Two miles north of the City of La Grande, Oregon is a popular destination for local community members and visiting tourists. Overlooking the Grande Ronde Valley agriculture land to the east, the 3,669 acre Mount Emily Recreation Area (MERA) provides visitors with an array of options for recreational activities.
With significant community support, Union County bought the property in 2008 from a private forest investment company that was in the process of divesting. As the property had historically been used for public recreation, there were concerns that the property would be subdivided and converted to residential development, and public access would be lost.
Ecological and Economic Need
The Mount Emily Recreation Area offers some of the best timber producing soils in Union County making it an important property to keep in active management for the local timber industry. As the property is adjacent to the Wallowa Whitman National forest, maintaining sustainable forest management prevented a loss of wildlife habitat and forest connectivity. Many species of wildlife inhabit the area, including deer, elk, black bears, and over 270 identified species of birds, including 15 species not commonly found anywhere else in Oregon.
The county negotiated a reduced purchase price based on rights for the investment company to harvest a portion of the timber value. While harvests were underway through 2013, the county worked with local and state foresters to develop a plan for sustainable management of the land. This plan would create improved timber production, reduced wildfire risk, invasive weed control, water quality management and an option for a grazing lease.
The property is open year-round for activities in every season, including hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing. MERA also draws visitors to its motorized vehicle trails and a statewide archery tournament. The county also welcomes educational opportunities for groups that are interested in organizing their own tours.
This Project is Replicable
Many counties across the West have the potential to become long-term stewards and managers of forests and rangelands within their borders. However, counties struggle with budget constraints, lack of staff experience with negotiating the purchase of forest land and little or no access to necessary financial resources. Union County’s management of the Mt. Emily Recreation Area serves as an example of how a county can protect its important natural resources and keep forests working for generations to come.