Ranchers will likely be pitted against timber interests in court after Curry County commissioners admitted a judge might be the best way to mediate a question regarding how well an annexation hearing was announced.

The problem came to a head after the county held a public hearing regarding the proposed annexation of timber giant Weyerhaeuser’s land to the county’s livestock district. The meeting was held Dec. 6, the vote was 2-1 with Commissioner Court Boice voting against it.

The county then had 60 days in which to make a final decision.

But owners of nearby ranches never had the chance to address the issue.

Hearing? What hearing?

Nearby ranching families — the Guerins, Dements, Powers and Hermanns — who homesteaded land decades ago that abuts property Weyerhaeuser purchased two years ago, never heard about the December annexation hearing, said ranch owner Anne Guerin. They found out Jan. 17, and then, from Weyerhaeuser representative Al Alexander.

Joan Dement Harpole and her husband Ron don’t have telephone service at their ranch 19 miles up the Sixes River, she said. They don’t get mail or cell phone service, and the internet is spotty. A trip to the nearest post office takes an hour.

“This ruling needs to be reversed,” Guerin wrote in a letter to commissioners. “Its presentation is tainted with underhanded actions that removed landholders from advocating for our own interests.”

She and other neighbors pleaded with county commissioners Wednesday to let them have a say in the matter to defend their lifestyle. They all said they wished Weyerhaeuser had come to them and worked out differences in a “neighborly” fashion as has been done in that area for decades.

The timber company would like to have cattle fenced from their land, an endeavor ranch owners say would bankrupt them.

“Other timber companies — Georgia Pacific, Plum Creek, Menasha, Al Peirce — have adjusted to the presence of cattle at times on their property,” Guerin wrote. “As a result, ranching has a long and honorable history in the headwaters of the Sixes, with no demands to fence cattle off corporate lands.”

Timber representatives, who declined to comment at a Wednesday’s special meeting, say cattle often trample and kill seedling trees. Ranchers responded by saying cattle owners have, in the past, replaced those trees.

And that came about by communicating with neighbors, they noted.

“I’m excited to manage livestock; it’s my dream job,” said a choked-up John Swenson, who works on the Dement ranch. “(Fencing) would put me out of a job. This annexation is not a neighborly thing.”

Jo Dement agreed, saying, “We get together if there’s a problem, talk to our neighbors,” she said. “I’m so upset. But what really matters is that neighbors come to neighbors.”

Weyerhaeuser officials could agree to rescind the annexation order — and at one point, were willing to negotiate, Jo Dement said. But when asked for their input Wednesday, the three representatives there said they had no comment.

Heritage of the land

Boice said he sees the issue as one of Western heritage and doing the right thing.

“I see a way of life threatened,” he said. “Not just by a big corporation. We made a mistake by not contacting them. I think they should prevail — they have to prevail. It’s unsettling to me to think I might have had a part, that I contributed, to a decision that might affect them.”

Wednesday’s discussion came on the heels of a hearing regarding the demolition of a burned house in Harbor, in which County Attorney John Huttl showed the extent to which his office tried to locate people for the hearing.

For the annexation proposal, the county placed a public notice in newspapers and on its website, filling its legal obligation. But no one tried to reach the ranch owners by phone or mail to let them know about the hearing, ranch owners said.

And the board couldn’t extend the matter and hold another meeting, because the 60-day deadline was looming.

“I can’t find where the board has the authority to do that,” Huttl said of a rescission. “I don’t know where that leaves the parties. It’s a great statement of policy, but is it legal?”

He noted it might be best to go to court to let a judge determine the validity of the order, to “see if either could pass judicial muster,” he said. “I don’t see the harm in making an order.

“I question the fairness of the original decisions,” Huttl continued. “I think it will end up in court. We may be damned if we do and damned if we don’t.”

Commissioner Tom Huxley said if the board had such authority, he’d be the first to propose they rescind the decision.

“How about doing the right thing?” Boice countered before asking Commissioner Sue Gold to second his motion to do so.

“I’m ambivalent,” she said.

“Buy us some time, ma’am,” Boice said.

“I can’t.”

“This is one of the biggest decisions we’ve had to make,” Boice stated. “We have the authority to look people in the eye and say we will go to bat for them. Rescind this confusing, complex, ill-advised decision you two made on Dec. 6.”

Gold eventually seconded the motion, but after extensive legal discussion she and Huxley voted against the proposal to withdraw the annexation decision. A second motion to the same effect also failed, for lack of a second, much to the shock of those in the audience.

“This is appalling,” Boice said. “It adds insult to injury after the mistakes we made on this. We’re talking about people’s lives.”

Reach Jane Stebbins at jstebbins@currypilot.com .