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16 YEARS OF PUBLIC SERVICE
By Alice Perry Linker
Observer Staff Writer
John Howard is celebrating his 47th birthday today by gathering up the remnants of his 16 years as Union County commissioner.
Looking back on those years in county government, he said, "There have been very few days when I haven't enjoyed coming to work."
His joy in his work apparently extended to vacations. "I've never taken two weeks off in a row."
Howard's future remains a question, but his stature at the state and federal level is expected to provide him with numerous opportunities. For example, the organizers of the National Fire Plan have invited the outgoing commissioner to speak about community collaboration during their January conference in New Orleans.
"They're paying my way," Howard said.
The longtime commissioner was defeated in November by newcomer John Lamoreau, the manager of Grande Ronde Retirement Residence.
Collaboration has been the key to Howard's successes.
Fellow Commissioner Steve McClure praised Howard's ability to bring people of diverse opinions together.
"When he was trying to form the Grande Ronde Model Watershed, there were times when the only thing the participants could agree on was to meet again," McClure said. "I said, John, you're wasting your time. This isn't going to work.' Look at the model watershed today."
Model Watershed executive director Jeff Oveson said about the creation of the watershed program, "That was a matter of tremendous insight and fortitude that started well over a decade ago, building partnerships with Wallowa County, the tribes, ranchers, farmers and environmentalists.
"A lot of people think they're inventing collaboration but I don't know of anywhere that it started sooner than it did here."
Howard said he did not know in the beginning how the model watershed project would develop.
"I didn't think it would be the success that it is today," he said.
Howard considers the formation of the model watershed one of his successes, but he said it's not the only one.
He originally ran for office when he was 29 and had been the mayor of Imbler. His goal then was to improve the economic development of Union County. Married with two little children, he was working at Boise Cascade. At one point, like many others, he was laid off.
"My driving interest was to improve the economy; to do more to motivate people to work together. I've kept that in the forefront," Howard said.
"The state had just developed enterprise zones and that got my attention," he said. "I kept waiting for someone to run on economic issues, but in January, I saw nobody talking about that, so I decided I would run.
"I wanted to see job opportunities for other families."
After his election, the commissioners and other community leaders decided to develop an industrial park adjacent to the Union County Airport. Businesses in the park now have more than 350 employees.
"The commissioners and the community leaders decided that we didn't want to be the first one to go into a recession and the last one out," he said.
Development of the park was funded partly by a general obligation bond requiring approval of the voters.
"It passed by only 22 votes," Howard said.
Involvement in natural resource issues was a natural outgrowth of Howard's interest in economic development. His most recent work has been the creation of a community forestry board to work in collaboration with the Forest Service on restoration and management projects. The board also monitors some forest management projects.
Howard has educated himself on many watershed and forest issues.
"This summer the Oregon Society of American Foresters visited and we were out on a tour, looking at the Starkey projects," Howard said. "I saw a Douglas fir with mistletoe and I asked the forester why they left that tree with mistletoe in it. Nobody had noticed it, and the forester admitted that it was a mistake.
"The next day I heard that district Forest Service people were saying, We learned to have Commissioner Howard walk around with a blue paint can.' "
Blue paint is used by the Forest Service to mark trees that will be removed.
Howard's work to promote congressional legislation that increased the payments to timber-dependent counties earned him an invitation to the White House when President Bill Clinton signed the county payments bill, cosponsored by Sen. Ron .Wyden, D-Ore.
"I almost missed that," Howard said. "I went home in the early afternoon one Friday, and I happened to call in for my messages. There was a message from a White House aide asking me to attend the ceremony, and they needed an answer that day.
"That was a special moment in my elected-official life."
Howard's interest in natural resources, the condition of streams and rivers, extended to the problem of controlling noxious weeds. For the past few years, he and the weed coordinator Gary Dade have taken representatives from the press on tours of some of the most infested places.
The commissioner even once confessed to calling Dade and reporting noxious weeds on roadsides and in fields.
A hands-on commissioner, Howard has not been afraid of physical work, and he has plowed more than one country road. When he was mayor of Imbler, the town owned a hand-crank grader.
"In the winter months, I'd crank that old grader and plow the streets around town," he said. "It wasn't a big blade, but it would get the job done."
Public Works Director Richard Comstock said that Howard has "always been interested in the roads and he's been supportive. He's gone out with us to look at roads, the floods; he's gone out in trucks with us."
His collaborative efforts have extended to the board of commissioners.
"Over the years we've always been able to work out the issues," he said. "We've got a great working team with our elected officials and our department heads."
Howard and his wife Debbie, a postal employee, have watched their two sons, Derek and Dwight, grow from little boys to young men during the 16 years that Howard has been a commissioner.
Howard said he tried not to let the job interfere with his family life. He has attended numerous high school basketball games and his cheerleading extended to games involving his nieces and nephews.
"I was invited to the governor's ball four years ago," Howard said. "I answered and said, Derek has a (basketball) game. I can't come to the ball.' The governor said I made the right decision."
The model watershed's Oveson summed up the opinions of many who have worked with Howard: "My view of John Howard is that his primary concern was the people and resources of Union County. A lot of people didn't really understand how hard John worked on behalf of the county; the connections he made with state, regional and national leaders in trying to accomplish natural resource goals. They're (those connections) immensely important to Union County."