Meet Our Speakers: Dale Johnson

Standing on a sweeping ridge overlooking Oregon’s Wallowa Valley, Dale Johnson cuts the figure of the classic rancher. Wearing work boots and faded jeans under a striped button-up and ball cap, the robust octogenarian seems thirty years younger as he takes in the vista spread a thousand feet below us—verdant valley rising to majestic mountains, with a canyon’s crest yawning out on the right. The Johnson family has resided here since 1888, when Dale’s great-grandfather claimed a 160-acre plot that, through three centuries and four generations, grew into a sizable ranch situated at the canyon’s terminus. Dale has managed that homestead since 1979, and he now leads us via narrow dirt roads to a mountain tree farm bearing the legacy of his predecessor, uncle Howard Johnson, who planted, treated, and harvested these 4,000 acres of timber by himself from passing on the ranch until his death in 2006.

            The family holds deep roots in the Wallowa Valley, and Dale professes hope that future generations will continue their forebears’ stewardship of the land. Despite urbanization looming on the horizon that vision remains plausible. Howard’s daughter Joanna owns and manages the tree farm, and Dale’s four children will share ownership of the ranch when he dies. The venerable patriarch seems unconcerned about the future, perhaps because of the past. Surrounded by thriving ponderosa pines, he observes, “the land’s been in the family since the 1880’s, and I’d say we’ve taken pretty good care of it.” Looking around, I’d have to agree.

            By: Hunter Dunn

Meet Our Speakers: Vic and Carrie Stokes

Vic and Carrie Stokes arrived for dinner in a plume of dust on the dry road leading up to camp. Carrie is an administrator for the Okanogan School District, and her husband Vic is a fourth-generation rancher in the Methow Valley. After joking and storytelling over dinner, they discussed the of ranching in the Methow. Vic encouraged us to be wary of the nostalgia that surrounds ranching, a complex and demanding line of work. Cattle grazing on public lands is an especially fraught topic due to the environmental impact grazing has on water and ecosystem health. Vic and Carrie believe that collaboration is the most useful mindset a rancher can adopt. Recognizing the competing interests of the public, of land owners and of the government agencies involved, Vic is invested in continuing a civil dialogue with anyone who cares to have it. No matter who he’s talking with, Vic holds to the principle, “it’s not how we agree on issues, it’s how we disagree that matters.” 

By: Grace Butler

Meet Our Speakers: Jim Zacharias

“Somewhere between a hippie and a cowboy.” That’s how Jim Zacharias describes himself. Dressed in his ripped logging attire you wouldn’t guess that he’s on the Wallowa Resource Board—or any board for that matter. There’s a large hole in the right shoulder of his collared white and baby blue stripped shirt. A shock of greyed hair reaches for his neck from underneath a Jay Zee Lumber ball cap that might once have been black.

As a high schooler, Zacharias contemplated being a wildlife biologist, but like many of his classmates he decided to become a logger which allowed him to stay in the county. After losing his mill job in the 90’s timber bust, he started the Joseph Timber Company, the first mechanical thinning operation on public land in the county. Now he owns a custom logging company which has a contract with a private ranch to extract $50,000 worth of timber annually. As a small-scale logger, Zacharias made a point of showing us the line between the property he selectively cuts and the property the Hancock Investment Group recently clearcut. In contrast to the outsider group, his company elects to leave snags for wildlife habitat. Hoping to dispel misconceptions about loggers, he told us, “Even the biggest, roughest, toughest logger, if he sees a birds nest in that tree, he kind of cringes.” 

By: Griffin Cronk

Meet Our Speakers: John Rohrer

John Rohrer began working for the U.S. Forest Service in 1991 as a wildlife biologist, but his current position is Program Manager for Biology, Weeds, Range, and Wildlife; a title which betrays the decreasing budget that has been allocated to the agency in recent years. After growing up and attending college in the Southwest, Rohrer worked as a seasonal biologist near the Grand Canyon before moving north to work in the Methow Valley District of the Wenatchee-Okanogan National Forest. During his career with the Forest Service, Rohrer has trapped wolverines and conducted wildlife surveys, but a large portion of his work these days revolves around dealing with conflicting interest groups and land users in the forest. For instance, when the cattle grazing on forest land need a drink, they often plod into the clear waters of nearby creeks, inadvertently trampling salmon spawning habitat in the stream bed. In deciding how to respond, Rohrer balances his responsibility to protect salmon under the Endangered Species Act with the agency’s mandate to facilitate multiple uses of the national forests and the significant pressure from local ranchers trying to preserve their livelihood. When asked about his drive to continue taking on issues like these after 25 years on the job, Rohrer referenced Aldo Leopold, saying, “Some people can live without wild things, some people can’t. For me, personally…I can’t live without wild places.”

By: Evan Romasco-Kelly

Meet Our Speakers: Doug McDaniel

As his truck bumps along the road through a meadow of pine trees, Doug McDaniel smiles and says deliberately, “I’m pumped about what’s going on in my life.” Thinking back, he recalls his two-month stint in dental school, which ended when he decided that it was a waste to be inside on a beautiful day, particularly when elk season was about to open.  Doug has lived his whole life in Wallowa County, working as a forester before moving into timber management and industrial engineering.  Currently, he works on restoring a length of the Wallow River that cuts through his land. Channeled by the Army Corps of Engineers in the 1950s, Doug has taken the initiative to excavate the section and return it to its meandering state.  The river now winds through his property, providing habitat for fish, tall grasses, birds, and swaying cottonwoods.  He adamantly solicits participation from the community on this project in the form of opinions, suggestions, scrutiny, and criticism. When asked what he likes most about working in the forest, he responds “[my] life is outside…it’s just home.”

By Hannah Trettenero

Meet Our Speakers: Alexa Whipple

On an early Thursday evening, Alexa Whipple rolled into the Semester in the West Camp in an old, white Toyota pickup. As she got out of the truck carrying a box of organic pears, she greeted everyone with smiling eyes. The pears came from 12 Moons Farm, a 6-acre plot of land that Alexa runs in the Methow Valley, Washington. Whipple started her farm after graduating with a degree in wildlife biology from Virginia Tech and bouncing around the West until she found her place in the Methow, and she visited the group to educate us about sustainable agriculture and its environmental benefits. She addressed the concept of regenerative grazing, in which public lands are selectively grazed in order to promote the growth of native bunchgrass. Whipple also explained the use of human range-riders to ensure proper grazing practices and livestock-predator relations on the range. Alexa also emphasized the importance of soil health in agriculture. Her farm uses organic, pesticide/herbicide-free practices to maintain the health of the bacteria within the top layers of soil. She tills as little as possible so as not to damage the fragile soil structures, and is currently researching organic, no-till farming methods in order to make her operation even more sustainable than it already is. Alexa’s clear and concise explanations of these practices showed us that sustainable agricultural practices do exist and that it’s possible to produce food in a manner that is better for and gives back to the environment as a whole.

By Fields Ford

Kelly Baraibar

“Welcome to Okanogan County” the sign reads. Below, like the subtitle of a book telling you what it’s really about, “agriculture, mining, grazing, logging and recreation.” From the Ranger Station steep peaks deep and blue overlap into the dramatic sky. Kelly Baraibar, the district botanist steps out of a forest service car, Usnea lichen hanging from the mirror. Kind, calm and inquisitive, she leads us up into the mountains at Heather and Maple Pass where she is restoring heather patches. Here the impact of visitors becomes clear; wet muddy springs that sustain the heather also tend to send people off the trail, crushing the delicate plants and exposing their roots and the soil to the elements. The soil here accumulated from Mt. Mazama ash deposits on bare bedrock where this heather patch took 7,000 to 10,000 years to establish itself. To protect the plants we section off portions alongside the trail. Kelly leaves us saying, “Maybe I am more hopeful than I should be”. But it is hope that keeps her walking up the mountain and re-roping off the trails to save a patch of this world: the heather’s beautiful bellflowers and roots that hold onto history, if you take the time to bend down and see them.

By: Emma Rollins

Meet Our Speakers: Jay Kehne

Jay Kehne is an advocate for wolf recovery and adaptive grazing management for Conservation Northwest. His work draws from over 30 years of experience working for the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service and networking with the community and local ranchers. As wolves—an endangered species in many regions—repopulate, they are venturing into Washington from Idaho and British Columbia for the first time in 100 years. Wolves are another danger for livestock beyond the persisting threats of bears, cougars, and coyotes. Despite general distrust of environmental interests and conflicting foundational values, Jay strives to engage ranchers to support livestock management techniques that simultaneously ensure ranchers’ economic security and wolf survival. After Jay was selected to the Fish and Wildlife Commission, the community was concerned Jay’s contributions did not represent the interests and people of eastern Washington. Despite these challenges, Jay works tirelessly to find strategies for wolf management that support ranching, ecological, and environmental interests. For example, once wolves recover and are no longer listed as endangered, future policy could enable removal of wolf packs if they cause excessive cattle loss past a threshold. Fundamentally, Jay believes wolf recovery will happen in Washington and looks forward to working on the challenges associated with a stronger ecosystem containing wolves.

By Elizabeth Greenfield

Meet Our Speakers: Mike Borowski


Since 2014, Mike Borowski has worked for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, Methow Valley District in northwestern Washington as a forester and timber sale administrator. The National Forest Service’s goal is to leave each acre better than when they found it, using methods of treatment such as fire attenuation through tree felling and prescribed burns. Mike specializes in the administration of timber sales to private logging companies, a large source of revenue for the forest. Each contract for a timber sale takes into account both the proper trees to cut for fire attenuation and stewardship of the landscape whole, not to mention profit for the logging company. Because of the rigorous standards of these contracts and lack of funding, the acreage of treated forest is much less than needed to accommodate for a changing climate: a fact not lost on Mike and his coworkers in the Service. The Forest Service strives to service many times more area in the face of the hotter and bigger fires of this century and stewards like Mike Borowski are dedicating their time and energy to better the forest, one acre at a time.  

By: Amanda Champion

Meet Our Speakers: Kent Woodruff

Kent Woodruff believes that a freight train is coming, and it’s coming fast. Climate change is altering our world to a point beyond precedent, and Kent need not look far past the front door of his Methow Valley home to see the consequences. As he guided us through a whirlwind tour of the Methow Valley’s public land, Kent brought the impacts of an increasingly warm and dry climate here into focus. Moreover, he urged us to take the lead on softening these effects.

Kent Woodruff is a wildlife biologist for the Okanogan District of the U.S. Forest Service, based in the Methow Valley on the eastern slopes of the North Cascade Mountains. A man of unabating energy and resolute enthusiasm for conservation and restoration of the forest, Kent’s enterprises are diverse and his vigor palpable. With great reverence for the forest he loves, Kent’s work is driven by his mantra that “ecosystems are not more complex than we think- they are more complex than we can think”. To bring focus to the complexity of his vocation, Kent views dealing with climate change as twofold; climate mitigation refers to taking actions to slow the rate of climate change, and climate adaption is the softening of the inevitable impacts of climate change.

Kent devotes himself everyday to achieving the latter in the Okanogan National Forest by advocating for wildlife as part of an interdisciplinary Forest Service decision-making team. He also runs a beaver relocation program, bring them back to their natural habitat, works with recreators to minimize impacts on the land, and helps to spot forest fires before they become calamitous, among other endeavors. In order to effectively undertake climate adaptation, though, Kent needs help, and lots of it. Climate change is having such a great impact on this area, he says, that we can no longer look to the past to forecast the ecology of this landscape in the future. We must form a team of writers, storytellers, and climate adaptation specialists to convey that the climate change freight train is coming, and while the rumble can already be felt in the Okanogan National Forest, it will not be long before places across the country find that they too are standing on the tracks. When it comes to climate adaptation, Kent says, we cannot be too bold.

By: Abby Popenoe

And We're Off!

The 2016 Westies, ready to depart from the Johnston Wilderness Campus in Walla Walla.

The 2016 Westies, ready to depart from the Johnston Wilderness Campus in Walla Walla.

Today was a day of firsts.  First time packing up the trailer, first drive, first time setting up camp.  This post will be short and sweet, because it's late and I'm posting from my phone (we weren't able to get the satellite dish up tonight) but we just wanted to let you all know we made it!

Getting ready for the 2016 program!

The new camera and audio recorder have arrived!

The new camera and audio recorder have arrived!

Things are picking up speed!  Phil is back from a summer canoe trip, Collin and Ysa, the tech and field managers, have arrived in Walla Walla, and Sarah is firing up the podcasting gear.  This new web site and blog will show off our snazzy writing, photography, and media work, and be a great way for parents and friends to follow along.  Stay tuned!  More coming soon.