A collection of people who tried to join the local forest collaborative will not be allowed full membership — for now.
County residents recently denied voting member status in the Blue Mountains Forest Partners Collaborative claim they were discriminated against, but officials from the organization maintain they were following the intent and guidelines of the group despite its open membership.
Formally organized in 2006, the collaborative is a nonprofit organization comprised of a “diverse group” of people, including members of the timber industry and environmentalists, who work together to develop “zones of agreement” about forest projects based on science, Executive Director Mark Webb said.
He said membership in the group is open to individuals who meet participation requirements, sign a declaration of commitment and abide by the organization’s guidelines.
At the July meeting, about nine Grant County residents said they met the requirements and requested to become voting members, but the request was denied during the meeting. Webb said membership was not on the agenda, and most people interested in membership contact him or the board to discuss it.
The people interested in joining stayed after the meeting to discuss membership further, and eventually most were invited to individual interviews with several collaborative board members. After the interviews, Webb said all but one person — Howard Gieger, who could not be reached for comment — were denied voting member status for now but were invited to continue participating in the meetings as nonvoting members, and were told they may be granted voting status later.
Webb said most of the people requesting to join had previously spoken out against the collaborative and the mission and scope of its work. He said social media posts indicated a group opposed to the collaborative hoped to infiltrate it to undermine its efforts.
“You had people opposed to BMFP who wanted membership,” he said.
However, those requesting membership said they wanted to join to be a part of the process, not to destroy it.
After being denied membership, Frances Preston said she believed it was discrimination.
“I was very surprised,” she said. “I thought I met all the requirements. I was sure I was going to be a voting member.”
Preston admitted she wrote critical letters to the editor and a letter to Malheur National Forest Supervisor Beverlin asking the Forest Service not to do business with the collaborative. However, she said she wanted to join in good faith after attending meetings.
“I’ve learned a lot about the organization,” she said. “I’ve learned they worked collaboratively, that there’s a lot of open discussion, that it is pretty important to be a voting member. As a voting member, you help carry things forward as a group, rather than being an individual. Once you become a member, you have to be respectful of their rules.”
The collaborative operations manual details rules and protocols intended to allow members of the group to work through disagreements toward a consensus. Among the rules are respecting each other, not attacking people personally and respecting the meeting facilitator and agenda.
Collaborative board member Dave Hannibal said it was “bizarre” at the meeting when each of the people stood up at the meeting requesting membership, each saying something similar. After being denied, one person stood up and started calling people liars.
“Several of those folks had openly talked about getting voted on and voting the current board out, essentially talking about overthrowing the BMFP or not wanting it to exist anymore,” he said. “Some have openly said they want nothing to do with the collaborative, and it should have no power.”
Hannibal said the collaborative has been open and inclusive with representatives with diverse viewpoints, which is what allowed it to work through difficult issues to improve forest health and increase timber harvests. He said everyone who wanted to join was encouraged to keep attending the meetings and would be granted voting membership if it was believed they wanted to be active members in the group.
Dave Traylor, who was denied membership, said he believed the collaborative was acting against its bylaws by denying members. He pointed out the collaborative also has a protocol for removing members who are disruptive.
“They’re just going opposite of what they say,” he said. “Why they don’t want people to join the organization and officially have a vote is surprising to me. They shouldn’t have anything to hide at all, and as a voting member, you’ll be able to vote on some of these issues.”
Traylor said he was a member of the collaborative when it first began but became inactive when he became involved with the Grant County Public Forest Commission, an elected board created by a citizen initiative that was struck down by a judge last year for conflicting with paramount state and federal laws. He said he wanted to join the collaborative again to have a say in what is happening in the county, which is largely impacted by Forest Service actions.
“The collaboratives have a very important voice here in the county, and as citizens, we just wanted to be a part of it,” he said.
The collaborative bylaws state membership will be automatically approved once a person has satisfied all the qualifications for membership. However, the bylaws also state the board clarifies the criteria for the qualifications.
Webb said the membership denials followed the bylaws, and the process used — meeting with the individuals and inviting them back to continue in the discussions — followed the intent of the collaborative: bringing people together to work through disagreements. Even nonvoting members can participate fully in the discussions, he said.
The organization has 27 voting members, five of which reside outside of Grant County, Webb said. Voting members elect board members and vote on zones of agreement and individual projects.
Traylor and Preston both said they planned to continue attending the meetings and might be granted voting status in the future.
“I’ll go there. I’ll be around the table. I’ll be listening,” Preston said. “This is a good-faith effort. This is a person who cares.”
Hannibal said, if the people requesting membership exhibited “good behavior” and were believed to be acting in good faith, they would be granted voting status.
“Help us trust that fact,” he said. “Help us believe that you have good intentions.”