Stewarding community in Union and Baker counties
Nestled on the western slopes of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, east of the ridge that separates Highway 203 from North Powder, five students and two local ranchers plot their morning’s work.
Maurizio Valerio, field coordinator for the Ford Institute for Community Building, rancher and runner up for the Oregon Tree Farmer of the Year award, leads the group as they figure out the best way to build a new wildlife-friendly fence along the highway to replace the old barbed-wire fencing. It’s late morning on the day leading up to the extreme heat wave in early summer 2021, and the Pacific Northwest is bracing itself for temperatures above 100 degrees. A group of five young community builders has already begun its work to move stacks of lodgepole pine logs to the highway’s edge. The group team lifts each one as Maurizio pulls the trailer and his son, Marco, sets out safety cones.
Reclaimed larch wood fence posts found on the property date back more than 100 years. The students carefully balance each one on the uneven ground and skillfully lift the pine log to the right height and angle. Maurizio attaches them with an impact drill. Marco looks down the fence line to gauge distance and angle. The group steps back to assess their work, standing in the ditch along the highway.
“Does this look level? What does it look like to your eye?” asks Maurizio. The students tilt their heads to the side and ponder.
“I think it needs to move up a little bit.”
“I think it’s fine?”
“Oh! I have an app on my phone!” Brooke realizes. Brooke Allen is a recently graduated senior from North Powder High School with plans to attend Brigham Young University-Hawaii in the fall.
Everyone huddles around Brooke’s phone to see the results on the app that serves as a level. It’s close! Lessons like these teach the students to move slowly, assess their work as they go and trust their judgment — but double check just in case. The combination of math, camaraderie, physical work, the scenic backdrop and ‘90s country music playing on a portable Bluetooth speaker keep the team engaged and excited to see progress along the fence line.
“Learning goes two ways”: Working across generations
Later, while sitting in the shade to eat lunch, the group discusses their summer internship experience so far. They are two weeks into a six-week program where they will spend time in four different locations, including private and public land. It’s a combination of hard work and a steep learning curve — even for students whose families own farms or who have worked summers bucking hay. Six local students enrolled in this paid, hands-on summer internship program led by Baker Resource Coalition in collaboration with multiple local residents and organizations, including Wallowa Resources, Baker Watershed Council, Baker School District, the U.S. Forest Service and local small woodland owners, farmers and ranchers.
In many ways, this program and the group’s work reflect a feeling of stewardship — of land, yes, but, more importantly, stewardship of community. Students get to learn the “why” behind their work. Why should we build new fencing? Why are the reclaimed fence posts the best option in this environment? Why is this work connected to the region’s future economic vitality? This intergenerational learning and transfer of knowledge fosters a cycle of continuous improvement that creates conditions for long-term community success. Kiana Bingham, a recently graduated senior from North Powder High School, shares her perspective: “This internship and being a good steward — it means taking pride, taking ownership of your world and your community or resources.”
“And I think you should always learn from your work,” agrees Benjen Lilly, a Sustainable Rural Systems major at Eastern Oregon University. The group nods. Jordan Mills, a junior at Baker High School, chimes in. “The different perspectives help a lot. Maurizio has been around this for so many years, and he has a lot of knowledge, which is a really beneficial thing. But then with us younger kids, sometimes we think of something in a completely different way that he wouldn’t. So I would say just coming in with fresh eyes might help.”
“Yeah,” Kiana adds. “I like how Maurizio and Marco always ask our opinion, and they ask for our ideas.” Flattered and impressed by their conversation, Maurizio leans back in his chair and reflects with the group.
“Learning always goes two ways,” he explains as Marco — a history teacher at Baker High School — nods. “Every time you need to explain something, it allows you to put things in context to yourself and others and kind of wraps your own learning up in a very nice and sweet way. Plus you can’t improve things you don’t know about — like apps on phones.”
Causes for optimism in Union county
Union County faces many of the challenges other rural counties experience in Oregon with the added layer of distance. Many remote areas of the state have seen a surge in tourism at popular outdoor recreation areas, yet basic needs of the average resident go unmet.
Yet the interns rightly take pride in many aspects of their community, especially the outdoor possibilities and “being able to go somewhere and not see buildings.” Still, they express concern about the aging infrastructure that surrounds them. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, just 71 percent of residents had access to broadband. If this is a cause for discouragement, it’s not detectable among the students. In their communities where “everyone knows everyone” and “hard work is valued,” they share an optimism about what’s possible. Like starting college in the fall or finishing the new lodgepole and larch fencing.
Maurizio rounds up the team, and they all take another big swig out of their water jugs. They set off down the dusty logging road toward the highway to get ready for their now well-rehearsed system to build the fence. Each team member assumes their role — measuring, lifting, eyeballing distances. Benjen reconnects his phone to the Bluetooth speaker hanging off his belt, and the ‘90s country music playlist resumes. Meadow grass sways as the wind kicks up, clouds roll in blocking the hot sun. Toby Keith’s “Should’ve Been a Cowboy” plays, and everyone knows the lyrics.
(Photos: Mandy Elder)
Originally published in 2021.