JOHN DAY - President Obama's top environmental policy advisor dropped into John Day Tuesday for a firsthand look at forest health collaboration - its successes and challenges.
Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, made the trip along with Jay Jensen, associate director for land and water ecosystems for CEQ.
Sutley called the visit "a great opportunity for us" to see the benefits of collaboration on the ground in rural America.
She noted the emergence of collaboration as an important tool to get things done.
"As we look at models for conservation, the top-down models of the past don't necessarily meet the needs of today," she said.
Officials welcomed the visit as a chance to shine a spotlight on the plight of the dry eastside forests and the work under way to restore them to health.
County Judge Mark Webb said Monday that it's significant to have an advisor who "has the president's ear" come to Grant County.
"But the real significance is that we've got these people coming here not because of a natural catastrophe, but because of a sense that we're doing some things right," Webb said.
Tuesday's activities began with a roundtable discussion attended by about 25 people, including officials from three eastside counties; representatives of the Forest Service, state agencies and the governor's office; and members of two collaboratives - the Blue Mountains Forest Partners and the Harney County Restoration Collaborative. Then the group headed out to tour the Malheur National Forest's Swick Old Growth area, Ochoco Lumber Company's biomass plant in John Day and the pellet fuel heating system at the Grant County Regional Airport.
The tour was scheduled to show how collaboration between the federal government, county government, conservation groups and industry can create local jobs and develop a local renewable energy market.
Chad Davis, director of Sustainable Northwest's forest stewardship program, said this week's visit was an outgrowth of a trip to Washington, D.C., last February by a team from the region, who told federal officials about collaborative work on the Malheur National Forest and the economic development under way as a result.
The team included Webb and representatives of Sustainable Northwest and Bear Mountain Forest Products, which markets the biomass products from the John Day mill.
Davis said administration officials were eager to see this success for themselves, and scheduled the site visit. He called it a recognition of the exemplary work done by the local communities, the Forest Service and its partners.
Teresa Raaf, MNF supervisor, said the tour provides an opportunity to showcase the "forward thinking" demonstrated by the two collaborative groups that work with the forest.
"That forward thinking is an first class example of what communities can accomplish by working together to solve complex resource and economic issues," she said. "It also has the potential to bring about policy changes that could assist the Forest in expediting other forest restoration activities."
Davis said he hopes the visit will reinforce the Administration's "commitment to rural America and specifically, forest-based communities."
"Rural communities, particularly those in the West who live adjacent to our vast public lands, have a special role to play in the stewardship of our forests, water, wildlife, aquatic species and a host of other vitally important resources," he said.
Davis said the citizens of Grant and Harney counties, the Forest Service and forest partners should be proud of "what they have set in motion."
One key to that activity was the addition of the pellet plant in John Day, built with the help of $5 million in stimulus funding and through an alliance of local, state and federal partners. The aim was to provide a market for woody biomass from the overgrown, fire-prone forests of the region and also to create local jobs in the woods and at the mill.
"We hope that CEQ will learn about this local effort and lend their support to the community in realizing the full vision of resilient national forests, a strong natural resource based economy, and a growing renewable energy sector with local markets," Davis said.