Bruce Dunn * 1943-2018
By Kathy Nesbitt
For Wallowa Valley Online
The first time I encountered Bruce Dunn was in the Wallowa County Courthouse courtroom. He and two colleagues were presenting the county’s input on something we’ve come to know as the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest Travel Management Plan.
It was September 2009 and I had just been hired by the Observer to be the Wallowa County reporter. Covering the county commissioners was on a short list of assigned beats, but those meetings led to my extensive coverage of the county’s Natural Resource Advisory Committee chaired by Dunn. A forester for RY Timber, a Boise-based company that owns approximately 20,000 acres in northeastern Oregon, Dunn served 12 years on the county’s planning commission and 22 on the advisory committee, both volunteer roles.
John Williams, Wallowa County OSU extension agent, and Rod Childers, a cattle rancher, joined Dunn that night in the courtroom. I wondered what sage advice they had for the U.S. Forest Service’s management of its road system.
With a series of maps for visual aids they explained that members of the advisory committee had driven each and every Forest Service road in the county. Their conditions – passable or not, were mapped and noted. Between the county’s on-the-ground assessment and the one developed by the Wallowa-Whitman Forest’ travel management team there was great disparity.
Two and a half years later, on a Friday morning in mid-March, a draft of the travel management plan was released. It proposed closing almost 4,000 miles across the entire forest. I was on the phone with Dunn early the next day to get feedback for a story I needed to submit in time for the afternoon paper.
Dunn was adamant that the Forest Service work with the county to iron out the differences in their maps. Over the course of several years, because of his doggedness and that of the other members of the advisory committee, the agency and the county got closer and closer to understanding what roads were open and which were closed as well as what roads were important to keep open for forest user access and which were not.
For the last nine years I have attended the Advisory Committee’s technical and standing committee meetings. When there were field trips, I rode with Dunn. He always drove his own pickup, dubbed Vanilla, to meetings and to the woods because he smoked a pipe and because he enjoyed being behind the wheel. These drives, many with just the two of us and the back windows cracked to vent the pipe smoke, I was privileged to learn his view on forest management and quite a bit about his life and philosophies.
On our drives he told me about riding snowmobiles into timber sale units when he was a timber sales administrator in Idaho and how his sandwiches would sometimes get soaked in gasoline. He never packed sandwiches on our field trips, preferring soup or cheese and crackers. He talked about dating Mormon girls before he was married, but when they asked him to go to church with him after the second date, the relationship was over. He told me about meeting his wife Jane at Oregon State – he was studying engineering and logging systems and she was an undergraduate. When he completed his courses Jane returned with him to Idaho. They were married 40 years in April.
Born the son of a Detroit police officer, Dunn spent his summers on the family tree farm in northern Michigan. He attended Michigan Tech when there were only men in the forestry program and most smoked pipes in class. He continued to spend his summers on the family farm and managed it after college for a couple years until he was hired to for the U.S. Forest Service in Idaho. For almost 10 years he divided his time between cruising timber for the Forest Service and working for private industry before he was hired by RY Timber to work for its mill in Joseph. After the mill shut down in the 1990s Dunn stayed on to manage the company’s land, some of which is leased for grazing, much of it used for recreation and periodically, when the market was right, he would have areas logged, primarily for timber stand improvement.
On our first field trip to the east moraine of Wallowa Lake, RY Timber’s most choice piece of ground, he told me previous owners of the land logged it strictly for money. One, he said, had sold logs to pay for a child’s college education. He didn’t prescribe timber harvest on RY Timber land in a down log market and he didn’t take the biggest, most beautiful trees either, judging by the large ponderosas that grace the crest of the moraine.
As we drove along the east side of the moraine he pointed out areas that had too many trees and needed to be thinned to create bigger trees. Trees with bad genetics were also marked for removal.
Only in rare occasions he recommend a clear cut, like some of the declining lodgepole pine stands at risk of insect outbreaks in the upper Imnaha River watershed. The majestic ponderosas near Indian Crossing Campground along the river, ravaged by bark beetles, he called “people trees” and while he understood their social value – they are incredibly beautiful – he supported the Forest Service’s assessment that the insects threatened the healthy trees and agreed the most infected should be removed.
When the Wallowa-Whitman Forest Collaborative formed in 2012 Dunn attended nearly every monthly meeting as well as most of the summer field trips until his death. He gave input on the projects the Forest Service put forth and was a constant advocate for sustainable timber harvest and forest restoration.
The Big Man, as some called him, cut an intimidating figure. His signature outfit included White logging boots, black jeans, leather braces and a Carhartt vest over his logging shirt. In the winter he was known to wear a wild rag (silk scarf) around his neck.
At the advisory committee meetings Dunn sat at the corner of the table, his copy of the Wallowa County salmon plan under an elbow. He helped the county write plan in the early 90s along with the Nez Perce Tribe. The document is part of the county’s land use plan designed to help landowners develop, graze and harvest responsibly near streams inhabited by threatened Snake River chinook salmon and the guiding document of the committee.
At times in these meetings I would see him put his head down on the table to show frustration. When he was really disturbed he’d growl like a bear. Other times he waxed poetic, talking about how restrictions on trees over 21 inches and old trees didn’t allow foresters to harvest and thin units to their specific needs.
On a winter field trip to the Muddy Sled timber project northeast of Wallowa Dunn described himself to me as an enlightened conservative.
“You have to go out on the ground and ask the stand what it needs,” Dunn said, as we drove by masticated slash melting down and becoming part of the soil and thinned, healthy looking stands of timber.
Last year a Forest Service project, under consideration for 20 years, was signed by Wallowa Mountains Office District Ranger Kris Stein. Its purpose was to remove dead, dying and diseased trees in the upper Lostine Canyon. When the Forest Service was sued for proposing the project I asked Dunn for a comment as the Advisory Committee’s chairman. He accused the plaintiffs for bringing litigation in order to make money through the Equal Access to Justice Act that grants legal fees to entities who sue federal agencies.
Upon returning from a week’s vacation a friend showed me a letter to the editor the Observer ran written by a staff member of the plaintiff’s organization. Dunn and I were criticized for not understanding the Act, didn’t understand the court system and a handful of other weightless complaints like the fact I didn’t mention that Bruce managed private timberland. When I showed it to Dunn he brushed it off, firm in his quote and his belief in the project.
About a year and a half ago Dunn was diagnosed with a heart condition, but surgery and his will to get well initially paid off. Even before the diagnosis Dunn, who was 6’6” and large framed, had quit chewing tobacco and coffee, went on a low carbohydrate diet and began walking in the evenings with his wife Jane. One night I drove by his house and saw him walking in circles in a neighboring parking lot. I stopped and rolled down the window in order to give him a hard time. Head down, he continued his walk. Later he explained he was counting his steps and couldn’t be distracted. That doggedness at the boardroom table and on field trips spilled into his personal life. His wife once told me he was the most determined man she ever knew.
With a clean bill of health Dunn filed to run for Wallowa County commissioner in September 2017 and won the election this past May. Just hours after the results were published Dunn went to work as sort of a commissioner in training, attending meetings with the other commissioners and developing his Wallowa County Economic and Social Committee that would be tasked with job and business creation, education and training, housing and health care. He modeled it after the Natural Resource Advisory Committee and had started making a list of potential members. He was also considering who to ask to step into his role as chair of the natural resource committee at the end of the year.
While most conservatives talk about job creation, Dunn wanted his committee to be much more than that. His vision was to attract 10 new businesses that would employ around 10 people, but he knew that ample housing was necessary and looked for help from the real estate community. Tourism was on his list, an industry many conservatives disdain in the county, but he wasn’t one to hamper economic vitality. Understanding that a healthy community needs healthy people he also addressed drug and alcohol treatment in his plan.
The crusty demeanor and growly bear persona easily gave way to insight and thoughtfulness, but every once in a while the bear was poked and Dunn would pound a fist. In my nearly a decade of covering the Advisory Committee a lot of time, discussion and travel to the forest was dedicated to one project, the Lower Joseph Creek watershed assessment compiled and written by the Committee, and the subsequent environmental impact statement developed by a Forest Service interdisciplinary team. While environmentalists want some of the nearly 100,000 acres put into unmanaged wilderness, Dunn would say, “Not one more acre!” With three wilderness areas in the county, including the Eagle Caps, the largest in the state, he clearly did not support wilderness expansion.
On Aug. 21, Just a few feet from one of the Lower Joseph Creek timber sale units Dunn dropped dead of an apparent massive heart attack. Those with him that day said he was at the top of his game. For almost two hours he was part of, and an unofficial facilitator, of a lively, yet respectful and thoughtful conversation about timber harvest where fish, wildlife and old trees needed special consideration.
The day before he died I asked him to spend some time with me going over a list of topics, the economic and social committee status was at the top. He said he was too busy and would have to put off meeting with me until next week. An hour later I sent him a text, asking him to at least have lunch with me. He didn’t respond. When I went to tell his office mate, Coby Menton, of his death I sat down at his desk. The calendar revealed he indeed had a busy week with at least one appointment scheduled for each day.
Menton, whose desk sat facing Dunn’s for so many years, took the news in stride. He said, “I’m happy for Bruce. He got to die in the woods doing what he loved.”
That sentiment has been echoed by so many. If he had a problem, he told me he went for a drive in the woods and sometimes he’d get out and walk around. It was his church and his office.
He would have been 75 years old at his swearing in this coming January. I knew he would never retire – he wasn’t the type. His only sedentary practice was watching the Detroit Redwing hockey games with Jane in the evenings. I had to agree with Coby, but I also agreed with Jane who said, “He was so looking forward to being a commissioner.”
Dunn’s death may have been fitting, but it leaves a big hole in our community. We will miss his leadership as much as his generosity.
To honor his wishes a wake is scheduled for 5 p.m. August 31 at the Wallowa County Fairgrounds Cloverleaf Hall. Barbecue pork loin and beverages will be supplied and those planning to attend are asked to bring an appetizer, salad, side dish or dessert. After dinner we will share memories and toast him many times over for his years of commitment to his community and healthy forests.