American chestnut tree putting down new roots

Creating a blight resistant strain is the goal of conservationists

By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff
March 24, 2008

GUILFORD — Walk around the forests and parks of Connecticut, and you won’t see many American chestnut trees stretching into the canopy.

One hundred years ago, blight killed as many as 4 billion of the trees, which were once common from New England to western Tennessee.

The blight, a fungus that was imported to the U.S. on Asian trees, all but wiped out the American chestnut in the early 20th century.

Now, Guilford’s Conservation Commission, along with the Connecticut Chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation, is working to establish a blight-resistant chestnut tree in a 1½-acre orchard in the town’s Nut Plains Park.

The commission is planning to spend two Saturdays in April building a fence to protect the trees from deer, and another Saturday in May planting the first 100 nuts. There is also a kickoff event March 29 at 10 a.m. at the Nathanael B. Greene Community Center to introduce the project to town residents.

Last year, volunteers planted about 20 trees as a test orchard, which proved successful. Eventually, they may sow 400 to 500 of the blight-resistant nuts in the area.

“There were billions of trees, billions of chestnut trees in the Eastern states in the 1800s,” said Jennifer Allcock, a member of the Conservation Commission and orchard manager for the tree project. “They were a primary source of food, both for animals and for people, and the chestnut wood is one of the hardest, most durable that was available.”

Since 1983, the American Chestnut Foundation has been working to establish a species of blight-resistant chestnuts by crossbreeding American trees with Chinese chestnuts, which are naturally resistant. The nuts that will be planted in Guilford are a result of that process, with about 94 percent American genes.

The goal is to produce trees that look like American chestnuts — tall and straight, with hard, lightweight wood — but “breed true” for blight resistance, meaning that future generations of chestnuts will also carry the resistant gene. Bill Adamsen, the president of the Chestnut Foundation’s Connecticut chapter, said that some American chestnuts can still be found in the Eastern United States, although most of them eventually develop blight.

Adamsen said the strong, rot-resistant chestnut wood was important for early colonists, who used it to build barns, houses and bridges.

“This is a tree that we allowed to be killed essentially by inadvertently importing a pathogen, and I think there’s a certain cultural and even a spiritual aspect about trying to restore something that we have damaged,” he said.

To create a blight-resistant American chestnut tree, scientists at the foundation’s research farms first cross-bred native trees with Chinese ones, creating a plant that had half of each tree’s genes. They then continued to breed the resulting trees with American chestnuts, arriving four generations later at a tree that is about one-sixteenth Chinese.

Volunteers in Guilford are planning to plant about 100 of those nuts in the orchard this spring. Leila Pinchot, New England regional science coordinator for the American Chestnut Foundation, said that not all of the fourth-generation trees will be resistant to the blight. The ones that are resistant will be allowed to cross-pollinate, and by the sixth generation most of the trees should be highly resistant.

After the trees have matured — which takes four to seven years — they will be exposed to the blight to test for resistance. Adamsen said the group expects that one out of every eight trees will be resistant to the blight.

The blight, which kills the trees’ tissues and blocks the flow of nutrients, does not kill the underlying roots, Pinchot said. That means that many tree stumps sprout new saplings, but they may not grow old enough to flower, which is necessary for the pollination process.

“There’s probably millions of chestnuts in Connecticut, but most of them are pretty scraggly,” said Pinchot, a Guilford native. “They’re pretty much all going to eventually succumb to the blight — it’s a matter of time.”

Nuts from one of the trees the American Chestnut Foundation used in the breeding process come from a hybrid that a Yale professor, Arthur Graves, established in Hamden in the 1930s, Pinchot said.

“Connecticut actually has a really long history with chestnut restoration,” she said. “It’s better to have Connecticut genes in our trees.”

Guilford’s will be the fifth American chestnut orchard in Connecticut. In Woodbridge, volunteers planted 168 nuts two years ago and more last year. Some of the trees there are now 4 feet tall.

Orchard officials in Woodbridge are planning another planting of 170 nuts this spring. Each round of planting uses nuts bred from a different “mother tree,” Pinchot said, so that this will be the third line of chestnuts in the Woodbridge orchard.

Allcock said the Guilford program is costing about $8,000, most of which will go toward paying for the 1,200-foot deer fence. The money comes from the American Chestnut Foundation, the town of Guilford, and the Guilford Foundation, which funds community programs.

The Conservation Commission is looking for volunteers to help put up the fence and sow the first chestnuts. They are planning to work on the fence on April 19 and 26, and plant on May 3.

“The deer fence … needs to be put up around the orchard before we start,” Allcock said. “That is expected to help us manage the orchard for the first two years — after that the trees know what to do.”

For more information on the project, visit the Web site of the American Chestnut Foundation’s Connecticut chapter at


Guilford police moms find right balance between babies, bandits

By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff

Feb. 25, 2008

GUILFORD — For police Officers Martina Jakober and Joanne Shove, there are certain challenges to being both cops and mothers with new babies at home.

Jakober decided to take an extra three months of unpaid maternity leave because, for one, she found that breast-feeding was not entirely compatible with law enforcement.

“It makes it very difficult to be wearing the bulletproof vest,” she said. “In police work you can’t just say, ‘I’m sorry, I know you’re under arrest, I’ve got to head back to the station and pump.’ ”

And after being out of the office for six months and off the road for about a year, she felt like she had a case of “baby brain”: “I had a difficult time the first week getting my bearings — trying to get my brain back into the laws and statutes and uses of force.”

In most small-town police departments, female officers are still something of an anomaly: about 6 percent of the officers in departments that serve a population under 25,000 are women, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Guilford, with a population of about 22,000, has four women on its 38-person police force, or about 10.5 percent of the department. Jakober, who is 31, was the first officer in the history of the department to take maternity leave, with Shove, 35, following soon after her.

Jakober’s son Mason was born on Aug. 3, and she resumed full-time duty at the beginning of this month. Shove is still at home with her daughter, Julia, who was born Jan. 23. She plans to return to work on April 17.

Both officers said they had strong support from the Police Department during their pregnancies and leave. A few months into the pregnancy, each woman moved to inside duty, handling reports and meeting with people in the police station. After taking three months off — which included two months paid — Jakober requested an additional three months of unpaid leave to stay home with Mason and her older son, McKael, 5.

Shove called Guilford’s police officials “phenomenal” in their response to her pregnancy.

“They were so accommodating, and it was like, ‘What hours do you want to work and what days do you want off?’ ” she said. “It took any of that added stress away and it helped me have a healthy pregnancy.”

Having worked in Guilford for about six years, Shove said she has found the department accepting of female officers. Before joining the force, she was a nursery-school teacher in Westport. Some of the male officers “tease you here and there,” she said, but the department is “pretty diverse, which is good.”

“I really see there’s a need to have women on this job,” she said. “I think we approach situations very differently than men do. I think sometimes our presence on a scene can kind of de-escalate the situation.”

Jakober said she decided she wanted to be a police officer when she was 8 years old. She started her career in the police department in Tucson, Ariz. With a force of 1,700 people, it was a very different experience from working in Guilford.

When Jakober became pregnant with McKael, she was working as an undercover narcotics officer in Tucson. The department had a light-duty maternity policy in place, so she transitioned out of the narcotics work early in her pregnancy.

After moving back to Connecticut to be closer to family, Jakober said she would have liked to have another baby sooner, but waited because Guilford did not have a policy set up for light duty during pregnancy.

Chief Thomas Terribile said the Police Commission passed a maternity policy a few years ago.

Jakober said that having two officers on leave or light duty puts a strain on the department, but there are often people out with injuries or illnesses.

“In my opinion, law enforcement is still kind of a man’s world and it’s still unusual to see (female officers),” she said. “It’s still unusual, I think, for a woman to have a family and be in law enforcement period, so the actual having a baby and the two of us at the same time have a baby, I think it was a shock for the department.”

Terribile said that in many cases the department tries to make accommodations for people to balance family and career, whether for male or female officers. He added that no one has taken extended paternity leave in the past.

“In today’s environment the wife works and so does the husband, so we’re always juggling that around,” he said. “I don’t know how they juggle it. I was lucky — my wife was a stay-at-home mom.”

Shove and Jakober used a combination of sick days and vacation to take some paid time off, as well as unpaid days. The federal Family and Medical Leave Act guarantees workers 12 weeks of unpaid leave after the birth of a baby.

Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., was the author of the act, which was enacted 15 years ago, and now is working to expand it to include eight weeks of paid leave. The legislation would cover paid leave for both parents for a birth or the arrival of an adopted child, as well as time for people to take care of themselves or sick relatives.

Jakober’s and Shove’s husbands also work in emergency services. Scott Jakober is a police officer in Clinton, and Mike Shove is a captain in Guilford’s fire department.

Martina Jakober works 3-11 p.m. in Guilford, while her husband works from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., so they switch off with child care. They also have family nearby when there are any scheduling conflicts.

The Shoves said they will probably have Julia in a daycare two days a week. Mike Shove works 24-hour shifts at the firehouse followed by three days off duty.

“It’s easy right now because (Joanne’s) home, but when she goes back to work, it will definitely be a challenge trying to juggle schedules,” he said.

Both families said that they did not seriously consider having one parent stay home full-time, for a combination of financial and personal reasons.

“In this day and age, it’s a two-income world,” Joanne Shove said. “As wonderful as I think it would be to be home, I think you need something for yourself, too — something that’s you and you’re not just mom the whole time.”

Scott Jakober described his wife as very committed to both her family and her career.

“She’s a great mother — she really is very dedicated towards the kids and sacrifices for their best interest and really puts them first,” he said. “She’s a very aggressive, very dedicated police officer. She knows her job very well and is very good at it.”

With two police officers for parents, many might consider it a safe bet as to what the future holds for 5-year-old McKael and 6-month Mason. Indeed, when his mother recently asked him, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” McKael immediately responded, “A police officer.”

Handling of teacher, comic issue riles parents

Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff


GUILFORD — The parents of a freshman student whose teacher resigned after he gave her a sexually explicit illustrated book said Wednesday their daughter has been the target of harassment from fellow students, and they want the school district to do more to clarify the issue with other parents.

The girl’s father, who asked that his family remain anonymous because it has already been the target of criticism, described the graphic novel that English teacher Nate Fisher gave the student as “borderline pornography.”

The book, one of a series of comic book novels by Daniel Clowes, is called “Eightball #22.” It includes references to rape, various sex acts and murder, as well as images of a naked woman, and a peeping tom watching a woman in the shower.

“It’s not even like a gray area,” the father said. “It’s clearly over the line.”

He said Fisher gave the student the book almost three weeks ago to make up for a summer reading assignment. The book is not part of the school’s regular curriculum.

Her parents brought their concerns about the book to the high school and school district’s administration, and Fisher resigned Tuesday, a week after being placed on administrative leave.

Fisher, who had been a teacher at the high school for one year, could not be reached for comment.

Superintendent of Schools Thomas Forcella said the book was “inappropriate” for freshman students. The girl recently turned 14.

Forcella said that the school district’s investigation is closed now that Fisher has resigned. But the girl’s father rejected that explanation, calling the school’s acceptance of Fisher’s resignation a “cop out.”

“Now they don’t have to worry about it,” he said. “They can close the investigation, they’re done with the matter and now they’re out of a sticky situation.”

The student’s parents said they met with Forcella and other school officials on Monday and were told the district would send an e-mail to parents explaining that the girl was not at fault, which they had not received as of Wednesday afternoon. Forcella said the district is planning to e-mail a statement and post it on the school system’s main Web site.

“I’m extremely upset with the administration for not following through with their word of contacting the parents,” the father said. “It looks like we got some teacher fired (over) a Harry Potter novel or Catcher in the Rye.”

The girl’s mother said her daughter has been “crying every night” and asking not to go to school because students who liked the teacher are blaming her. The mother said that some students set up a group on Facebook, the social networking Web site, calling for Fisher to be reinstated and criticizing the student. The family called the police when, they said, a video was posted on the site with a picture of their daughter and a song with the lyrics “Don’t hesitate to exterminate.” The Facebook page has since been removed.

“He’s the cool, favorite teacher of all the kids,” the father said.

His wife said she became especially concerned when her daughter told her Fisher asked her “how the book made her feel,” although the mother added that she has no idea “what his intention was.”

“She was victimized by him to begin with and over and over again for 2½ weeks now,” she said. “We just feel like if people understand what he had given her, then they would understand that it’s not our daughter’s fault.”

“Eightball #22” features a number of intersecting stories told in comic book form. Charles Brownstein, executive director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund in New York City, said that Clowes is a well known graphic novelist. Clowes is also the author of the graphic novel “Ghost World,” which was adapted into a feature film in 2001.

“The book was basically a profile of a town and its various oddball personalities and it was drawn in a wide variety of illustrative styles to create a psychological portrait of the goings on in this town,” Brownstein said. “It certainly is not pornographic.”

He added: “Frankly, I find the fact that somebody has left their job over this particular work deeply troubling.”

Brownstein said he thinks the nature of graphic novels — which combine images and text — and the relative youth of the genre can lead to confusion.

“Somebody could do a superficial glance of the material and not put the contextual pieces together, thereby perhaps seeing a panel with violence, perhaps seeing a panel with nudity and taking the image out of context as something that it’s not,” he said. “The more people are educated about the category, the less those sorts of misunderstandings occur.”

Brownstein said his organization can provide assistance and representation for people involved in legal situations about comic books and graphic novels. The Guilford Police Department has said that it is investigating a complaint against Fisher.

Forcella said that, if Fisher applies for jobs in the future, the fact that he left Guilford High School at this point in the school year will be apparent on his application, and the circumstances of his resignation would come up if a school district called for references.

The girl’s parents differed on whether they think he should be able to teach again.

“The last thing I want to do is ruin somebody’s career who made a mistake, but he’s responsible for our daughter,” the mother said.

Her husband disagreed.

“I personally don’t ever want him teaching again,” he said. “There is nothing that he could say that would account for this. … That poor judgment is something you can’t take back.”

High Desert teems with fossils

Area’s fertile ground has recently yielded important relics from the dinosaur age

By Rachael Scarborough King / The Bulletin
Published: April 22. 2007 5:00AM PST

MITCHELL – Digging her toes into the steep, slippery side of a sagebrush- and wildflower-covered hill, Ellen Morris Bishop peered at a stream of loose rocks.

Picking up a yellowish, dictionary-sized rock, she displayed the streaky imprint of a 40-million-year-old plant.

“Now here we have a fossil that you can actually see,” Bishop said, identifying it as a relative of the horsetail rush. “Isn’t that cool? If you’re looking for fossils, you don’t have to show up and start hammering away at things – if you just spend some time looking at the outcrops, you can find things like this.”

Bishop, a geologist and director of the Oregon Paleo Lands Institute in Fossil, said the spot northwest of Mitchell along the banks of Cherry Creek in Jefferson County is a former marshland that now has many plant fossils.

A few miles away, where red-brown cliffs surge from the John Day River, the area’s transition over hundreds of millions of years from a marine environment to a tropical volcanic zone to today’s desert is perceptible in the landscape’s colored stripes of rocks. For scientists and amateur paleontologists, that diverse geologic history makes Central and Eastern Oregon an important site, where the most recent major find was a Jurassic-age crocodile in eastern Crook County.

Andrew Bland was visiting the county in late 2005 with the North America Research Group, a fossil enthusiasts’ group based in Beaverton, when he noticed some bone fragments poking out of the ground.

“We knew that other marine vertebrate fossils had been found in that area, so it’s something we keep an eye open (for) but never expect to find,” said Bland, who was the first to spot the Jurassic crocodile while looking for marine mollusks called ammonites.

“Initially I was excited that I had found some bone material … and luckily only a few feet up from where I found the initial material I saw some more bone sticking out.”

Bland is an amateur paleontologist who usually takes a trip a month with his group to look for fossils.

“It’s not like I imagined as a kid when you find fossils that you, like, split a rock open and there it is,” Bland said. “Over the next six months, I spent probably over 100 hours working under a microscope chipping away at the limestone to expose all the bone material.” From the rocky formations of Central Oregon’s High Desert, paleontologists, archaeologists and amateur fossil hunters have dug up prehistoric creatures like Bland’s Jurassic crocodile, a plesiosaur – a 25-foot-long marine reptile – and a pterosaur, a flying reptile with a 15-foot wingspan.

Amateur fossil collectors have made many of the most significant finds, which Bishop called “the coolest part about the plesiosaur and the crocodile.”

“Collecting fossils is a very Zen thing … you train your eye and you stay in a place for a very long time and, gradually, you begin to see little differences in the rocks,” she said. “If you find something that’s going to be a contribution to the knowledge of mankind, I think it’s part of your responsibility to help people understand what it is.”

The geology of the High Desert

The bands of volcanoes that blanketed Central Oregon with ash and lava between 40 and 50 million years ago left behind a rich swath of fossilized plant and animal remains, local scientists said.

“If you had to design something to preserve a fossil, there’s nothing better than volcanic ash – it’s like those Styrofoam popcorn things, it’s the perfect packing,” said William Orr, a retired geologist and director of the Thomas Condon State Museum of Fossils at the University of Oregon. “So the reason our fossil record is so good is because the volcanic record is complete.”

Many of the lava vents from those now-eroded volcanoes cooled into the jagged cliffs in areas of Jefferson and Wheeler counties. Orr described Central and Eastern Oregon – where the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is located – as “real dinosaur country, but they haven’t found dinosaurs yet.”

Some bones from a pterosaur were found in Crook County in the late 1800s, Orr said. Like the pterosaur, he added, the plesiosaur and Jurassic crocodile date from the age of dinosaurs, which lasted from 250 million years ago to 65 million years ago.

Although the crocodile skeleton was discovered in 2005, the University of Oregon didn’t announce the find until last month.

“It’s not a dinosaur, but it coexisted within the water when the dinosaurs were bopping around on land,” he said, adding that only one possible dinosaur skeleton has been found in Oregon. “I always thought in my heart, well, they’re here, we just haven’t looked for them.”

And while Central and Eastern Oregon have not produced a dinosaur, Bishop said, “we do have dinosaur relatives – we have lots of fearsome and toothed creatures that lived mostly in the seas.”

Piecing together the puzzle

Even before the volcanoes, in the Cretaceous Era 100 million years ago, much of the state of Oregon was under water. Meat-eating reptiles such as plesiosaurs, which may have looked a lot like the mythical Loch Ness monster, roamed the ocean.

Today, fossils like the plesiosaur and Jurassic crocodile discovered in the Crook County area in 2004 and 2005, respectively, help scientists paint a picture of what life was like hundreds of millions of years ago, said John Zancanella, a geologist and the paleontology program coordinator for the Bureau of Land Management in Oregon and Washington.

In both cases, hobbyists looking for fossilized sea shells found the bones and enlisted trained scientists to help with the analysis, Zancanella said. When amateur paleontologists, Mike Kelly and Greg Kovalchuk, found the remnants of the plesiosaur near Prineville in 2004, they contacted Zancanella.

“We find plesiosaurs in other parts of the country, but this was the first one found in the Northwest, so what it does is it adds another piece of the puzzle to our understanding of ancient times and ancient environments,” said Zancanella, who works in the BLM’s Prineville office. “The context is one of the most important things about any fossil that you find.”

The plesiosaur Kelly and Kovalchuk uncovered probably lived about 90 to 100 million years ago, and scientists think it had an alligator-like head with sharp teeth that it used to eat mostly fish.

The fossil, which included the teeth and 3-foot-long lower jaw of the animal, is now housed at the South Dakota Museum of Geo-logy.

“It had been 85 years since anyone had actually found a vertebrate specimen from this rock type,” Zancanella said. “So I was pretty excited about the find and very excited about the two individuals, who showed a lot of restraint and ethics and character to not rip this thing out of the ground.”

Unlike the plesiosaur, the thalattosuchia – or Jurassic-age crocodile – found in eastern Crook County in 2005 was not a native Oregonian.

The reptile probably lived in the tropical seas near south China about 150 to 180 million years ago, Orr said, and was about 6 to 8 feet long. It had a long, fishlike tail and needle teeth for eating fish and squid. When it died it became fossilized in the ocean floor and then drifted to North America through a process known as continental shift or plate tectonics.

“The stuff from, let’s say, 30 million years ago – that’s the John Day formation – that’s all local, that’s homegrown, but the older stuff … was all produced somewhere else and imported here and stuck on,” Orr said. “Crook County has this great diversity of fossils because some of it came from as far away as China.”

A Jurassic crocodile is also an important find because crocodiles’ basic physiological structure has not changed drastically even over such a long time period, Orr said. He is currently analyzing the fossil, which will be sent to the University of Iowa for further research and eventually displayed at the Rice Northwest Museum of Rocks and Minerals in Hillsboro.

“If we ever get to the bottom of what knocked off the dinosaurs, it will not be looking at dinosaurs because the dinosaurs were what I call the losers – it will be through looking at crocodiles or turtles,” he said. “One of those two creatures has the answer to one of the biggest crises in the history of life.”

‘An addictive hobby’

While the dramatic geology of Crook County and surrounding areas has led to some important finds for scientific research, it also offers smaller scale thrills for the amateur fossil hunter.

“I was probably interested in dinosaurs as a kid, but I really didn’t realize that even though Oregon doesn’t have dinosaurs, there’s some very exciting things that could be found by everyone,” said Bland, who found the Jurassic crocodile bones. “You could probably find a fossil in every county of Oregon, and for me as a kid that would have been great to have that information.”

He said that the four-year-old North America Research Group has about 60 members who take monthly trips to look for fossils in different parts of Oregon and Washington. A software quality engineer from Vancouver, Wash., Bland said fossil hunting is “just an addictive hobby I’ve picked up.”

Because Bland and the other members of the group found the bones on private property, they were able to remove them with the permission of the owner. He then worked with Orr, at the University of Oregon, and other scientists to identify the creature.

Usually, when the group goes fossil hunting, Bland said, they look for previously unknown species of invertebrates that may have scientific value. He described the crocodile as the most “sexy” fossil the group has found so far, but added that they have donated many others to Hillsboro’s Rice Museum.

“Most of Oregon throughout history, up until the end of the Cretaceous, was a marine environment and in a marine environment you get a lot of sedimentation, and that’s primarily where you find fossils,” he said. “In Central Oregon because it’s high desert, there’s a lot of exposure. You’re more apt to find fossils there than, say, in the Willamette Valley where you have a lot of vegetation and overgrowth.”

But, he added, people often “spend a lot of time looking and finding nothing.” He doesn’t have a particular method for finding fossils, other than reading up beforehand on the area’s geology and then trying to scout the ground as thoroughly as possible.

“If you’re in an area that’s fossiliferous, you usually either find them or you don’t,” he said. “They’re usually obvious, or you’re not finding anything.”

Judy Elkins, the owner of Elkins Gem Stones in Prineville, said she often directs tourists to interesting fossil areas in Crook County.

“People have a much better chance of finding something if they know what they’re looking for,” Elkins said.

Zancanella, of the BLM, said collecting fossils on private land is legal, as long as the owner is aware. On federal lands there are limits on the amount of invertebrate and botanical fossils people can collect, and removing vertebrates is not allowed.

“When you think about life on Earth generally, the invertebrates and the plants make up the bulk of life, so those fossils tend to be more common, and the vertebrates make up a very small percentage of life on Earth, so they tend to be more rare,” he said.

Educational tourism

In the aptly named town of Fossil, about two hours northeast of Prineville, the two-year-old Oregon Paleo Lands Institute is working to expose tourists and locals alike to Central Oregon’s unique geology.

Bishop, the institute’s director, described its mission as “educational tourism.” Programs often combine artistic activities with outdoor trips to learn about the environment.

“The idea is basically to connect people with the landscape, sort of past, present and future, and think about our impact on these landscapes and understand how to become stewards,” she said.

She added that the layers of rocks in Central and Eastern Oregon can help geologists understand more about past cycles of climate change and extinction.

“To me, the lessons of the past are something that, just like in human history we need to look back at the lessons we learned in the past and apply those to today. We also need to take the lessons we learned from past ecosystems and apply those to today,” she said.

Sites like the Painted Hills in Wheeler County demonstrate the changing environment, Bishop said, as the bands of tropical red soil merge into yellow dirt that demonstrates a more temperate climate.

Zancanella agreed that the area’s rock formations are important for climate change scientists.

“This is one of the few places in the world where you can get rocks that represent 40 million years of continuous sequence exposed in the same place,” he said.

That unique geology benefits both scientists and amateurs. Judy Elkins, whose father opened Prineville’s Elkins Gem Stones in 1958, said she doesn’t find much time for rock hunting anymore, but still has exciting moments.

“It’s a real thrill to find a leaf (fossil) – I was up there one time with some friends, and we pulled a piece of rock off and it opened up and there it was,” she said. “My friend says, ‘Oh, the last time this leaf was in the sunlight was 40 million years ago,’ and it kind of hit me right then how remarkable it was. That was kind of a moment of revelation for me, despite having been in this business since I was a small child.”

Forgoing higher learning

Crook County wants to see more high school students go to college

By Rachael Scarborough King / The Bulletin
Published: February 08. 2007 5:00AM PST

PRINEVILLE – Crook County High School senior Jimmy Thommason thinks it’s important for his classmates to continue their education past the 12th grade.

But Jimmy, who is 18, is not planning to go straight to college or trade school. He is going into the Air Force, he said, because he wants to join the military and take time to figure out what he wants to do long term.

“I just don’t have a desire (to go to college), I guess,” he said. “I didn’t want to study something and then find out that I hated it.”

Historically, Crook County has had low rates of high school graduates going on to attend a college or university, with less than a third of the class continuing school. Now, school administrators are trying to instill the attitude that every student needs to plan on some postsecondary education – whether it be community college, vocational training, the military or a four-year university.

“We’re currently doing our best to let every kid know that they need to plan on getting more education beyond high school – we’re making it a focus,” Crook County High School Principal Jim Golden said.

“We’re making it basically a standard repertoire that we’re talking to kids about what are you going to do beyond high school.”

Several students interviewed this week said they are getting that message, and they agree that further education is necessary in today’s job market. But several also said they are not planning to attend college immediately after high school.

A changing economic structure

Out of the class of 2006, about 16 percent of students went on to two-year colleges and 16 percent went to four-year colleges, out of a class of about 200, guidance counselor Jvon Danforth said. One student went to Harvard University. And Golden said last year was an average year for college attendance.

By comparison, about 45 percent of Madras High School’s class of 2006 said they planned to go to college at the time of graduation, said Cindy Harris, executive assistant for the Jefferson County School District. In the Bend-La Pine Schools, about 75 percent of students on average continue their education past high school each year.

Part of the explanation for Crook’s lower numbers may come from the county’s traditional job base in the manufacturing and timber industries, several administrators said.

The last of Crook County’s five timber mills closed in 2001, although some have since converted to making secondary wood products. Prineville’s other defining industry, Les Schwab Tire Centers, announced in December that it will move its corporate headquarters to Bend.

“For many years you could leave school and work in the woods as a timber faller or work in the mills and really earn a pretty good family-wage job without needing higher education,” Crook County schools Superintendent Steve Swisher said. “But those lower-skill, high-wage jobs have disappeared in our economy.”

Several students said that the increasing cost of a college education is a deterrent for many people.

“I know a lot of people that they just don’t want to (go to college) because it’s kind of expensive and a lot of people here come from low-income families, and it’s just not stressed a lot in families,” Jimmy said.

Most of the Crook County students who attend college go into the Oregon University System, Golden said. Tuition and fees for the 2006-07 school year for Oregon residents attending Oregon State University are about $3,200 a year, up 4 percent from the 2005-06 year, according to the OUS Web site. Eastern Oregon University costs about $3,000 a year, an increase of 10 percent over last year, and the University of Oregon is up 5 percent to about $3,150 a year.

David Schass, a senior, said that he intends to work during college to help pay for tuition. He plans to attend Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz.

“One of the biggest concerns on my mind is how am I going to be able to get through four years without going into $200,000 in debt,” David, 18, said.

Making college a reality

Golden said the school is taking a number of steps to put college attendance within reach for all students. Students can earn college credit through courses offered at the school in partnership with Central Oregon Community College, a program available at several Central Oregon high schools.

Administrators are giving students more one-on-one time with teachers through a daily class called Student Connections, which started last fall. The goal of the class is to provide an environment where teachers can “mentor, monitor and motivate” students, Golden said.

He added that he would like to eventually see 70 percent of Crook County High School’s graduates go on to college.

“What the community college is trying to do is … kind of build that momentum so kids can visualize and see, ‘I’ve already got 18 credits, I should go to college; I’m almost through my first year – it’s not impossible,'” he said.

Vicki Crawford, a senior, said that teachers are also stressing the importance of college.

“A lot of our active teachers who really want us to succeed, they stress how important it is for us to get some or of education after high school,” Vicki, 17, said.

Freshman Arick Morrell said he has already planned out his four years in high school to prepare for college. Arick, 14, said he hopes to go into medicine.

“I’m taking all the advanced classes I can and I’m going to have all my credits done by my junior year, and then I’ll start taking college classes by my senior year instead of not doing anything senior year,” Arick said.

He added that many students seem to “screw off senior year, which is not real smart, I don’t think.”

Swisher, the superintendent, said that the school district is starting a program in the spring to allow all students to take the ACT, a college entrance exam, for free. The school is emphasizing the ACT because it provides more data about students than the SAT.

Swisher added that, as the first person in his family to go to college, he has a special interest in raising the high school’s college attendance rates.

“I was one of those myself in my family, personally, so I have a little bit of heart of that in terms of just making sure our kids have the opportunity to do this,” he said.

Several students praised efforts to raise awareness among freshmen and sophomores about the college entrance exams and federal financial aid forms. But they added that they do not think the Student Connections class always achieves its goal of engaging students with a mentor. Some called it “pointless” and described it as mostly a study hall.

The emphasis on the importance of postsecondary education seems to be getting through to many students, although data on the class of 2007 will not be available until after graduation.

“I don’t know that many seniors that aren’t going to college,” Jimmy said. “There’s maybe 15 or 20 that aren’t trying to go.”

After two weeks, Prineville job cuts still spur debate

By Rachael Scarborough King / The Bulletin

Published: February 06. 2007 5:00AM PST

PRINEVILLE – More than two weeks after Prineville city officials eliminated the public works director’s job, residents, City Council members and public employees are still mired in debate over the decision.

Hundreds of residents have signed petitions calling for Mayor Mike Wendel to resign. Others are criticizing Assistant City Manager Jerry Gillham, who originally suggested removing Public Works Director Jim Mole.

The controversy has also led the City Council to examine its role in overseeing City Manager Robb Corbett, who has the power to hire and fire city employees without council approval, according to the city charter. Councilors say they want to examine the decisions to release Mole as well as hire Gillham, who has overseen similar efforts to restructure city administrations as manager of other Oregon towns.

“I understand what the public wants, and they want an explanation of what happened, and the city owes them a better explanation of what occurred, and they’ll get that at the council meeting (on Feb. 13),” Corbett said.

Gillham began working in Prineville in September. Five months later, he asked Mole, a nearly four-year city employee, to leave. Both men said that Gillham told Mole of the decision on the afternoon of Thursday, Jan. 18. Mole said he was told to be out of his office by Friday afternoon; Gillham said he does not remember the particulars of the meeting.

Corbett said the decision involving Mole stems from a general restructuring of city government that will put the assistant city manager in charge of the Planning and Public Works departments. Corbett said that Gillham brought the idea of eliminating Mole’s job to him but added that the decision was ultimately his.

Gillham is leaving in the next few days for six weeks of training as a member of the Oregon National Guard. Corbett said that hiring Gillham, who makes about $87,000 a year, as assistant city manager was a key element in reorganizing city departments and bringing professional staff to Prineville.

At the council’s Jan. 23 meeting, which attracted more than 100 people, all of the City Council members other than Wendel said they were not aware in advance of the decision to restructure the public works department.

“I’ve had a lot of concern of how this has unfolded,” City Councilor Gordon Gillespie said after the meeting. “I wish we’d had more information ahead of time; I wish the city’s plans on restructuring of the staff had been discussed more beforehand with both the City Council and the staff.”

A restructuring move

Corbett said that the decision to restructure city government was based on the “explosive growth” that officials are anticipating for Prineville in the next few years.

“What the city lacked was the professional capabilities of coordinating the planning effort with the development needs of the community,” Corbett said. “It’s happening at such a massive scale that it was important for me to have someone of Jerry (Gillham)’s professional capabilities.”

Corbett added, “I’m not going to compare him to Jim (Mole),” and he described the decision to eliminate Mole’s position as “purely a restructuring decision.” He said he did not want to discuss the specifics of Mole’s job performance.

Regarding the decision with Mole, Gillham said, “I work for the city manager and was doing my job.”

Mole said that some of the major projects he worked on as public works director included replacing the Main Street and Harwood Street bridges and installing the 10th Street sewer line. He was also working on the Crooked River Bridge project, which is still under construction. The projects cost between $1.5 million and $3.7 million each, and the three that have been completed all came in on budget, he said.

Mole said he is still “in shock” over the turn of events. He served as public works director for about three years, and his ending salary was about $67,000 a year.

“I don’t know why I was let go – I was given no warning or anything,” he said.

Many residents attending the last City Council meeting said they thought Mole did an excellent job.

“We had the best city crew here in Central Oregon,” said Tim Carter, who described himself as a local contractor. “We are concerned why someone who comes here, gets things done, why they would be let go.”

Mole said he did not know of any personal conflicts with Gillham. Samantha Waltjen, the administrative assistant for the Public Works Department whose position was eliminated at the same time as Mole’s, said she and Mole had taken a different stance than Gillham over issues such as putting certain projects out to bid and having the City Council approve some expenditures.

Gillham said he did not recall a dispute over those issues.

Both Mole and Waltjen were offered severance packages of three months’ salary, they and Corbett said. Waltjen was also given the option of taking a to-be-created administrative position in City Hall, but she took the severance package.

“Everyone that I’ve talked to has told me that public works in the city has gotten just better and better over the last four years,” said Waltjen, who worked for the city for about six months.

Questions of legality

According to Prineville’s city charter, the city manager is responsible for the administrative branch of the city. The City Council hires and fires the city manager, but the city manager makes hiring and firing decisions for all other employees or delegates those decisions to a subordinate.

Most of the people who work for the city are “at will” employees, meaning they can be terminated at any time and for any reason, City Attorney Carl Dutli said. The city does not currently have any ordinances or sections of the city charter that would place restrictions on the hiring or firing of an employee like Mole, a department head who did not have an individual contract and was not a member of a union with a collective bargaining agreement.

Mayor Mike Wendel said last week he is “looking forward to communicating with (Corbett) and strengthening our ties and our communication.” He added that he wants the City Council to look more closely at its personnel rules and ordinances.

“I am planning on making some suggestions to the City Council on modifications of some of our policies to alleviate some of the issues that we’ve had in the past,” Wendel said.

Some of the people in attendance at the council meeting also raised questions about the way Gillham was hired. Corbett said last week that he did not advertise for the position.

Although a salary for an assistant city manager was not brought before the City Council in the last budget cycle, Corbett said that Gillham’s pay comes out of the city manager’s budget. Specifically, the money comes from a salary that was set aside for a planning director, a position that was unfilled after Mike Cerbone left the job in February 2005, and pay for consultants in the Planning or Public Works departments.

Corbett said that he had known Gillham professionally for several years and would sometimes call him for advice on city management decisions. Gillham has served as city manager in Madras, Baker City, Scappoose and Nyssa.

“I wanted to go out and find somebody that had the appropriate professional, managerial and organizational skills to put together a team to respond to growth,” Corbett said. “I called Jerry hoping that he might know somebody that had those skills, and as I described those to him, he indicated to me that he was interested in coming and doing that work.”

Dutli said he has consulted another labor attorney who sometimes works as a consultant for the city, and he believes that Gillham was hired legally.

Harry McFarland, a local resident who attended the Jan. 23 council meeting, described the roles Corbett and Gillham played in the restructuring and their lack of communication with the City Council as “cronyism.”

“At that meeting that night it came out that the council didn’t have any control over what the city manager was doing, and I think that’s 100 percent wrong,” said McFarland, who added that he knows Mole socially.

Several businesses in Prineville are also collecting signatures on a petition asking Wendel to resign. The petition calls Wendel’s failure to inform the other City Council members about the public works restructuring “unconscionable.”

Don Porfily, manager of Ochoco Feed Co., said the petition in his store already has more than 250 signatures. The organizers are planning to present the petition to the City Council on Feb. 13.

In response, Wendel said he is “upset,” but added that he “would hope that everybody would understand both sides of the story before they sign a petition.”

Even if the procedure for hiring Gillham was strictly legal, City Councilor Betty Roppe said she thinks the council should have had more communication with Corbett during the process.

“It is his job to do the hiring, and I don’t want to micromanage his position,” Roppe said. “I just would have liked to have had more information.”

Professional history

Gillham has held several city manager jobs in the past decade. He also served a tour of duty in Iraq between September 2004 and December 2005 as a National Guardsman and served as city manager in Nyssa from 1990 to 1991.

He left Baker City, where he had worked since 2003, in September to become assistant city manager in Prineville. He was in Scappoose between 1999 and 2003, and was Madras’ city manager from 1997 to 1999.

Several of the mayors and council members he worked with in the past described him as an energetic and capable administrator.

“He had a really good relationship for most of the time at the city,” said Scappoose Mayor Scott Burge, who was on the Scappoose City Council at the time. “The city really didn’t have a lot of vision or goals, but he was able to bring that together, put it into a business plan and get the city going in the right direction.”

But Burge said that Gillham’s efforts to restructure the city government in Scappoose created some resentment among employees who were let go at the time. The former police chief has sued the city over her termination while Gillham was city manager, Burge said.

Jeff Petry, the mayor of Baker City, described Gillham as “a good city manager” but said he upset some people with decisions he made there.

“Every city manager is going to have a bullet on his back, a nice big target,” he said.

Dick Fleming, a former public works director in Baker City, said that four months after Gillham became city manager there, he asked for Fleming’s resignation and told him he should be out of his office by that afternoon, early in April 2004.

“He asks for my resignation, which was his legal right, without ever any explanation of why he was asking for it, what problems he had or anything,” Fleming said. “It’s entirely possible that he could just tell that I didn’t think much of his management style.”

Fleming said he had worked for the city for almost four years when Gillham asked him to resign. After Gillham left, Fleming applied for the city manager job but did not receive it. He is still city engineer, a job he said takes a few hours a month, and is starting a learning center.

Gillham said he cannot comment on specific personnel issues.

He is also a defendant in a lawsuit stemming from his time in Baker City over a dispute involving a historic theater. He said he was not directly involved in the situation. The suit states that Gillham’s arrival as city manager led to a dispute over renovations to the theater, and that Gillham ordered Baker City’s building official to post signs on the theater declaring it unsafe for occupancy.

Corbett said that since Gillham arrived in Prineville, Mole’s job responsibilities steadily diminished to the point that “the job was reduced to more of a manager’s role than a director’s role.”

The city did not offer Mole the option of moving into the job that is now described as “lead supervisor” for the Public Works Department.

“We would never expect him to take that because of his skills and his background,” Corbett said. “He’s going to go out and be able to find a competitive or a better-paying job than he has with the city.”

Now, Corbett said, he is assessing whether the roughly 10 remaining employees in the Public Works Department will be able to work with Gillham in the future. While Gillham is in National Guard training in South Carolina, a city engineer, Mike Wilson, will act as a liaison between the Public Works Department and the city manager.

Several city employees in public works and other departments said they do not want to comment on the situation right now.

Corbett said that many of the people working in City Hall are still upset about the decision to eliminate Mole’s position. He added that the change “came as a shock” for many employees.

“I just trust where people are at the point that they’re getting to walk out that they would come and talk to me, and I think that I would expect there to be people that are upset and I understand that,” he said.

Gillham said that he had not expected the public reaction that the restructuring decision has engendered.

“As city manager you have to make tough decisions,” he said. “There’s always going to be some people who either personalize or may not like your decision, and when you think you’re doing what’s best for the city that’s what’s going to happen.”

Mole said that he is still assessing his next steps, but he would be happy to return to his old job.

“I would be more than glad to take my job back because that’s only in the best interest of the community,” he said. “I like my job; I like being involved with the public works and just, you know, interfacing with the public and everything like that.”

Food bank in Prineville doing more as need rises

By Rachael Scarborough King / The Bulletin

Published: January 19. 2007 5:00AM PST

PRINEVILLE – A few minutes after the doors to the St. Vincent de Paul Society’s food bank in Prineville opened at 2 p.m. Thursday afternoon, its long, narrow waiting room was full.

Two-year-old Koda Lostroh’s voice stood out among the mostly silent clients. An alert boy, with rich-brown eyes, Koda read a Winnie the Pooh book with his father while they waited to be called.

“Rabbit! A donkey,” Koda said pointing at the pictures, to his father’s encouraging replies of “Good!”

The Lostrohs were just one of about 50 families that walked through the door of Crook County’s St. Vincent de Paul on Thursday. The food bank and emergency aid service center has seen such an increase in clientele in the last year that it recently doubled its hours, from two days a week to four.

Larry Lostroh, Koda’s father, said he has used the St. Vincent de Paul food bank several times in the past, “just when we need to.” His wife works and he is looking for a job, he said. They have two other children, a 10-year-old son and a 5-year-old daughter.

“I like it here – without it I’d have to go to Redmond or something and I don’t want to go out of town,” Lostroh said. “Everything goes up in the cold (weather) and then your electricity bill goes up.”

St. Vincent de Paul is the main food bank for Crook County, although some other organizations have smaller food pantries or soup kitchens. In addition to food boxes, the society provides rental and utility assistance for needy families.

Marcella Edmonds, the president of the society in Prineville, said St. Vincent de Paul served about 9,500 people in 2005. In 2006 that number was up to 11,000, and right now it is helping about 300 people a week.

“Our volunteers were overwhelmed with over 180 people coming through in a three-hour slot, so we’ve chosen to spread it out over the week,” Edmonds said.

Edmonds said many people in Crook County assume the area does not have much homelessness.

“I’ve heard from our population that we don’t have cardboard cities under the bridge, so we don’t have a homeless problem. That’s wrong,” she said.

Edmonds said she counted 78 families out of the clients St. Vincent de Paul has seen since November who are living in unstable conditions. That could include living with friends or family, or living in an RV or car.

Susan Maxwell, the lead interviewer at Prineville’s St. Vincent de Paul, said that many of the agency’s clients fall under the “working poor” category, people who have full-time jobs but still can’t make ends meet. At this time of year, she also sees many seasonal laborers who are currently out of work come in for assistance.

The rise in clients at St. Vincent de Paul may be related to rising cost of living and housing prices in Prineville, Edmonds said. The median cost of a house in Crook County went up 29 percent between 2005 and 2006, according to numbers from the Multiple Listing Service of Central Oregon. While rental numbers are less readily available, the cost of apartments rose only slightly between 2005 and 2006, according to the Central Oregon Rental Owners Association.

Edmonds said her agency is seeing about three to five requests per day for rental assistance. In order to qualify for that assistance, a family must already have an eviction notice.

Although funds are limited, the agency can give out about $50 per family for rent and utility bills. Volunteers first interview the client to determine need, make referrals to other agencies and conduct a home visit.

The Prineville branch of NeighborImpact, formerly known as COCAAN, also has limited amounts to give for housing assistance. Although there is no emergency shelter in Crook County, both agencies can provide vouchers for a one- or two-night motel stay. The Prineville Police Department also distributes money from The Salvation Army, which supplies $500 a month.

Police Chief Eric Bush said the department has not seen a big increase in people needing assistance beyond the rate of growth of the community.

“I think we’ve got a population of people who struggle to make ends meet and just barely make it from month to month, but we don’t see a lot of people who straight up have no home to go to,” Bush said.

Edmonds said that all the agencies work collaboratively to assist people in need of food, shelter and clothing.

“Say the bill is $400 behind, well that’s too much for any small agency to cover, so we divvy it up,” Edmonds said. “We want people to come in before they get to that point where the power is shut off. The same with eviction, once you break that relationship with your landlord, it’s hard to repair.”

January is usually the worst month for the agency, Edmonds said, because people are low on funds after the holidays and heating bills usually increase.

“We try to establish true need, versus turn of the year and somebody’s just asking for a handout,” she said. “Of course, the reality of it is most of the time it is true need.”