District ranger promotes public-private partnerships

Wallowa Valley district ranger Meg Mitchell cites the Upper Joseph Creek watershed assessment as a priority this winter. Photo by Rocky Wilson

The Enterprise-based headquarters of the U. S. Forest Service's Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, the Wallowa Mountain office, employs 60 people full time and twice that number in the summer months when the staff is bolstered for fire control. Wallowa Valley district ranger Meg Mitchell also notes that the local office owns 60 to 70 horses and mules, making it "one of the biggest horse and mule Forest Service programs in the nation", she says.

Three Forest Service units come under the guidance of two district rangers in Enterprise: the Eagle Cap Wilderness and Hells Canyon National Recreation Area under Kendall Clark and the Wallowa Valley ranger district under Mitchell.

This week Mitchell gave her perspective on local Forest Service operations and upcomong projects in Wallowa County.

She says that in past days the summer months were the busiest months of the year with the winter months a time to slow down. She does not think that is the case now as her employees work at a good clip year around.

One of the biggest winter projects now facing the district is the Upper Joseph Creek watershed assessment which employs as many as 12 persons from her staff as well as a good number of persons from the private sector. The plan is to have the massive assessment project done in 2003.

Heading the roads and recreation group on the project is former Wallowa Valley district ranger Glen McDonald. Heading the forest condition group, and heading the entire project, is Nils Christoffersen of Wallowa Resources. Assisting him on the forest condition group is the Forest Service's Paul Survis. Heading the aquatics group are Coby Menton of the Grande Ronde Model Watershed and Megan Lucas of the Forest Service. The fourth group on the Upper Joseph Creek watershed assessment project, the rangeland conditions group, is headed by Mark Porter of Wallowa Resources, Phil Shephard of The Nature Conservancy and both Teresa Smergut and Jerry Hustafa of the Forest Service.

Mitchell sees a true value in the private sector working with the Forest Service on such a worthwhile project. "Local people getting involved can make a difference," she says. She applauds groups such as the Wallowa County Natural Resources Advisory Committee (NRAC), the Grande Ronde Model Watershed, The Nature Conservancy and Wallowa Resources for their efforts to generate ideas for new projects.

Mitchell and Clark have authority over their respective districts, but share in staff, budgeting and their relationships with other partnerships. She said that their employees see no distinctions from among the three ranger districts, instead look at their efforts as being on one ecosystem.

"I think it is working out OK between us," says Mitchell. "We have a lot of communication and coordination. There is more than enough work for both of us."

Much of Mitchell's time is taken up doing budgeting for the combined districts. She reports having a base budget of $2.7 million, another $1 million for funded projects and is asking for another $500,000 in funds. Payroll is the biggest expense followed by contracted services and purchases, she says.

Fires were not a major problem in the districts this past summer, only consuming 470 acres compared to 98,000 acres in one fire in the summer of 2000. Local firefighters were busy, however, staffing fires outside of the area.

Mitchell has been in her position two years, coming to the Wallowa Valley district from a similar ranger position at the Yakitat District in Alaska.

The district ranger says that there are several logging sales underway for understory thinning projects. She says the average size log being cut is a diameter of 8 inches. She says they have closed three contracts, have three more going on to cut an estimated nine million board feet and are working to create two or three more contracts amounting to another eight million board feet.

"Small diameter logging will continue," she says.

Of logging as a whole to come back like it was in past years Mitchell says, "It is difficult for any side of the issue to gain ground." She reports having not seen changes reaching her at the local effort.

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