By Aaron West

The Bulletin

A solar eclipse festival that’s expected to attract at least 30,000 people to a privately owned ranch in the middle of the Ochoco National Forest is generating concern from people who are worried a crowd that big might hurt the natural environment nearby.

The Symbiosis: Oregon Eclipse gathering is scheduled to take place Aug. 17-23 at Big Summit Prairie, a 55,000-acre ranch and grassland area that’s owned by Crook County resident Craig Woodward. Tickets to the festival, which have been on sale since last November for $300 or more, give attendees access to seven days of camping, techno concerts, workshops and anything else eclipse revelers might want to do on a 200-acre section of the ranch that includes a 45-acre man-made lake.

“It’s a place for people to be themselves,” Kevin KoChen, one of the festival producers, said earlier this month.

But some who live and work in Crook County are worried that too many people attending a loud, seven-day festival — the biggest organized event in Crook County history — will cause harm to the wildlife and plants that are native to the area.

Even though the privately owned prairie area is gated and not accessible to the public, much of the perimeter is maintained by the U.S. Forest Service. Starting in April, the Forest Service website states, the area becomes a popular destination for people who want to see a variety of wildflowers and animals, such as Peck’s Mariposa lily, which is found only in the Ochoco Mountains, and several pairs of sandhill cranes that remain in the prairie through the summer.

“I believe that everything has importance, whether it’s a common plant or an endangered plant, a barn owl or a great horned owl,” said Jennifer Curtis, who manages the Sunriver Nature Center and is working to organize an educational campaign to help protect the prairie from uninformed festivalgoers. Curtis said she regularly visits forestland near the prairie to birdwatch and conduct wildflower surveys, and she’s concerned that the festival will disrupt the ecosystems of natural life there.

“Humans should respect where all of this lives, and with this festival they’ll be going from a serene, quiet place to a place where loud music will be playing all the time,” she said.

The fact that the event has grown since it was originally proposed in 2014 isn’t helping to alleviate concerns. Crook County approved the festival’s mass gathering permit application for a 10,000-person event last June, and a hearing to increase the attendance cap to 30,000 is scheduled for the county commissioners’ April 19 meeting. Also, Woodward said that event organizers asked to lease 100 additional acres from him — 200 acres total — to accommodate the bigger crowds.

And while county officials said they hadn’t received any complaints or praise from the public about the festival or its size, people have been sounding off online. A few comments on social media have been supportive — “I for one am stoked,” Jesse Sweetman wrote — and it’s expected that eclipse festivities in general will boost sales at local businesses and restaurants.

But a majority of online commenters expressed concern about what kind of impact 30,000 people would have on an area of land that many view as a natural treasure in Central Oregon.

“Way to NOT take care of a special, beautiful place,” Jan Taylor wrote.

“We need a before picture of the pristine land and an after picture of the destroyed land,” Mike Freeman wrote.

Curtis said around 50 people have volunteered to help her design graphics and signs, print posters, and write educational copy. She’s been in contact with festival organizers, as well as Forest Service officials, she said, and hopes to coordinate with both in the coming months. For example, she’s hoping that she can conduct a survey of the prairie before the festival begins, as well as create a website that will educate festival attendees about the ecological value of the land they’re on.

“If I knew there was a rare plant on the site, then we could make a sign and put it up near the plant,” she said. “That way people could view (the plant) with appreciation and help protect it.”

She’s not in opposition to the festival, she clarified — mostly because she knows she can’t stop it — but she wants to do as much as she can to prevent damage to the area.

“Big Summit Prairie, to me, is one of the most beautiful areas in Central Oregon,” Curtis, 35, said. “I go there to birdwatch and survey wildflowers. Being a biologist, it’s an area I have a passion for. More so than other areas, I have a connection to that place.”

Craig Woodward, who owns the ranch, said that he understands where people are coming from — to a point. After all, Big Summit Prairie is “the crown jewel of the Ochocos,” he said.

“I’m probably the guy who’s most sensitive about what goes on at Big Summit Prairie,” he said. “People don’t have a clue what I do to care for it.”

But ultimately, the land where the festival is taking place is his property, he said, and he can do what he wants with it.

“It’s my private property that I pay private taxes on,” Woodward said. “It’s nobody else’s business what I do with my land.”

Woodward said that he’s been making plans for this festival for three years, and he’s done a lot of research about how Symbiosis Events LLC, the company that is putting on the festival, conducts its gatherings. Last year, for example, he attended a Symbiosis festival in Oakdale, California, to make sure it was something he wanted on his land.

“They had about 200 people picking up garbage,” he said. “Even during the festival, every time they’d get done with using a sound stage. I didn’t see one cigarette butt. Not that that would be a problem here because it’ll be inside a protected forest area — no smoking.”

Also, he’s coordinating with the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the state on fire safety preparations, he said, and he’s working with county officials on how to deal with increased traffic in town. Festival organizers have to have detailed safety and event plans turned in to the county by April 1, according to the mass gathering permit.

Symbiosis representatives weren’t available to answer questions on Friday, but in an interview with The Bulletin earlier this month, KoChen briefly addressed the environmental concerns. He said that the people who attend Symbiosis gatherings are socially and environmentally conscious and he’s never had an issue with damage to festival sites. Also, festival staff will spend a week after the event cleaning up.

“The site is used for cattle grazing, so it’s not like a pristine wild land,” he said in the interview. “But we’ll still remove all the evidence of the human gathering.”

But Curtis, who is aware of KoChen’s perspective that the land is used for cattle, said she doesn’t totally buy that argument.

“One of the biggest things I’ve heard is that ‘it’s already trampled anyway, so who cares?’” she said. “I have a hard time believing that, especially knowing what I know about the public land nearby. Even though it’s private land, and yes cattle has been on that land, there’s a riparian zone near the lake that’s very fragile. There are plants and animals there, and once they’re gone they’re gone.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7829,

awest@bendbulletin.com

16817380