Ode to an old growth warrior


Last updated 5/7/2024 at 9:39am

Photo provided

Tim Lillebo and Brian Tandy during a 2010 field review.

Standing in a quiet grove of old growth pine trees near Glaze Meadow, east of Black Butte Ranch, Tim Lillebo would often start a talk by saying "There we were... it was war." And it was. Between 1991-2005, the Sisters Ranger District was challenged on nearly every forest management project. Trust between the Forest Service, conservation groups, and many in the public was low after broken agreements. This led to a federal lawsuit and a mediated agreement putting the District on notice to follow its own plans.

What happened next is a story of hope worth telling in these polarized times, on the tenth anniversary of Tim Lillebo's sudden passing during the snowy winter of 2014.

A native Oregonian, Tim grew up in the eastside timber country of Grant County. He went to Lewis and Clark College and spent summers working as a timber faller, following in his grandfather "Blondies" footsteps. A 2014 OregonLive article quoted his testimony to the U.S. Senate: "I still remember the day when my grandfather said, 'Tim, as we cut, we thought the old growth would never end. Well, it's mostly gone, and you should cherish what little is left of the big trees.' I decided Blondie was right."

In 1976 Tim began work as an advocate for wilderness and old growth forests for the precursor organization of Oregon Wild. That group was involved in many lawsuits in the 70's and 80's and they often won. Despite his passionate advocacy, Tim had his magic. Wearing a crushed brown hat with a cigar in his pocket, he could disagree without being disagreeable. He was likable, warm-hearted, and didn't alienate others, often making friends with foes. His friend Marilyn Miller explained in a Bend Bulletin article in 2014, saying, "Over the years, he realized that we were getting more done, instead of by the appeal, by collaboration. He could bridge gaps."

I met Tim when I was the District Ecologist, during the seemingly endless working group meetings held by Ranger Bill Anthony in 2001, searching for common interests and a way forward. A community call for action was gaining steam in the Metolius Basin after ice storms in the winter of 1999/2000 damaged thousands of small trees creating a visual reminder that forests without wildfires grow crowded. Due to logging and fire suppression, acres dominated by large ponderosa pine trees in Sisters were at a fraction of their historic levels of over 90 percent, to less than 10 percent.

Tim was cordial while questioning the science and insisting on limiting the size of trees cut. Despite a lawsuit from another conservation group, over 100 people intervened in support and the judge ruled the project could proceed. Thousands of acres in the Metolius Basin were thinned with a Forest Service imposed limit to the size of trees cut.

Epic fires started in Sisters in 2002, burning four times more acres in two years than in the previous 100 years, and large trees took a big hit. Analysis after the B&B Fire of 2003 estimated that up to 31% of the trees over 21-inch diameter in the Metolius basin had died in the areas outside wilderness. Tim saw more old growth burning than had been cut in many years and began to advocate that some limited management might be warranted. He wanted to try a demonstration project on 1,200 acres of a biologically unique area near Glaze Meadow. Parts had been logged in the 1930s, some stands of old growth pine remained, and aspen groves were in decline. He met Cal Mukumoto, an innovative forester with the Warm Springs Tribe, who wanted to find a project to showcase ecological, community, and economic values.

Cal Mukumoto, now the Oregon State Forester, recalled their initial meetings, saying, "Tim expressed a sincere dedication to preserving old-growth trees for the enjoyment and benefit of future generations. In my discussions with him about the concept of restoration forestry, we explored the necessity of restoring our forests to a state that could naturally withstand fires, allowing them to re-integrate fire as a healthy part of the ecosystem. When I heard Tim express his vision for ponderosa pine forests, I told him, I think we can work together. I could not have asked for a better partner and advocate for forests."

Their unusual partnership helped convince Forest Service leadership to take a risk and try it.

Tim and Cal worked with the Forest Service on a plan for collaborative outreach, adopting new science, and saving small old growth trees, with many marking demonstrations. As we went out for field work, we would often run into Tim leading conservation and community leaders through the area, explaining and negotiating. In 2008 it was the first project in 13 years cutting commercial-size trees that was not litigated. The collaboration didn't end there. We held public field reviews every year to look at what had been done and address concerns.

In 2010, Tim testified before the U.S. Senate in support of thinning forests. He was quoted in a 2014 OregonLive article saying "Believe me, I never thought I would be sitting here with some timber industry folks supporting the same piece of legislation. Miracles still happen." Despite his support of active restoration, Tim continued to cast a critical eye on less sensitive logging and salvage, saying, "Not everything needs to be cut."

Photo by Cal Mukumoto

Tim Lillebo, who died suddenly a decade ago, bridged divides over how to manage forests in Sisters Country.

When Tim unexpectedly passed away in 2014, his family and many friends grieved hard, and it left a tremendous hole in the conservation community.

These days forest issues are growing polarized and it feels like war is coming again. After a series of successful collaborative projects, some proposals advocate logging larger trees, sending stakeholders back to their corners. Some are calling for no management of federal forests beyond a small area near houses.

As they celebrate their 50th anniversary, Oregon Wild continues its work with a campaign to protect the few remaining mature and old-growth forests for their essential ecosystem functions, habitat, and carbon-storing ability. They continue to honor Tim's legacy and use Glaze as a restoration example. See https://oregonwild.org/take-action-protect-our-mature-and-old-growth-forests.


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