James Baker Interview

I just found out that James Baker passed yesterday. He was a good man I got to know while we lived on the McKenzie. I did an interview with him for one of the projects I was doing. I thought I’d share it. This was an extraordinary man.

The state of Oregon is known all over the world for its forests and trees. In fact half of our state is forest land and according to the Oregon Forest Resource Institute, 80 percent of that is classified as timberland. Very little of our forests are protected from timber harvesting. Oregon Wild states, “Only 4 percent of Oregon is protected wilderness, compared to 10 percent in Washington and 15 percent in California.” Jim Baker is a big reason that 4 percent is protected. He didn’t grow up thinking he would someday become a conservationist advocate, he kind of just stumbled in.

I drove up the hill to Jim’s house. As I pulled in I saw what you’d expect from a man who’s lived nearly 60 years on the McKenzie River. I parked next to the chainsaw wood sculpture of a dragon. I went and found Jim and loaded the gear in.

    We sat down at Jim’s kitchen table. He had coffee ready for us and as I sipped it, his cat jumped up in front of me and presented his neck for me to pet.

    “That’s Fuzzbutt. Yeah, Fuzz, you found a friend.” 

    I asked Jim when he moved to the McKenzie River Valley. 

    “We moved to Portland in 64’, Springfield in 66’ or 65’ rather, and in 67 we came up here and. And we bought 59 acres. A little later bought another acre.” 

    He told me his house had been moved up the hill when the highway was improved in 1940, but even improved, back then it was still a dirt road. 

    “They must have had it on pretty high dollies.” 

    Jim is known throughout the community for being a part of just about every organization on the river. Until recently he was on the executive board for the Community Track, the McKenzie River Clinic, the president McKenzie Community Development Corporation, and throughout his time here he was also the president of the McKenzie Guardians for decades, and on the board of the conservation group that is today Oregon Wild. 

    “I seem to have this thing for… I wonder what in the hell these people are up to now? The best way to find out is to go join them. Then you end up on the board.”

    The McKenzie Guardians were formed by several environmentally minded residents on the river. “My wife got involved with them first. Then she got me involved. Then we decided we couldn’t both go to the same thing because we had kids. And then I ended up president of the Guardians, and stayed there for ever and ever. McKenzie Guardians started up because the Forest Service put up a proposal to log Swamp Creek and we didn’t want that done. We ended up, uh, with our first three appeals with the Forest Service going all the way to the Secretary of Washington.”

    Jim is talking about the US Forest Service’s plans for a “sanitation-salvage type cut” in the Lower Swamp Creek area planned in July of 1969. The McKenzie Guardians disagreed that the cut should be done for the sake of cutting. They also disagreed on the vista cuts around Clear Lake, that is cutting the timber along the highway so the motorists can see Clear Lake as they drive by. When the decision was handed down, the fledgling group wasn’t able to read the legalese. “When we got the notice from Washington, we weren’t dead sure what it said. We went to the supervisor Zane Smith. He goes, ‘you won.’ Kicked it all back to Land Use Planning.” Jim laughed recalling that memory.

    The McKenzie Guardians, working with the Oregon Natural Resources Council which would later become Oregon Wild, took this early success to keep fighting and they made some pretty amazing changes. I asked Jim what he was most proud of. “One of the major things we were a big part of was changing the Forest Service’s directions. The agencies direction. The BLM too. Timber was king, getting out to cut. And Willamette was the highest cut in the nation at the time.” 

    That’s right, the McKenzie Guardians with Jim as president, and the Oregon Natural Resources Council with Jim on the executive board were a huge part of how the US Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management worked. “They essentially got all of them together in a meeting room and said we’re taking a 90 degree turn this way. This is how things are going to be and that’s it. They were still doing timber but it wasn’t as dominant as it was before.” 

I asked Jim if there was anything else he was proud of and he gave me a nonchalant answer. “We got one big wilderness bill.”

Jim’s talking about the Oregon Wilderness Act of 1979 which protected 2.9 million acres of wilderness land all over Oregon including 27,200 acres around Sisters. 

Jim and I spoke of the future of the McKenzie and the obstacles we’re having today. 

“You’re fighting many things. One is, a trip to town is not the big deal it was at one time. John Bigelow remembers when they had three-four thousand at Belknap on the Fourth of July. It was often a two day trip up there with horse and buggy. Now it’s, what? Forty minutes to Springfield. ”

Blue River at one point in its history, back in 1900, was the largest town in Lane County, but the gold mines dried up. The town filled up again during the time when the dams on the McKenzie were being built, and it sustained many families with timber dollars, but the town has shrunk and is just now going through a resurgence. Jim is optimistic of what is to come. “I think that Blue River, if they can get that sewer problem solved, it will be open to a lot of little craft stores and more grocery business and this sort of thing.”

Jim summed it up pretty well at the end of the interview. “People just plain want to live here.” 

Jim spent almost sixty years protecting the McKenzie River Valley. He’s stopped development from outside companies as well as some long time residents. He told me that we need affordable housing, we need some development, but the new building should be in areas that are designated for development. We don’t want any clear cutting, or new building on the river. “In the future we need to be careful with development. We really don’t want McDonald’s arches. I don’t have anything against a hamburger stand, but that type of development is not why people come to pay the guides to fish and stuff. What we want is folks to come from all over the world and go out with the guides and stay another day and play.”

By Sean Davis

Sean Davis is the author of The Wax Bullet War, a Purple Heart Iraq War veteran, and the winner of the Legionnaire of the Year Award from the American Legion in 2015 and the recipient of the Emily Gottfried Emerging Leader, Human Rights award for 2016. His stories, essays, and articles have appeared in the the Ted Talk Book The Misfit’s Manifesto (Simon and Schuster), Forest Avenue Press anthology City of Weird, Sixty Minutes, Story Corps, Flaunt Magazine, The Big Smoke, Human the movie, and much more.

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