Fight to retain USFS goes on
Two of the three members of Oregon's Congressional delegation indicate their understanding of the issue and respond positivelyRepresentatives from both US Sen. Ron Wyden and Congressman Greg Walden indicated that the two legislators would continue to question the recent Forest Service decision to move the proposed 50 or so members of their headquarters staff out of Prineville.
The two, Mike O'Herron, field representative for Walden, and David Blair, field representative for Sen. Wyden, took the time to tell a group of Prineville residents that their bosses were taking a close look at the Forest Service's decision not to include Crook County in siting a new headquarters facility. Earlier this month, Leslie Weldon, Forest Supervisor for the combined Ochoco and Deschutes National Forests, said in a letter that the Forest Service "would not re-open consideration of Prineville as a location for the combined headquarters" of the two Forests.
That decision brought a quick response by Crook County leaders and the scheduling of the meeting with representatives of the Congressional delegation. County Judge Scott Cooper explained that the third member of the delegation, US Sen. Gordon Smith, has indicated that he won't take part in the issue. In his view, Sen. Smith informed Cooper recently, the issue is a battle between communities within the district he represents and he didn't think it proper to get between the two.
Apparently neither Sen. Wyden nor Congressman Walden see it that way. Blair said that the issue has been under discussion by Wyden and his staff, but no decision has been made on how to deal with it. Blair explained that the Senator believes it is early in the process and lots of levels of discussion on where to put the headquarters have to be held. Those topics include land management issue, forest timber sales issues, and others.
"It is very clear," Blair added, "that there will always be a Forest Service presence here."
Blair suggested that a working group of local leaders should be formed, "and that includes us," he added, indicating himself and O'Herron, "to sit down and talk. We need to learn why each (Forest Service) job has to leave. There is still a lot of work that can be done."
O'Herron echoed Blair's comment, saying Walden is well aware of the situation. The Congressman's representative said he had recently met with the Forest Supervisor and talked about Walden's three points of view.
First, there is no doubt about what the loss such a move would mean to Prineville. Second, the Congressman wants to make sure every alternative is taken.
"Walden asked that good analytical information is used in making the decision and communicate that information to Prineville. Leslie and her staff candidly admitted that they haven't done that and actually didn't realize the depth of feelings here."
It seems, O'Herron added, that in his view the best thing to do is identify the best jobs that should remain in Prineville. "That may not change things, but you might be able to catch the Forest Service in some of their decisions."
Congress, the two representatives agreed, has mandated that the Forest Service cut back ... consolidate but don't necessarily reduce the level of service.
Cooper, without being defeatist about the decision that Crook County will lose the 50 or so headquarters staff, said the fight is not over. "I'm very concerned," he explained, "that we will lose this battle no matter what we do. But we need to send the message that this is the last time we lose out to Bend or Redmond."
The Forest Service, Cooper went on to point out, hasn't been totally honest with Crook County. The first rumors of the Forest Service leaving Prineville because of budget cuts, was about a year and a half ago. Not true, was the response to the rumors. Then about a year ago, Public Affairs Officer Bill Rice said that no discussion had been held on such a move. A short time later, Forest Supervisor Tom Schmidt said the two forests would merge and his position would be the only one lost.
Cooper talked about the information the Forest Service leadership used when deciding where to locate the new combined National Forest's headquarters. When Leslie Wel don talked about taking Prineville out of consideration, she quoted the model adopted by the Forest Service that indicated the loss to Prineville would be about $100,000 per year. That is not entirely correct, the county judge said.
An Oregon State University study showed that, assuming only 50 employees are relocated, the economic impact will be a little over $1 million per year. This is a very serious economic loss, he told the two Congressional representatives.
"This is the highest paid annual payroll in Crook County, and the Forest Service says in the short-term there won't be any impact. We're not arguing that we want to put the whole headquarters and its 275 employees in Prineville, we just want to retain the employees we have. Call it what you will," he said, "a detached headquarters staff or anything."
Cooper talked a little about working with former Congressman Bob Smith on the issue. But he pointed out that the Forest Service is a civil service entity and there is a limited amount of pressure that can be put on the Forest Service director. It will be interesting when Director Mike Dombeck, a Clinton appointee, leaves.
Later in the day, it was announced by Congressman Greg Walden the resignation of U.S. Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck.
"Chief Dombeck's departure clears the way for a new, more positive brand of leadership for our national forests," Walden said. "I look forward to working with the new chief to implement locally driven efforts to improve forest health and reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire. I am hopeful that the Forest Service will take advantage of this change in leadership to embark on a strategy to craft cooperative solutions to forest management issues in Oregon and throughout the West."
What impact on the local issue that will have is yet to be determined. However, Cooper did suggest that people continue to write letters, send faxes and emails to the Congressional delegation, urging they look into Prineville's loss.
In a telephone conversation with Sen. Wyden's press secretary, Carol Guthrie, the Central Oregonian was assured that the letters and emails are valuable. "Every letter that comes in is important," Guthrie said, "We get an enormous number of constituent letters and phone calls ... thousands of letters each week." But, she said adamantly, "they are all important."
Commenting on the Senator's view of Prineville losing Forest Service employees, Guthrie said that Wyden is "very concerned about their proposal. Before giving his support," she added, "he wants answers to a number of questions."
Nearly all of the federal leaders and their representatives agree, there needs to be more discussion and more study ... the bottom-line seems to be that it is early in the process.