If the spotted owl became a symbol of intractable conflict over the fate of the forests of western Oregon, across the Cascades, forest and wilderness advocate Tim Lillebo over those same decades became a passionate yet affable, sometimes lightning-rod symbol of collaborative progress and a way forward to preserve the Ponderosa pine forests of Central and Eastern Oregon, their wildlife and other special, natural places.
Shocked family, friends and colleagues shared their recollections Sunday at word that Lillebo, 61, had passed away, apparently suffering a medical emergency or other calamity as he shoveled the heavy snow near his home on Kentucky Road in Tumalo, west of Bend. His wife, Karen, told authorities he’d only gone out to clear things a half-hour earlier. Medics could not revive him.
“The Oregon Wild family is deeply saddened by the news that our friend and colleague Tim Lillebo has passed," Sean Stevens, executive director of the organization, said in a statement issued Sunday. "Our thoughts are with Tim's wife Karen and his family and friends in this difficult time."
"Tim will be remembered for so many things – his charm; his passion for rafting, hiking and hunting; and the ever-present crushed felt hat and cigar hanging from his mouth," Stevens wrote.
"For those that knew and loved Tim in his personal life, he will be mourned as a loving husband and friend. For those at Oregon Wild, we will remember a hero who inspired us all and gave so much to protect Oregon's wild places. We often joked that Tim could never retire, because, there would simply be no way to replace him. It is true – Tim Lillebo was one of a kind and we will miss him dearly.”
A staff biography on the Oregon Wild Website notes Lillebo worked for the group "in its infancy, in 1975, and ever since has been defending roadless areas, protecting east-side old-growth trees, lobbying in D.C., and collaborating with public agencies on restoration projects."
It notes that Lillebo "spends much of his time on the road traveling throughout eastern Oregon to work with agencies and conservation groups on forest issues. He has played key roles in passing wilderness legislation over the years and has served on a number of advisory committees."
"Ironically," the group ads, "Tim is a former timber faller who used to build logging roads. However, working in the woods gave him an appreciation for the trees that sustain us. Tim says he wishes more of the public could see the spectacular east-side pine forests he is working to project and restore."
Phil Chang, natural resource program administrator of the Central Oregon Intergovernmental Council worked knew Lillebo for about nine years and worked with him on the Deschutes Collaborative Forest Project.
“There are no other Tim Lillebos out there,” he said. “Unlike anyone else, he played this massive role in ending the timber wars in Eastern Oregon. If you could call collaboration a movement, Tim was the father figure, the patriarch of this movement.”
Maret Pajutee, district ecologist on the Sisters Ranger District, said the Glaze Forest Restoration Project, by Black Butte Ranch, “was really his idea,” dating back to discussions in 2005 and planning done by 2008.
“It was a very radical, ground-breaking project to find agreement on how to manage Ponderosa old growth through broad, collaborative outreach,” Pajutee said. “Tim was just the passion and the fire behind that idea.”
The project involved 1,400 acres of mixed old- and second-growth along Indian Ford Creek and aspen stands as well, a “unique, biologically significant area,” Pajutee said – and “was one of the first projects in 13 years that were not litigated on that cut commercial-size trees. He was behind the scenes on every bit of that, taking hundreds of people out there – talking, explaining, negotiating.”
“Tim was so driven by his passion and, really, goodwill toward others that he was able to make connections where they didn’t exist,” she said.
“The other thing about Tim – as science and new innovations came along, he was willing to change his mind and adapt, change his thinking about things. … He always talked about how he realized, you couldn’t walk away from a fire-adapted ecosystem.”
“I will miss him so much,” Pajutee said, calling Lillebo a “kind, gentle and funny person. It’s a huge loss to the conservation community and the collaboration community.”
But collaboration didn't mean acquiescence to Forest Service timber-harvest plans, A year ago, looking over the dead trees from the Pole Creek Fire near Sisters, in an area planned for logging, Lillebo told NewsChannel 21, "These are critical elements of the natural ecosystem that need to be here."
Two years earlier, in a story about the debate over logging overgrown forests, Lillebo urged caution, protecting old growth while thinning the overgrown areas.
"Not everything needs to be cut," Lillebo said. "Everybody kind of goes, 'Oh, the forests are unhealthy, blah blah blah' --well, that's not really the case."
On the other hand, he said, "If you go in there and thin those areas, underneath those bigger trees, you're going to end up with wood byproducts that could feed mills."
Mike Riley, executive director of the Central Oregon Environmental Center, said, “Tim felt very strongly and very passionately about environmental protection, both as wilderness and to have a refuge of untouched places, and to protect that heritage and wildlife.”
“He would fight very hard, if he felt something was going to be lost,” Riley said – but at the same time, “he also could work with a wide range of people. Having grown up in Eastern Oregon, he could relate to a lot of different types of people and connect with them – a genuine, strong, warm-hearted person.”
While Riley didn’t work closely with Lillebo on the collaborative forest project for example, he did spend personal time with him, like a month in Alaska last summer on a personal river trip in a “very, very wild place.”
“I think he was one of our local heroes,” Riley said.
Brad Chalfant, executive director of the Deschutes Land Trust, said, “Tim was one of the originals. He was something of a mentor to me. When I moved to Central Oregon in the mid-1980s, it was a pretty small place. Tim was not only a true character, he was one of the most knowledgeable. His mind was encyclopedic, the big landscape of what was going on.”
“Tim at times was a lightning rod,” Chalfant said, but “he was someone the Forest Service and timber industry, they usually, eventually could find a way to work with Tim. They didn’t often agree with him, but they respected him.”
“The Deschutes (National Forest) is one of the more progressive forests in the country, and what’s happening here is more cutting-edge,” Chalfant said – adding that was “absolutely” thanks to Lillebo in large measure.
“Tim was passionate in his convictions,” Chalfant said. “But he also wasn’t somebody who was ideological about it. He could adjust.”
Chalfant recalled just trying to keep up with Lillebo as they hiked cross-country to many special places.
“Nobody kept up with Tim,” he said. “He wasn’t physically a big guy, but he was a bigger-than-life figure.”
Did all the collaborative talk mean Tim was a man of compromise? That’s not quite how Chang sees it.
“He was incredibly passionate about the forests of Eastern Oregon,” Chang said. “In his mind, the best way to take care of those forests, and the fastest path to get them to be healthy and restored and full of old-growth trees was through collaboration.”
“He knew that the best way to take care of these forests was to have a whole bunch of communities full of stewards, who could picture the old-growth forest that he remembered from his childhood, and who could actively go out and recreate that forest,” Chang said.
“A lot of people get stuck in the mentality with forests of, either leave them alone and let them get better by themselves, or go out and harvest trees – and then you’re a ‘pillager of the forest,” Chang said. “Because of the past management that Tim witnessed throughout his life, these forests were very screwed up, and they needed active, healing hands to be put back on the right” path.
“Because of that vision, Tim, more than any other person in the state of Oregon played a profound role in ending the timber wars in Eastern Oregon,” Chang said. “A lot of people are still fighting the timber wars. He transcended it … He loved the people as much as he loved the forest and the wildlife. That made it possible for Tim to make connections and break down barriers, and transcend lots and lots of baggage.”