By JAYSON JACOBY
The task that Joel Hartter and his team of researchers have set for themselves would qualify as ambitious even were it confined to studying the 5.3 million acres that comprise Baker, Union and Wallowa counties.
But it's not.
Hartter's group won't just have a look at the counties' forests and mountains and fields over the next three years.
They also want to know what we, the people who live in the three-county region, think about this land, and in particular how our relationship with it, both economically and socially, has changed over the past quarter century.
You might even get a phone call later this summer asking for your opinion.
Considering the scope of his team's effort, three years doesn't seem
all that long, more so since their on-the-ground work here will be
limited to the next three summers, said Hartter, who's an assistant
professor of geography at the University of New Hampshire.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is underwriting the research with a $400,000 grant.
Hartter is the lead scientist of the seven-member research team, which
includes three other professors from the University of New Hampshire,
two graduates students from the school, and a graduate student from the
University of Florida.
The group includes forest experts and a sociologist as well as geographers.
The genesis for the three-year study dates several years back, to
Hartter's time as a student at Oregon State University, where he earned
a master's degree in forest engineering.
After joining the faculty at New Hampshire, Hartter secured grants from
the university, the Mazamas and the National Science Foundation for a
study in Wallowa County that started about two years ago.
That research had a similar purpose to the current study - to see how
Wallowa County residents have reacted to changes in how their land,
both public and private, is managed.
Then the federal Agriculture Department sent out a request for grant
applications through its Disaster Resilience for Rural Communities
Hartter decided to try to expand his research to Wallowa County's two neighbors, Baker and Union counties.
"Since I was at Oregon State I've had an affinity for Oregon," Hartter
said. "And Eastern Oregon in particular exemplifies so many of the
trends that are happening in the American West. These three counties
encapsulate a lot of those."
The three-year study will concentrate on several issues, including:
andbull; How forests, and forest management, have changed since the early 1980s.
Hartter's team will study public and private forests in the three counties, including family-owned as well as corporate forests.
The researchers will focus on how the threat of wildfire and insect infestations in forests has affected how they are managed.
andbull; How has the region's economy adjusted to such factors as the decline
in logging and the closure of sawmills over the past 20 years? In
particular, to what extent have tourism and other sectors replaced
andbull; What are the demographic trends in the counties during that period?
andbull; What do residents of the three counties, both natives and newcomers,
think about the economic, social, environmental and other trends?
"The proposed research will show how changing socio-ecological
conditions in historically resource-dependent communities impact
livelihoods, the environment, and human safety," Hartter said.
"Communities face declining forest health, increated vulnerability to
wildfire and insects, and stresses on their cultural identities."
Hartter emphasizes, though, that he and the other researchers don't
consider Northeastern Oregon anything like a homogeneous region.
"These are three very different counties, and we recognize that," he said.
Which is why a key part of the study - a telephone survey scheduled for
late August and early September of this year - will sample roughly 500
residents of each county.
(The team might adjust those numbers to reflect the disparity in
populations among the counties - Wallowa, 7,000; Baker, 16,100; Union,
The survey will be confidential - respondents won't be asked for their names.
It will consist of 35 to 40 questions, and take about 10 to 12 minutes, Hartter said.
Although the researchers intend to spend considerable time during the
next three summers visiting private and public lands throughout the
region, Hartter describes their technique as "broad brush" rather than
a "detailed inventory."
The scientists won't be counting the number of Douglas-firs and ponderosa pines on a particular parcel of forest, for instance.
Russell Congalton, a professor of remote sensing and geographic
information systems at the University of New Hampshire, said he will
rely heavily on satellite photographs from 1984 to the present.
He will study those images to, for instance, gauge how the distribution and density of forests has changed during that period.
Satellite photography also makes it possible to track the spread of housing subdivisions.
An advantage of this approach is that satellite images are available
for study at any time. On-the-ground work, by contrast, will be limited
to the research team's field season, which generally will run from
early June through early August each of the next three summers.
Hartter said the group's summer base will be Oregon State University's Experiment Station near Union.
Other partners, along with OSU, are the Oregon Department of Forestry, Wallowa-Whitman National Forest and Wallowa Resources.
Results from this summer's telephone survey will be available next
spring through the Carsey Institute at New Hampshire, which will
conduct the survey.
Other reports will follow in the future.
The researchers might also schedule town hall meetings or other public
events to share their findings and to gather more information from
Hartter understands that the topics he and his team are studying might
imply that they have an agenda - for instance to endorse or to condemn
the precipitous decline in the timber industry in Northeastern Oregon
over the past 20 year.
He said that's not the case.
"We don't have an agenda - we're an independent group," he said. "We'll let the data speak for itself."