<BR> County takes up fight to maintain local Forest Service headquarters
Although the Forest Service has announced that Prineville is out of contention for the site of the combined Ochoco-Deschutes National Forest Headquarters, the battle isn't over. Crook County Judge Scott Cooper is taking the battle to a higher authority.
In a letter to Leslie Weldon, supervisor for the combined Ochoco-Deschutes National Forest, Scott Cooper expressed "grave concern regarding the integrity of the decision-making process" as well as concern for the potential economic and social impact of the removal of 50 jobs from Prineville. Copies of the multi-page letter is slated to be hand-carried by Commission Jerry Crafton when he visits Washington, D.C. later this month.
In the letter, Cooper commented on the Forest Service's original denial that a merger was taking place, to later claiming to "minimizing the potential impact of the merger to misrepresenting the level of community involvement in the decision-making process." Speaking for the County Court, Cooper said, "we are baffled as to how the Forest Service can claim on the one hand that it desires broader engagement with local partners while on the other it withholds information and excludes the community from involvement in decision making."
Cooper noted that as late as April 19, 2000, in a meeting between Prineville City Council members, the Crook County Court and U.S. Senator Gordon Smith, a Forest Service spokesperson denied that a merger was even contemplated. Subsequently, the merger was announced to local news media in late June. At that time, the Ochoco National Forest Supervisor characterized that merger as an effort to combine administrative functions of the Ochoco National Forest and Bureau of Land Management, stating "Both the Prineville District BLM and Ochoco National Forest will continue to work out of Prineville offices," adding, "For the present time at least, only one position will be lost."
But a news release issued by the Ochoco and Deschutes National Forest February 28 states that "After discussion with community leaders in the three cities and employees on the two forests, Prineville is no longer being considered as a future headquarters location." That, Cooper said, is a mischaracterization. "This decision has been made without holding a single public hearing in Prineville," Cooper said.
Community leaders, he added, never were invited to comment, never received a briefing on siting criteria and never met with members of the facility siting committee organized by the Forest Service.
"Such conversations as have occurred with a highly select group of individuals involved the Forest Service informing the community of decisions already taken," Cooper said.
In his letter to Weldon, Cooper noted that the decision to remove 50 top policy-making jobs from Prineville has far-reaching consequences for Prineville. Cooper noted that the federal government pays the highest average wage of any sector of the Crook County economy. At $39,510 (Oregon Employment Dept figures) the 50 jobs likely to be lost represent 20 percent of the total federal employment and potential impact on county personal income of nearly $2 million.
In addition, small businesses, ranging from restaurants who make sandwiches for summer fire crews to the local hardware store to the local Radio Shack, rely on Forest Service purchases for a portion of their income.
Beyond the economic impact, however, is a social impact, Cooper said. "Forest Service employees are highly trained, college-educated members of the community, conversant with the latest in planning and facilitation processes, management theory and the ways of Washington. They serve in positions as school board chairs, planning commission members and service club officers. The loss of 50 key positions tears at the very heart of this community."
In his letter, Cooper outlined how the Forest Service process established to evaluate six siting criteria failed to take into account Prineville's competitiveness as a potential administrative headquarters site. The letter points out that the Forest Service failed to include sites submitted by Prineville from consideration and failed to fairly evaluate key assets of the community, identified as priority in the sting criteria.
In conclusion, Cooper wrote, the siting process failed. "It has failed in that it has not honored commitments and public representations made by Forest Service employees. It has failed because it has cast the Forest Service in the poor light of unresponsive partner and irresponsible corporate citizen. And finally it has failed because the committee has disregarded its own criteria in formulating recommendations.
Commissioner Crafton, attending a meeting of the National Association of Counties in Washington, D.C., next week, is expected to hand-deliver a copy of the letter to U.S. Senator Ron Wyden, U.S. Senator Gordon Smith and U.S. Representative Greg Walden.