Sagebrush Solar

How Lake County is embracing renewable energy

Julia Grable

The town of Lakeview doesn’t have a stoplight, but it’s not quite blink-and-you’ll-miss-it small. Situated within southeastern Oregon’s sweeping basin-and-range region just fourteen miles north of the California border, the town of 2,500 is the seat of Lake County and home to nearly a third of its residents. It’s frontier country, surrounded by hayfields and sagebrush desert. 

Just north of town, past the towering painted cowboy and the Collins Lakeview Sawmill, is one of the county’s solar farms. Row upon row of blue panels tilt against the backdrop of the Warner Mountains, receiving the abundant sunlight that washes over this wide-open landscape much of the year. Installations such as this one are key to why Lake County may soon be able to boast that it has offset all of its carbon emissions. So far, over 122 megawatts of solar capacity have been installed throughout the county, with more on the way.

A large portion of the credit goes to Jim Walls, a man with a broad face and ready smile. Like Lakeview’s iconic tall man, he often sports a cowboy hat. And his vision for Lake County’s future is decidedly progressive. 

“I want to see climate change solved in my lifetime,” says Walls. “And I believe we can do it economically.” He also believes rural counties have a crucial role to play.

Walls is the former executive director of Lake County Resources Initiative (LCRI), a nonprofit that has its roots in desperation, animosity, and resentment.

The region’s economy has long depended on natural resources. In the 1970s, Lakeview was a boomtown with five lumber mills. But the disappearance of old-growth forests across the Pacific Northwest prompted environmental groups to leverage the Endangered Species Act to slow harvesting. East of the Cascade Mountains, these efforts culminated in the creation of the Eastside Screens, which prohibited the harvest of trees over twenty-one inches in diameter. In Lake County, where 78 percent of the land is public, the repercussions were felt quickly and painfully. Every proposed timber sale was met with a lawsuit. By 1998, the Collins Companies mill was the only one left, and it was struggling to stay viable.

“We were facing the demise of our community,” says Clair Thomas, who led the high school’s science program at the time.

A small group of local leaders, including Thomas, Collins Companies vice president Paul Harlan, and county commissioner Jane O’Keeffe, got together to discuss how they could save Lakeview. They saw that railing against the environmental groups wasn’t working. 

“We knew we needed to take a different tactic, so we wrote to Governor [John] Kitzhaber,” O’Keeffe recalls. Kitzhaber connected them with Sustainable Northwest, a Portland nonprofit focused on collaborative solutions that benefit both the environment and local economies. 

Under their guidance, the Lake County group invited representatives from several nonprofit organizations to come to Lakeview and take part in a workshop to discuss how to move forward with forest management in a way that satisfied everyone.

For the opening night of the meeting, O’Keeffe had prepared a “slightly scolding” speech admonishing the environmental nonprofits as outsiders who didn’t respect what the locals knew about “their” forests. Then, days before the meeting, O’Keeffe and the other meeting planners took aerial tours of the region. 

“I saw clear-cuts that hadn’t healed from twenty, forty years ago—bald spots that shocked me,” says O’Keeffe. “I also saw massively overgrown areas that looked like they needed help in some way.” She rewrote her speech entirely, emphasizing the need for listening and humility. 

Nearly one hundred people attended the days-long meeting, which included tours, “shared learning,” and discussions with experts on ecology and forest health. Attendees also toured area forests and talked about what they saw. 

This dialogue evolved into the Lakeview Stewardship Group, which included representatives from the Nature Conservancy, Defenders of Wildlife, the Wilderness Society, and Oregon Wild, as well as logging interests, federal agencies, and local governments. The group initially focused on developing a restoration-based management plan for the Lakeview Stewardship Unit, a five-hundred-thousand-acre tract of federal forestland compromised by over a century of fire suppression.

The nonprofit LCRI was created to help move this effort forward with training and technical guidance. Walls was tapped to head the organization. 

The stewardship group agreed that all restoration and harvesting would be based on science and validated by a comprehensive monitoring effort, to be led by Thomas. 

“Jim was relentless about the monitoring piece,” says O’Keeffe. “We knew we couldn’t just say we have people out in the forest doing stuff. We had to show our funders and local residents—and especially the outside environmental community—that good things were happening as a result of this coalition.” 

The Nature Conservancy offered to be a partner, using land they owned at nearby Sycan Marsh as a living laboratory to test some of the strategies the group was proposing. Among other things, their research demonstrated how different grazing practices affected water quality and fish habitat and how trees and birds responded to forest treatments such as prescribed fire and thinning.

In 2007, the Collins Companies restructured its mill and operations to accept small-diameter material, and the US Forest Service awarded the company a ten-year “stewardship contract.” The Forest Service’s new Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program provided millions of dollars in grant money for restoration projects, and local workers were retrained to conduct thinning, prescribed burning, and road decommissioning.

“Not all of our problems were solved, but [these efforts] did keep the mill alive and men employed and in our communities,” says Deanna Walls, who was executive director of the Lake County Chamber of Commerce at the time. “The impact is more than you can see on paper.” 

The stewardship group attributes its success to several factors: the guidance of Sustainable Northwest; the commitment to science as the basis for decision-making; the willingness to put aside differences and focus on common ground; and Jim and Deanna’s steak and wine dinners. All credit the leadership and vision of Jim Walls. 

Though his work for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service had taken him far afield to Washington State and Illinois, Walls was a local boy who grew up in area logging camps and went to high school in nearby Bonanza. He was uniquely qualified to bring people with disparate points of view together, says Deanna, who married Jim in 2007. “A true leader is able to get people to speak honestly and kindly with each other,” she says. “And to listen.” 

Under Walls, the mission of LCRI quickly expanded. It started with a problem: the thinning projects generated large volumes of slash—debris such as stumps, branches, and woodchips—that had to be burned on-site in the forest. 

“We had all this material we couldn’t utilize,” says Walls. “That got us thinking about biomass as an energy source, which got us thinking, wait a minute—we have great solar, we have wind, we have geothermal. Do we have some sort of economic strategy we can put together here?”

The Lakeview Stewardship Group agreed to pursue development of a biomass facility (a wood-burning power plant) and to woo renewable energy developers; a flurry of projects ensued. One delivered geothermal heat to the Lake District Hospital, the school district, and the Warner Creek Correctional Facility, a state prison. Several solar installations broke ground, providing dozens of temporary construction jobs and fortifying the county’s coffers.

One sunny morning last year, Nick Johnson drove the short distance from the LCRI office to meet Bob White, owner of Lakeview Reclaimed Lumber. Johnson, LCRI’s current executive director, was there to inventory the warehouse’s fluorescent tube lights. Surrounded by stacks of milled slabs and custom-built tables, Johnson chatted with White as he tallied the fixtures. In 2020, through a pilot program sponsored by the Energy Trust of Oregon, Johnson was able to help nineteen area businesses replace their fixtures with super-efficient LEDs at no cost. 

Johnson joined LCRI in early 2018 as an intern through Resource Assistance for Rural Environments, an Americorps program. Initially tasked with connecting residents with renewable energy grants and energy audits, he was quickly thrust into a leadership position when health problems forced Walls to step down as executive director.

Johnson knew he had some big boots to fill. Besides interacting with the community and learning how to effectively write grants, he faced some major challenges. One of them was a debate over land use that began when a company called EDP Renewables proposed a large solar project near Lakeview. The project, called Blue Marmot, was spread across several parcels and included some irrigated farmland. 

“Farmland is one of our most precious resources,” says James Williams, one of Lake County’s three commissioners. Though it accounts for a small percentage of Lake County’s privately owned land, irrigated farmland generates a disproportionate percentage of agriculture revenues, much of it from high-quality hay. Solar developers pay the county an average of $7,000 per megawatt every year, Williams acknowledges. “Solar could be the key to getting us in the black. But we also have to step into the role of preservation and be mindful of the assets we have.” 

Despite the project’s benefits—EDP claims Blue Marmot will produce up to 50 megawatts of energy and provide millions of dollars to Lake County over its lifetime—Lake County residents and leaders, including Walls and Johnson, publicly opposed the project, concerned it would set a precedent. (State policy currently prohibits solar development on irrigated farmland west of the Cascades. No such mandate exists on the east side.)

Recently, EDP proposed consolidating the project onto one parcel. If the changes are approved, the project will no longer impact irrigated farmland.

“I’m thankful for the way the community came together around this one,” says Johnson.

Johnson, representing LCRI, serves on a new solar siting committee that has formed to guide Lake County’s response to new solar development. In part because they use existing structures and don’t require developing new land, he has focused on energy efficiency and smaller-scale solar projects since taking the reins at LCRI. In addition to initiating the LED program, he has brought on interns to help ranchers and farmers apply for USDA grants for solar arrays.

“We’re seeing an outpouring of requests from people who see the cost benefits of solar,” says Johnson. “I don’t think we would have had this much interest a decade ago.”

Johnson says the “ultimate LCRI project” would be the creation of a geothermal heating district in downtown Lakeview. Such a project has been discussed for years; as always, the biggest obstacle is funding.

Lake County still struggles economically, in part because of its distance from ports and interstate highways. Every job counts. At the same time, climate change is bringing new challenges in the form of more frequent droughts and larger, more devastating wildfires. As of this writing, the enormous, four-hundred-thousand-acre Bootleg Fire is burning on federal forestland west of Lakeview, making the work of the Lakeview Stewardship Group and LCRI all the more poignant. The solar arrays are sexy and expansive; the work these groups have facilitated in the forests is less immediately obvious but no less important. In the past few years, the stewardship group has expanded its scope to include the entire Fremont-Winema National Forest in both Lake and Klamath Counties. Johnson is also strengthening the relationship between LCRI and the Klamath-Lake Forest Health Partnership in hope of implementing landscape-scale restoration projects to reduce wildfire risk and improve forest health on both private and public land. The amount of acreage treated by thinning and prescribed burning has spiked. The rigorous data collection performed by the monitoring team is helping to inform restoration strategies while giving young people the chance to do meaningful work in the woods. 

Walls is watching some of this from the sidelines. He still chairs LCRI’s board and sits on several boards and committees in Lake County and beyond, but he’s also spending more time with his wife and fourteen grandchildren. He’s taken up beekeeping. 

Pondering his grandchildren’s future keeps Walls laser-focused on climate change and the goal of carbon neutrality. It was his idea to commission an independent study to inventory Lake County’s greenhouse gas emissions and sinks in 2019, in part to learn if the county could generate enough renewable energy to help offset all of its emissions, whether from human sources such as vehicles or from “biotic” sources such as wildfires and agriculture.

The study is still under review, but preliminary numbers show that renewable energy helped offset 9 percent of the county’s total emissions in 2019. Four utility-scale solar projects have come online since then, with more in the pipeline. The study notes that in the near future, renewable energy generation combined with the carbon sequestered by forestry and agriculture may well exceed Lake County’s total emissions. But more than simply validating the Lakeview Stewardship Group’s efforts, Walls hopes the study will generate a tool that other counties and communities can use to calculate baselines and set their own ambitious goals.

“I want to see climate change solved and us on a renewable energy route,” says Walls. “I have no doubt it can get done. When we put our mind to things, this is a great country.”

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