The "kid from Kansas" continues his tireless quest to preserve the local environment
by LeeAnn Kriegh / Published in The Source Weekly February 15, 2017
On the night of the presidential election, Paul Dewey admits he was deeply saddened and concerned about how the results would affect the world. The next morning, he responded the same way he has for more than 30 years — by going to work to protect the local environment.
Dewey is the executive director of Central Oregon LandWatch, a small but powerful local environmental nonprofit he founded in 1986. The organization's five staff members are involved in more than 20 land use applications and state and federal land use cases, as well as Bend's urban growth boundary planning process.
"It's a lot of work," Dewey admits. But rather than feeling overwhelmed by the challenges ahead, he says, "I'm still hopeful. If I weren't, I couldn't keep doing this."
To understand Dewey's passion for the natural world, you have to go back to his upbringing in Garden City, a small town in western Kansas. Unlike many nature lovers, he didn't grow up playing in forests and fields; it was the opposite experience that seems to have stuck with him.
"I grew up in a place with no mountains, no forests and a river with next to no water in it," he says. Each summer there was one brief escape—a family vacation to a cabin in the Spanish Peaks area of southeast Colorado. He says, "I was so attracted to those forests, I never wanted to leave."
Fast-forward to college in Kansas, an influential stint abroad on a Rotary Club scholarship and law school at the University of Virginia, and Dewey found himself in Oregon in 1978, clerking for Judge Berkley Lent of the Oregon Supreme Court and traveling all over the state. "Can you imagine?" he says. "To a kid from Kansas, it was just amazing. The ocean! And all these different forests, from spruce to juniper."
After his clerkship, Dewey worked as a corporate lawyer, but by 1983, he had stopped practicing law and moved to Sisters to be a caretaker at a horse ranch. Then one day a neighbor asked him to testify in Salem against a project to pipe Whychus Creek for a hydrology project. It turned out that wasn't the only threat to the creek; the U.S. Forest Service also planned to clear-cut old-growth and other trees right up to the water's edge.
Dewey recalled digging out his suit and putting on his tie for the first time in months. He filed an appeal of the timber sale, and when the Forest Service ranger suggested Dewey was the only one who cared about the trees and health of the creek, Dewey proved him wrong by gathering endorsements of his appeal from everyone from the Sisters Chamber of Commerce to local horse riding groups. The timber sale was stopped, and the experience led to the formation in 1986 of LandWatch, which ever since has been committed to taking legal action supported through collaborations among diverse stakeholders. Dewey says, "Often the legal process is what gets you a seat at the table, but my goal is not to litigate; it's to find solutions."
Over the years, those solutions have included creating environmental protections of Whychus Creek and the Metolius River basin, preventing condominium development on the ridges of Shevlin Park, and preserving deer and elk winter range. Much of LandWatch's work relates to protecting public lands—a cause Dewey believes is fundamental to American values.
"The whole idea of public lands is not just that the current public gets to use and enjoy it. It's our obligation to hold it in trust for future generations," he says.
Recently LandWatch has taken on another controversial issue, as a key player in limiting sprawl as part of Bend's urban growth boundary planning process. "To the extent Bend doesn't grow up, it will grow out onto deer winter range, into forests and onto farms," Dewey says, adding that it's vital to "make Bend more attractive and livable, with a mix of affordable housing options and walkable neighborhoods and amenities."
Especially after the recent election, Dewey acknowledges that it can be difficult to remain hopeful and keep championing environmental causes. "But," he adds, "if you just go out to these places like Shevlin Park, if you walk into one of our forests, there's just no question. We have to keep fighting."
As for the near future, Dewey encourages citizens to remain engaged and vigilant: "If ever there's a reason given for doing something that just lines the pockets of the person proposing it, without regard to the environment, that should send up huge red flags."
There's more to the story of Dewey's first environmental victory in Central Oregon — his successful appeal of a timber sale along Whychus Creek. The Forest Service, a very different agency at the time, settled the case and agreed not to log old-growth and other trees along the creek and scenic roads and trails.
The Forest Service was notoriously bad about following up to make sure timber companies limited their "take" to prescribed areas, so Dewey took it upon himself to investigate. About a year after the lawsuit was settled, in winter, he took a walk through the timber sale. Had the timber company abided by the planning documents and avoided cutting old-growth trees? Had the Forest Service monitored to make sure?
"I went to look at all the big trees we'd saved along the Metolius-Windigo Trail," he says, "and they were gone." Hundreds of trees, including irreplaceable old-growth, had been cut. The trees that were supposed to be protected had been marked a few feet above the ground with a strip of orange paint — so the timber company simply cut below the paint.
What the company forgot, or didn't bother to worry about, was that buried under the snow was more orange paint at the base of each protected tree. When Dewey swept away the snow, he could prove what he already knew: protected trees had been illegally removed. In fact, he had uncovered what was at that time the largest timber theft in Oregon history.
That theft and other problems in the Metolius area led to a lawsuit against the Forest Service that was eventually settled in federal court and fostered changes in the nature of the Forest Service and forest management in the Deschutes National Forest.
"The governor's office got involved and started putting pressure on the Forest Service to change," Dewey recalls. "It was a complete cultural shift. They started hiring '-ologists' — hydrologists, biologists — and eventually the whole orientation of the forest shifted from just serving timber interests to natural resource protection and serving the recreational economy."
It is because of that cultural shift and Oregon's strong state land use system that Dewey is hopeful the current political climate will not result in privatization of Bend-area public lands. He is less sanguine about the prospects for Bureau of Land Management lands in southwest Oregon and other areas.
To combat whatever environmental threats come next, Dewey says one of the keys will be for the environmental community to develop unconventional alliances. For instance, he cites LandWatch's collaboration with the Oregon Hunters Association to fight the current Off-Highway Vehicle proposal in the Ochoco National Forest, and its collaboration with Brooks Resources to protect sensitive areas as part of Bend's urban growth boundary expansion.
"Too often conservation groups are pigeonholed as urban elitists who want to save land where they don't live," Dewey says. "So we have to find issues on which there is common ground, like collaborating with developers and hunters, and working with farmers to protect their farmlands from being developed."
Instead of trying to expand the timber industry or other resource-extraction industries — which he argues is impossible given globalization and various cultural shifts, as well as dangerous because of the threats of climate change — Dewey wishes people would look for better, longer-term solutions. He says, "Our rural areas need to be allocated a fairer share of state resources. There's a social equity problem there that needs to be addressed, but not at the expense of the environment."
He notes that there is still money to be made through smart development and limited timber cutting, but argues, "Money should be the byproduct of doing the right thing for future generations."