Learning as a group: the ROGUES of Baker County, Oregon

by Peter Donovan (1998)

BAKER COUNTY, OREGON--Amid all the controversies that swirl around livestock grazing, a group of fourteen ranchers, employees, and landowners is determined to keep learning. They call themselves the ROGUES (Reaching Our Goals Using Education).

In January of 1994, ranchers Paul and Vicki Wares of Medical Springs, Oregon, drove around the Wallowas to attend an overview of holistic management given by Allan Savory in Joseph.

Vicki, a sheep and cattle producer, says that her own decisions tended to be crisis-oriented and reactive. She heard Savory say in Joseph that a support group was necessary in order for people to change the way they make decisions. At a financial planning course Paul and Vicki took, Roland Kroos said it again. Vicki went around to people that she knew had an interest, and invited them. Not all came, but a group coalesced from three ranches in Baker County. One is a bison ranch, orchard, and bed and breakfast. Another raises sheep and cattle, and the third raises hay and leases its grazing.

Initially, Vicki thought that "we're so busy, we'll never have time to do this kind of a social thing. We knew we didn't want to have a social club. If we met, it had to be a real working and learning club, real support."

Says Pam Peyron of the Peyron family ranch near Baker, "It's taken a while. We've been really committed to meet once a month. Because of the commitment, and because of the group, everybody's really gotten on board. That's been the exciting part. We have this diversity from a 2-year-old child to a 77-year-old--that diversity has added so much to our group."

In 1995 the group applied for a grant to hold a workshop on biological or grazing planning. Though they did not get the grant, the momentum and cohesion generated from the grant proposal brought Jeff Goebel and Don Nelson to Baker County to facilitate a 3-day session on consensus and biological planning.

As a result of the spring workshop, the ROGUES held several rangeland monitoring sessions as a group. They have been on their hands and knees looking at ants, litter, new seedlings, lichens, and mosses. Said Mary Forrester, "we usually just step on this stuff on our way across, and now we're looking at it."

The monitoring, says Mike Curless, "reinforced the need for and the benefits of diversity--diversity of plants, irrigation methods, livestock grazing, and so on that make each operation totally unique."

The ROGUES' monthly meetings rotate between the three ranches. Each starts with a grounding in a circle. There is a focus for the meeting, and each meeting finishes with adaptive learning, where each person is given the opportunity to share learnings and feelings. A potluck, that balances the work with fun and play, is a regular feature. Says Pam Peyron, "our group is really a family-unit-based operation that everybody looks forward to every month."

This year, each ranch unit chose an activity for the group: a cider pressing, the renovation of an old schoolhouse, and a grazing learning center. Says Pam Peyron, "We're revamping an old schoolhouse. That'll be kind of our educational center where we can work on our biological planning, on our financial goals. One man is spearheading that who hasn't really taken part in other ways. It's been fascinating how people come alive and take an interest in things."

The ROGUES put in a grant through the Keating Soil and Water Conservation District to get money from the Leo Adler fund in Baker for renovation and repair. The ROGUES led the community work days on the schoolhouse.

In May of 1997, they sponsored a 3-day consensus session, again with Jeff Goebel facilitating, exploring the possibilities for a grazing learning site on the Peyron Ranch.

A major plan has not yet resulted from that workshop. But major learning seems to accompany each ROGUE activity. Says Pam, "If you go to a workshop alone, you come home alone and wrestle with the information alone. If the whole experience is shared, the minds of the group can come together and share how each assimilated and processed the information and how each perceives that the new knowledge can be applied. How much greater that energy is!"

Vicki Wares says, "The major thing we're learning is how good it is to work with other people. Everybody has something to give, and it's so enriching to do it together."

"I am convinced," says Vicki, "that all family members and employees with their families must be included. Try to get everyone involved, even if not committed--eventually they'll come around and their contribution will be unique and invaluable because of the diversity they lend to the whole. We're not always 'down' at the same time. Somebody's always energetic and carrying on."

Vicki says the ROGUES do not actively recruit new members. However, they actively involve other people in what they do, and the focus is on action that builds community--the natural result of an approach that sees people and land as parts of one whole.

"Holistic management was our hope. Without a doubt Paul and I would be much further away from this important decision-making process if we did not have the support and example of the other ROGUES to recurringly motivate us."

"Does Grazing Trash Our Rangelands?"

In May 1997, the ROGUES held a three-day consensus session and workshop that proposed the creation of a grazing learning site adjacent to the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center on Flagstaff Hill northeast of Baker City. Over a million visitors have toured the Interpretive Center since it opened in 1989. Immediately to the south is a 720-acre BLM allotment containing 640 acres owned by the Peyrons, including a mile of the historic Oregon Trail.

The BLM Interpretive Center staff wanted to get an easement so that the public could visit the old Trail. The Peyrons were concerned about liability and the problems that could result from public access, and also about the negative opinions the public and the BLM appeared to have about grazing.

Pam Peyron said, "I see our family unit as owning this property, and yet there's something inside me that says, it's bigger than you and your family. How do we include others and how do we connect to our community that we're a part of and that we depend on?" /P>

Pam says the parcel embodies many of the issues and concerns surrounding grazing on western rangelands. There is the historical/cultural value of the Oregon Trail. A derelict gold mine, with tailings and tunnels, is halfway up the slope. Near the top is the only pine tree for 14 miles, and for years eagles have nested in it. The brittle rangeland has been subjected to partial rest and overgrazing, with plenty of capping and bare ground.

The Peyrons were proposing to manage the parcel as a learning site, according to a holistic goal, and help make it happen with planned grazing that included public involvement and education.

Jeff Goebel helped design a three-day workshop. The first day was devoted to a consensus session that explored the conflicts and changes associated with the plan to make a grazing learning site. The second day was devoted to developing a holistic goal for the learning site, and the third to creating a biological plan.

In addition to the ROGUES members, BLM people and members of local environmental groups were invited to help answer the question, "Does Grazing Trash Our Rangelands?" The group answered questions about worst possible outcomes, the challenges likely to confront the community, likely resistance to the project, and finally what beliefs, behaviors, strategies, and actions were needed to foster the best outcome.

Several people at the Baker workshop were concerned about hidden agendas, what the learning site was designed to prove, and about proper research methodology. The consensus process effectively broadened these questions. Jeff Goebel commented about the proposal to use the Peyron BLM allotment as a learning site:

"It's not a linear project, it's a holistic project. The objective is the holistic goal. Making the holistic goal happen is the work. It's not a linear scientific research experiment. It's moving toward a holistic goal. You might start off doing something, and within a year, by using the early warning criteria--the monitoring--you find immediately that you're on the wrong track, you're doing the wrong thing, so you go the other way. It's going to drive a researcher crazy, because he's planning to see what the results are--but that's not the purpose. The purpose is to create a holistic goal."

"The story is to create the holistic goal on that land. That story in itself will tell people. Instead of interpretive signs, one way to communicate is to have acres of bare ground, and then lush grassland as you come onto this land. Then people might say, what's going on out there? And then have more of these kinds of meetings with the community, at the Interpretive Center."

"Transforming change is often imposed from the outside. I've heard it here. 'They're going to take away our grazing rights. They're going to do this, they're going to do that.'"

"Simply modifying your strategies and actions is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. You need to fundamentally change the direction. This is transformational change. At the base of everything we do are our beliefs."