In 1985, while Paul Dewey was taking care of horses on a ranch in Sisters, he caught wind of a proposal for a hydroelectric energy project that would eventually lead him to found the nonprofit he still runs today. The proposal called for the installation of pipes in nearby Whychus Creek, and foreseeing the potential environmental toll, Dewey drove to Salem and testified before the Oregon Legislature against the project.
As a result of Dewey's testimony, the hydroelectric project was halted, as was a clear cutting of a Sisters forest planned to make room for the project. When he returned to Sisters, he rallied the support of locals from the Sister's Area Chamber of Commerce and horse clubs to form the Sisters Forest Planning Committee, which would later become Central Oregon LandWatch.
Over the last 30 years, the small nonprofit has taken on many cases pro bono. Today, it remains in operation with donations from individuals and family foundations. Central Oregon LandWatch fights to protect the environment and natural wildlife habitats, and boasts a long list of legal victories. They've stopped big developers and urban sprawl, and nearly went bankrupt fighting for the Metolius River a decade ago.
In 2005, Dewey says, COLW tried to block a proposal for destination resorts a few miles from the Metolius River basin, which would have potentially impacted the Metolius spring system. At the time, Dewey and COLW's executive director, the group's only members at the time, attempted to get a bill passed in the Oregon Legislature that would protect the area. The bill passed by a single vote.
"That taught me that I never want to be that marginal again—we had to borrow money to keep from being in the [red]," he says. "I'm glad we did it because when you do go there and you see those springs, its just astounding—it's worth protecting."
Another victory in COLW's early days established the organization as an important force in environmental protection. In 1987, Dewey says he exposed a massive timber theft in the Deschutes and Ochoco national forests.
"We caught what was then the biggest timber theft operation in Oregon, and timber operators who followed the law later on said thanks for catching those guys," Dewey says. "They could always go in and outbid the law-abiding [operators] because they knew they would be stealing from the forest."
COWL can't act alone because it has a lot of work to do. The environmental laws it aims to shape affect everyone in Central Oregon so it supports and encourages community participation at public hearings. Currently, COLW is encouraging Bend residents' input on the Urban Growth Boundary. The City of Bend recently presented three possible plans, and COLW is backing proposed Expansion Scenario 2.1 with revisions. The group says the scenario is mindful of wildlife habitat encroachment, utilizes space inside Bend's city limits, and prevents pushing development out into the ponderosa forest area—where the wildfire risk increases. Dewey says Bend is one of the fastest growing areas in the country and the scenario will help prevent urban sprawl.
"What we're really supporting is growing up, not out," says Dewey. One reason for that is a desire to make housing more affordable for younger generations. Dewey notes that not everyone is attracted to a single-family home in the suburbs. The proposed Urban Growth Boundary plan would redevelop the area along Third Street, giving more people the opportunity to walk downtown.
Moey Newbold, COLW's office manager and public outreach coordinator says supporting upward growth doesn't mean everyone has to live in an apartment building.
"If we can just add a little bit more density inside the city this go around and the next go around, then we can protect the reasons that we all want to live here," she says.
Bend is also faced with expansion of the City to the west, which is causing the deer population to suffer.
"So we see deer a lot in town, but it doesn't necessarily mean that their population is doing really well; it means that we've built into their habitat and now they have to find somewhere else to go," Newbold says.
Because of the explosive growth—according to COLW the population has quadrupled in the last thirty years—the group is also constantly challenged with monitoring new development, and they don't mind being a thorn in the side of anyone who ignores land use rules.
"There have been a number of folks who have not been happy with us, and we're fighting a big development west of town where they will be building 50 units in the forest zone," Dewey explains. "We're just trying to get people to follow the rules, and a lot of developers appreciate that."
But it's not always easy, Dewey says, adding, "Developers who follow the rules often have higher cost than developers who don't."
In an effort to stop the City's proposed Tumalo/Bridge Creek Pipeline Project, Dewey says COLW's current work includes some unconventional alliances.
"We're working with some of the biggest developers in town . . . true fiscal conservatives," Dewey says. "We're also doing that over in the Ochocos—where there's a huge proposed off-highway vehicle plan—with the Oregon Hunter's Association. We are banding together to work on that."
Presently, Dewey says, the damming of the Upper Deschutes River is the cause of several environmental issues and COLW wants the free flowing river to be restored.
"There has been an annual fish kill for decades because the irrigation districts shut down the upper river to fill up the reservoirs," Dewey explains. "What happens then is that the water levels then drop precipitously, the fish and the riparian areas get hammered, and the bugs die."
Dewey says when the water is released from the reservoirs during the summer; the rushing water causes the riverbanks to erode.
"That's why the spotted frog is on the endangered species list. That's why Mirror Pond is filled with silt," he says. "And so the river is not healthy—it used to be one of the greatest fish-baring rivers in the world because of its steady flow, and now it's kind of a wasteland."
COLW is also keeping a close watch on irrigation practices. Dewey explains there are two types of irrigators: "Those who are really efficient, who are true farmers, and then there's this group of hobby farmers that waste water like it's going out of style."
Dewey says the issue is interesting because Bend doesn't have to choose between allotting water to the environment or allotting it to farms.
"Here there's actually enough water for both the river and the farmers if the farmers are efficient," he explains, "but there's no room for waste."
Although COLW faces more pressure as Bend continues to grow, Dewey has seen a change in opinion about protecting the area.
"I was meeting with someone the other day who was saying her husband is very much pro development, and he said to her, 'You know, I think we're crossing the line in Bend,'" Dewey says. "So even conservative property rights' people are feeling like the quality of life in Bend is being threatened."
Newbold adds that land use rules are in place for a good reason.
"I think once people realize that Oregon is the way it is because of our land use system, then for the most part they appreciate it," she says.
Dewey says plenty of people like to avoid conflict, but he isn't worried about people not liking COLW.
"We don't go out to antagonize anyone," he explains, "but sometimes you have to say no."
Because of their successful litigation and lobbying efforts, Dewey says COLW functions as law enforcers. The group's ongoing environmental efforts prove they aren't willing to back down.
"We're risking killing the goose that lays the golden egg and there has to be limits," Dewey says. "And that's going to be the biggest challenge in the coming years."