of affordable rentals.
Issues included a misunderstanding of what low-income housing was in comparison to subsidized or voucher housing; a belief that there was a “glut” of low-income housing available; a belief that trailer parks attracted the “wrong sort of people;” fears that changes in zoning to allow cottage-sized homes (less than 1,000 square-feet) or tiny homes would lower property values for neighbors; zoning laws and square footage construction that no longer addressed modern buyers needs or desires; and a shortage of rentals for workforce.
Horror stories emerged about substandard rentals and landlords unprepared for their responsibilities, and double-income families abandoning Wallowa County in frustration.
The conversation continues, not just in Wallowa County, but nationwide.
In the meantime, local builder Andy McKee of McKee Brother’s Investments is leading a one-man campaign to create affordable housing, working on approximately 20 improved or newly created apartments in Joseph and Enterprise.
Rotary Club of Wallowa County made housing its highest priority for the 2017 and pledged to keep working on the issue for years to come.
The issue also was examined in-depth in a series of stories published in the Chieftain.
5. Enterprise City Hall, Fire Station burn
It was as dramatic as it was surprising. On July 10, in the midst of a work session before Enterprise City Council was to convene, council member Dave Elliott left the chambers to retrieve papers and discovered thick smoke in the offices of city hall.
Enterprise Volunteer Fire Department firefighters, 19 in all, were on the scene within minutes and began to clear the adjacent fire hall and commence battling the blaze. Smoke was pouring out windows and doors. Soon Joseph Fire Department and another five vehicles and 11 more firefighters joined the fight.
After an investigation, it was determined the fire was caused by a faulty fluorescent light fixture in the city administrator’s office. The hot ballast fell on a seat and the nearby air conditioner fanned the embers into a full-blown blaze.
When the last smoke cleared, the crumbling 1957 building, its ceilings riddled with asbestos, was still standing. It was eventually deemed a total loss: the cost of repair would be more than it was worth.
What seemed like catastrophic news began transforming into something alive and vital over the ensuing weeks.
An insurance replacement limit of $1.3 million will allow the city to build a new fire hall to replace the dangerously decrepit old fire hall and chances of getting a low-interest loan or grant to build a new city hall looked good in light of the disaster that had displaced city government.
In the meantime, Enterprise City Hall moved from around the corner to 117 Main Street — the recently vacated offices of a retired physician. New council member, Micah Agnew, offered space at the church he pastors at 207 E Main, a block away from city hall, as a council chambers.
City hall was open for business within seven days of the blaze.
6 Community effort builds new Joseph playground
Volunteers from Joseph and across Wallowa County converged on Joseph City Park to complete a major upgrade to its playground. More than 200 volunteers took part in everything from serving lunch to pounding stakes into the ground.
Armed with little more than an idea, four eighth-grade boys from Joseph Charter School –– Tyler Homan, Trey Wandschneider, Steven Beckman and TJ Grote –– appeared before the Joseph City Council in late 2015 with a proposal to upgrade the playground facilities.
The council heard the boys’ proposal and offered help in the way eventually contributing $2,500.
The idea later became part of a Family Career and Community Leaders of America project. FCCLA leader Marla Dotson and community member Penny Arentsen combined forces to form a steering committee in October 2015.
One large grant and several smaller donations pushed the fundraising to a point where major construction could be planned. A presentation to the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department netted the group $130,000.
With Play By Design, a renowned playground design and building company from Ithaca, N.Y., selected to facilitate the $210,000 project, everyone from school students to the steering committee to the city’s mayor went to work. Thanks in large part to a $130,000 grant from the state and immeasurable private donations and a multitude of fundraisers sponsored by nearly every class in the school, enough money was raised to see it mostly completed.
Groundbreaking was in the city park several weeks before the Play By Design Crew arrived on April 24. The work was mostly complete April 30. More than 3,000 man-hours were poured into the six-day construction project. About 200 people attended the opening ceremony.
Children from the community and visitors spent much of the summer frolicking in the park’s new splash pad.
7 Memories in ashes: Boggan’s Oasis burns
Say it isn’t so! The nearly 80-year-old landmark business, Boggan’s Oasis, burned to the ground Nov. 18.
Because of its remote location, along the rugged stretch of Highway 126 three miles north of the Wallowa County border into Washington, no fire service was available.
Boggan’s was famous — a storied stop along the famous and infamous Rattlesnake Grade that stretches from Enterprise to Clarkston, Wash. The American Motorcycle Association calls that 80-mile drive one of the top 15 motorcycle rides in America. Boggan’s sat right next to the Grande Ronde River.
It was a favorite stop for tourists and locals alike. Inside, milk shakes to inspire epic poems and unforgettable memories were served along with hamburgers, fries and more. Walls were decorated with historic photos — many recording the achievements of steelhead anglers from the pages of both recent and ancient history.
Across the road, rafting companies picked up their clients after once-in-a-lifetime floats through wilderness on the Wenaha and Grande Ronde Rivers. Motorcycles and bicycles (thousands of Cycle Oregon bicyclist went this way in 2010) lined up in the parking lot. In fair weather, folks lolled outside at the little café tables and marveled at their good fortune.
An electrical short in a section of old wiring in the several-times-updated building most likely caused the fire.
Owners, Bill and Farrel Vail, live next door to the restaurant and also manage campsites, RV parking and cabins. They are in their mid-80s and were planning on a retirement at some point. Whether they will rebuild is still undecided. What doesn’t need to be decided is whether fans of the business want it rebuilt or whether or not Bill and Farrel would rebuild if they were a few years younger.
“We’re more worried about our customers than anyone else; we’re working on our third generation of customers,” Farrel said.
8 Joseph City Council has acrimonious year
The Joseph City Council continued to earn a reputation for acrimony in 2017. So much so, in fact, one of the most famous artworks of local painter Bob Fergison, now deceased, depicted a large group of people engaged in a brawl. It’s title, “Joseph City Council.”
In June, two members of the council, Tyler Evans and Teresa Sajonia, stormed out of a budget meeting after an argument about rolling over funds for the city’s library. The following day, council member Rodd Clark informed city recorder Donna Warnock that many citizens had told him that she essentially ran a one-woman-show at city hall. A month later, both Warnock and the city’s public works supervisor both resigned in response. Clark later resigned from the council for personal reasons.
After a debate over hiring policies, Tyler Evans resigned his council position. The council selected Kathy Bingham to replace him.
Two members of the public works staff resigned during the year, as did two city recorder assistants. A new employee, still on probation, was fired.
August saw a meeting disrupted when a citizen abused the council’s time limit during public comment harangue about the mayor. He refused to stop speaking until an audience member began singing the patriotic hymn “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” and the entire audience joined in.
The following month, two Joseph residents appeared to tell the council to get its act together. By the end of the year, things seemed to be looking to return to an even –– and less controversial –– keel.
The meetings of the last quarter saw a council with much less acrimony and a will to serve the city’s citizens to the best of its ability. The city hired a public works supervisor, and there is a full staff at city hall. The council does have an opening on the council for Rodd Clark’s seat. Mayor Dennis Sands said he expects to receive applications for the position shortly.
9 Remodel of OK Theatre announced
The OK Theatre, owned by the Darrell Brann family since 2014, is arguably the gem of Main Street in Enterprise. After Brann bought the ailing theater, he began booking quality music shows and allowed the theater to be used for a number of charitable events.
As years went by, Brann managed to attract bigger names to the theater while keeping a strong focus on local community events. He also worked to make ticket prices affordable for the community.
Blue grass legend Del McCoury was among the luminaries who performed at the venue.
In May 2017, plans to remodel the facility leaped forward. The theater owner found himself on the receiving end of a $100,000 grant from the Oregon Main Street Revitalization Program, part of the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department.
Brann wrote the grant with the help of real-estate agent Diane Daggett. The grant came with the stipulation Brann raise another $40,000. He has already held several successful fundraisers toward that end.
The grant funds will be used to update the theater’s electrical system and provide for ADA-compliant bathrooms. A new heating and cooling system, reframing the stage and new movie screen are also in the works.
As the year came to an end, Brann was busy with the theater upgrades. Truckloads of old equipment was removed during on Saturday. He has pledged to retain local businesses to help with the project.
He plans for a grand re-opening of the theater in the summer of 2019; however, several activities are expected to be held in 2018.
The OK Theatre, at 208 W. Main St., was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2012. It was built in 1918 and featured — new for its area and time — a sloped seating section so that theatre-goers would have unobstructed views.
10 Plans for health services building debut
Groundbreaking was held at mid-year for the first major medical complex to be built in Wallowa County since Wallowa Memorial Hospital opened for business in new digs March 2007.
The construction of a $6.5-million integrated health services building, a cooperative venture between Wallowa Valley Center for Wellness and Winding Waters Community Health Center, was announced in July. The structure will be built on 3.2-acre site adjacent to the Winding Waters parking lot.
The center spent much of the year working on financing for the project.
A total of around $3.5 million total is anticipated from state government, private foundations and the public, leaving roughly $3 million to complete the clinic. Winding Water is committed to roughly $1 million of the cost.
The center has been working with a financial consultant, who has guided the funding process throughout most of 2017.
The project has also received the go-ahead from city of Enterprise planning and zoning officials.
On the drawing board is a 15,000 square-foot facility that would house medical services, mental health services, a teaching kitchen, child and family resource center and a dentist. The clinic will be built so that an additional 2,000 square-feet can be added easily.
The clinic sit is currently being peculated to allow the water table to drop to make construction possible.
Late in the year, the center announced it would delay seeking state funds until the 2019 legislative session for a variety of reasons. The project has the support of State Rep. Greg Baretto and State Sen. Bill Hansell. All of the remaining financial pieces were on target, center officials said.
The coming year will see a push to raise the profile of the center and the work it has been doing in Wallowa County for decades.