La PINE – More than 30 people sat and listened patiently at a recent meeting while Bend-Fort Rock District Ranger Walt Schloer outlined plans to move a 125-bed forest work camp for state prison inmates to Ogden Trail Group Camp in La Pine, explaining why the Forest Service and Oregon Department of Corrections chose that site.
Then they fired back over a variety of safety concerns and a lack of public input before the decision was made.
The Deschutes Conservation Camp has been operating at Deschutes Bridge for the past four years with portable toilets, showers, and tents. But it has to move, as the rock pit location will be used next year as a source of rock for crushing to complete a road project.
Schloer assured the audience July 22 at the La Pine Fire Hall that Ogden Group Camp was the most appealing site on the entire Deschutes National Forest for the work camp.
“There is already an organized group camp there, in a campground with amenities, that is half a mile from electricity,” Schloer told the group. He added that the site is at a lower elevation than the current site and has an existing water system. It is also located closer to the work area.
Debra Slater of the Department of Corrections addressed the group next. “All of the inmates are minimum-custody, nearing release,” she said. “These inmates vie for this educational skill-based program.” According to Slater, every inmate is interviewed. No sex offenders, inmates with family in the tri-county or arsonists are allowed.
The inmates have worked seven days a week, 10 hours a day in the forest for the past five summers, reducing the fuel load, approximately 27,000 acres worth. They have also cut firewood and worked inside parks. “We are releasing inmates who are ready to be released,” said Slater.
But there was a blemish on the operation’s perfect record this summer. Larry Lee Walker, 22, an inmate from Lane County, walked away from the isolated Deschutes Bridge Camp in June and is still at large. “He made a really nasty choice. When we pick him up, he will do five years,” said Slater. According to Slater, five days a week, there are 1,000 inmates working in Oregon.
The inmates are supervised at a 1-to-10 ratio while out on the job. The Corrections Department also posts signs where they are working and informs the local law enforcement of their presence.
Chris Muhleman of the Bend Bowmen questioned Slater about the skill level of the supervising staff and challenged the notion that walkaways won’t increase within a camp that is three miles from a major highway. “Walkaways are much more common in the more populated areas,” he said.
“Our officers go through a 10-week training course and are not armed,” replied Slater.
“How many staff are stationed at the camp?” questioned Muhleman.
State corrections Supervisor Jeff Forbes answered: “Seventeen people provide 24-hour coverage of the 120 inmates.” They are also “on-call” at all times.
“So, there are five on at any one time?” asked Muhleman. “The main issue isn’t that the crew isn’t doing a good job, my issue is knowing what they do. The guys that run look for easy access. At Ogden, you are a 5-minute walk to a pay phone to make a collect call.”
Jon Stewart, Forest Service “people programs” coordinator replied, “They have been working there for five years.”
“They haven’t been living there,” countered Muhleman.
Horsewoman Catherine Pritchett of La Pine changed the subject by asking, “Are these inmates violent, or are we talking about Martha Stewart-type inmates?”
“All crimes other than sex offenders,” said Slater. “Assaults? Yes. Manslaughter? Yes. Murderers are too old to bring up here by the time they are minimum-risk inmates. The majority are drug, alcohol and property crimes.” She admitted that some have been convicted of violent crimes.
“I’m against it. We have older people here. If they knew there was a prison camp near, it would hurt our business,” said Wilma Ealum, owner of the 117-site Cascade Meadows RV Resort, three miles west of Ogden Group Camp. “It would intimidate them. They hear shots at the pits nearby and get very excited.”
Lack of public input criticized
“Is this up for a vote?” asked a member of the audience. “No,” said Schloer.
Stewart kept bringing the discussion back to all the good work the inmates have done. He credited the crews with saving homes in Black Butte Ranch during the Cache Mountain fire. “We recognize that the community is at (similar) risk,” he said.
Maedawn Hernandez of La Pine responded, “Why can’t we put them in Sisters then and bus them here?” which brought calls of “Move them to Bend!” and “Why can’t you find another location?”
“Because this is the only one,” said Schloer.
“There are other places around that aren’t as scenic,” said Sherry Evertson of the La Pine Hoof Beats. “There are hundreds of miles of trails. This is where I take company when I want to impress them. There is an incredible drop from the source of the creek, with lush vegetation, falls and pools looking out over the La Pine Basin.”
Paulina Creek, Paulina and East Lake are the only sources of fresh water available on the Fort Rock District. The Deschutes National Forest website lists special activities at the group camp: Hiking, bird watching, bicycling, access to Peter Skene Ogden Trail (#3956) from Peter Skene Ogden Trailhead which is adjacent to campground.
Evertson disagreed with the panel’s justification for the site and claims of safety: “It is going to impact the area. People aren’t going to bring their families there and women won’t feel safe to ride and park their trailers there.”
Many other sites were mentioned, including a China Hat alternative. Stewart replied, “We worked closely with the Department of Corrections to find a site that they could manage.”
“You decided without asking the community,” responded Muhleman.
Feeling of betrayal
“The area is heavily used by bow hunters and endurance riders,” said George Johnson of the Oregon Bow Hunters. “You are asking us to move.” The Central Oregon Chapter has over 1,200 members and hosts a 3-D life-size target shoot every Memorial Day weekend. It is the largest single archery shoot in the state and brings in over $10,000 per year to the club, their sole source of revenue.
The Bow Hunters found out about the inmate camp when they applied for next year’s permit. “The Forest Service told them that the permit was denied because they had other plans for the area.” said Johnson. “World-class bow hunters come during tournament season and support the motels, restaurants and stores. This location works.”
The Bowmen were told to find another site, and then bring it to the Forest Service for approval. Bend Bowman Muhleman replied, “The task you have asked us to undertake is monumental. It is not simple to move a shoot of this magnitude. I am disappointed that we are losing this site.”
The reasons that the group camp is attractive to state prison officials are the same reasons the Bow Hunters and Horse People like to use it. Most of the audience raised their hands, signifying that they would use the camp if it was open.
The audience was told that the Ogden camp was deemed “under-utilized” by the Forest Service, based on reports from the concessionaire responsible for the camp. The group responded simultaneously:
“How do you use it when the gate is locked?”
“It’s locked, that is why it is underused!”
“The posting at Ogden doesn’t give an indication that these facilities are even open!”
A member of the audience offered a solution: “If it was self-serve, self-pay, it would not be an under-utilized facility.”
Les Moscoso, recreation operations and maintenance supervisor for the Newberry National Monument, told the group the gate was locked because the concessionaire doesn’t want to check the campground each day, and he didn’t think the gate was causing any problems. “I would have thought we would have gotten some calls,” he said.
Concerns were voiced about closing the trailhead to keep the camp from being visible to the public. The day after the meeting, at noon, there were five cars and four trucks with horse trailers at the trailhead that were within view of the Ogden Camp.
In addition, 400 people from the Telephone Pioneers of Oregon were at the Ogden Group Camp for a week. The Pioneers have been camping at Ogden as a group for 30 years, yet none of the campers or organizers had heard about the inmate work camp proposal.
The Pioneers installed the water system with volunteers. “We wanted to put in a septic five years ago, but the Forest Service wouldn’t let us,” said Russ Simonis of La Pine. Ron Smith of Bend added, “We offered to bring in power at our expense four years ago. Qwest was going to dig and bury the lines for us.” The group was told there couldn’t be any digging because of Native American artifacts in the area.
They used to camp for free, in exchange for all of the campground improvements they undertook each year. That all changed when the Forest Service started contracting out the campground maintenance. This season, the Pioneers paid $1,107 for one week at the camp.
“One of the things we did was put water in the camp, brought pipe in the campgrounds, planted 400 trees and grass as volunteers. We kind of adopted this campground. The Forest Service was in agreement at the time,” said Dan Aller of Bend.
“We feel that we have been shortchanged,” added Simonis.
“A number of campsites have been developed by private groups,” said Johnson of the Oregon Bowmen. He sited Cultus Horse Coral as an example of a campground that was built by private groups with private money that was then turned over to a concessionaire.
Alternatives raised, amid criticism
“Nobody has a problem with the concept. It’s where they want to put it,” said Evertson.
Bill Armstrong, commons manager, said he was concerned about losing access to the prisoners as a resource for help in cleaning up the perimeter of the Ponderosa Pines subdivision, east of La Pine.
The majority of participants expressed interest in continuing a more portable camp. According to Slater, the site will be obsolete as a work camp in four years, after the Madras state prison opens.
Stewart quoted a price of $27,000 per year to operate a generator for 10 weeks, as out of the range of their budget. When asked about alternative energy, he replied, “We have looked at them all.”
Stu Martinez of La Pine suggested using the mushroom camps on Highway 58 as an alternative solution: “The inmates could restore the damaged sites, and mushroom season doesn’t start until after the inmate crews are finished. The camp could be used for both projects.”
“We looked at those sites,” said Stewart.
“I really don’t think that you have seriously considered operating off of the grid,” said Muhleman. “A fire crew type of system.”
“They are expensive,” Stewart replied.
“I agree, how you pay,” shot back Johnson who works for ODOT. “I am suggesting there is already a kitchen unit in the state inventory you could use. The Department of Forestry has their own facilities, three that I know of, that the convict crews run for them when they are on fires. Why can’t you use that kitchen when they are not on fires?”
Johnson concluded, “I was amazed by the lack of participation. Was there public, user groups invited to be a part of the process?”
Regarding the opportunity to comment on the proposed camp and additional public meetings, Schloer said, “You can write to anyone you want. They will just send it back to me.”
Johnson disagreed: “Send it to your congressman. Send it to everyone.”
Moscoso acknowledged, “We could have done more outreach, I can see how we needed to get the word out.” Schloer added, “Another meeting with a bigger group wouldn’t have anything new to say.”
“This doesn’t look like the best spot right now,” said La Pine Fire Chief Jim Court as he concluded the meeting. “Not everyone will be happy.” But he encouraged the audience to keep an eye on the purpose of the prison work camp while finding a solution, the reduction of fuel hazards in the forests.
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Bend-Fort Rock District Ranger
1230 NE 3rd St Suite A-262
Bend, OR 97701