About 100 people pack Room 1868 on Thursday to speak out against proposed national recreation area on the Ochoco

JASON CHANEY - Sarah Cuddy of Oregon Wild discusses the proposed national recreation area during Thursday's meeting.

Oregon Wild held its fourth and final meeting intended to explain its proposed Ochoco Mountains National Recreation Area to the local public.

Ultimately, the meeting ended with frustrated Crook County residents passionately providing two representatives of the conservation group reasons why they don’t want it to happen.

The session, held Thursday afternoon at Room 1868, a last-minute change of venue from the Crook County Library, drew about 100 people, at least 20 of which had to stand due to lack of seating. All but a few oppose the recreation area developed by Oregon Wild.

The proposal in question seeks to set aside about 312,000 acres of Ochoco National Forest (which totals 845,498 acres) for a national recreation area. Of that land, about 23,800 acres is slated for wilderness designation. The four meetings held by the conservation group each singled out specific facets of the proposal, such as its impact on hunting or timber harvest. This final one focused on wildfire and forest restoration.

Ochoco Mountains Organizer Sarah Cuddy launched the meeting by praising the turnout and taking time to recap the intent behind the national recreation area. The Crook County High School graduate also made a point of telling the audience she grew up in the community and spent much of her life recreating on the Ochoco.

“The Ochoco Mountains National Recreation Area seeks to balance three things across the landscape — conservation, recreation and restoration,” she said. “What we are doing here with the public process is developing some guidelines that customize it to the local landscape.”

Cuddy stressed that the proposal is far from a finished document, and called the current dialogue between Oregon Wild and the public “the start of a long conversation” that could take years to conclude.

Once that process concludes, she said the conservation group will take its developed guidelines and write them into legislation for consideration by Congress. Should it pass, the bill would require the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to jointly prepare a management plan for the land that adheres to the guidelines.

“With the dramatic increase here locally in population and the user pressure in the Ochocos, there is more and more people discovering the Ochocos every year,” Cuddy said, regarding the need for the proposal. “That can be a tremendous benefit to the community, but it can also provide some challenges.”

In further defense of the plan, Cuddy stated that the wilderness designation proposed constitutes about 8 percent of the overall recreation area and 1 percent of the public lands in Crook County.

“There has been this association that it cuts off timber supply, cuts off public access, restricts grazing and you can’t fight fire — and none of that is true,” Cuddy continued. “There is active management in an NRA. The thinning language that is proposed has two-fold language. One, it is for ecological benefit and two, it is to supply timber to local mills. Oregon Wild does support thinning on the Ochoco.”

Joining Cuddy was Pam Hardy, Oregon Wild’s Central Oregon Field Coordinator. Speaking after Cuddy, she first asked for a show of hands from those who live in Crook County. Nearly all hand went up. When she polled the audience on whose families worked in the timber industry, the majority of the audience again raised its hands. A final question asking who had personally worked in the timber industry again prompted many audience members to raise hands.

Attempts by Hardy to discuss wildfire and forest restoration specifics for the NRA clashed with audience members who had grown frustrated with waiting their turn to speak. When the meeting began, Cuddy and Hardy instructed the audience to hold its questions and comments until the Q&A session that followed their presentations. One man said he resented the fact he couldn’t respond while the Oregon Wild representatives were speaking.

“If we are going to do this,” Hardy said trying to diffuse the growing frustration, “we really need to have some semblance of order and get everybody’s voices heard in a civil dialogue sort of way.”

Hardy went on to once again stress that the proposal would not preclude firefighting efforts nor forest thinning, but stated that such efforts would seek to restore natural forest conditions and protect old growth.

Opening the meeting to questions and comments following Hardy’s presentation, Cuddy requested that the feedback involve some sort of question.

“If somebody says something you strongly disagree with, just keep that to yourself,” she added, “and if somebody says something that you strongly agree with, please also keep that to yourself. I want this to be a back-and-forth dialogue where anybody feels comfortable asking questions, regardless of which side they may fall.”

The feedback that followed centered primarily on people’s disdain and frustration with the proposed recreation area. Steve McGuire questioned what authority Oregon Wild possessed to make its proposal and also questioned why the conservation group felt the need to continue forward with it given the continual local opposition.

“I think it’s a moot point that you have these meetings that continue,” he said. “You can see by the show of hands of people here, and I know I speak for the majority of the residents of Crook County — probably the majority of the resident of Eastern Oregon. We don’t want this kind of proposal.”

McGuire went on to stress that federal agencies such as the Forest Service, BLM and Fish and Wildlife Service already manage the forests.

“We can do the same thing without you folks speaking on our behalf,” he said. “Your motives are wrong.”

In response, Hardy stated her awareness that a lot of people in Crook County don’t want the proposal, but went on to note that 4,000 paying members of Oregon Wild do want to see it happen.

“They are from all over the state,” she said. “There are a lot of people in the state of Oregon who want to see this happen. The public lands of the United States of America belong to all of us.”

Post resident Jodie Fleck later questioned the Oregon Wild representatives on several of its claims, one of which related to the growing population and increase of recreation on the Ochoco.

“We don’t have any numbers to point to that increase,” Cuddy acknowledged. “That is just based on observation, looking at Central Oregon as an entity and not Crook County specifically.”

Fleck also disputed the claim that firefighting would go unharmed by a national recreation area or wilderness designation.

“I have seen firsthand how they have fought fires in the wilderness area in Grant County this year,” she said. “If they would have fought fires in the wilderness area, the last 11 homes that burned would not have burned.”

Prineville man Brad Bartlett, when given his chance to speak, simply asked what residents had to do to stop the proposal from moving forward.

“Is there anything that will make you go away?”

Much to the chagrin of the audience, Cuddy and Hardy opted to conclude the session before some were given a chance to speak. However, as the meeting ended, the Oregon Wild representatives urged people to stick around to meet with them one-on-one to further hash out concerns.

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