JOHN DAY - Sen. Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, said he welcomes the chance to find out how Oregon State University leaders developed a plan to drastically restructure the university's Department of Rangeland Resources.
"I'd want to sit down and have the rest of the story and give the folks in OSU's management team a chance to show us their priorities," he said Thursday.
Ferrioli, an avid supporter of the rangeland department, responded to a firestorm of controversy following the Oct. 30 announcement that the college contemplated elimination of the department due to budget cuts.
Opponents to the proposal include the Oregon Cattlemen's Association, Oregon Farm Bureau, the Oregon Grange and Oregon Women for Agriculture. The proposal was announced to faculty by Thayne Dutson, dean of the OSU College of Agricultural Sciences.
Gary Delaney, a member of the department's faculty as an assistant professor and OSU Extension agent in Grant County, said he did not know exactly how the proposal might play out in his office.
"Right now we're all up in the air. We're not sure what's going to happen," he said.
Under the plan, range department faculty would be divided in other areas of the university. Delaney's job description already is divided between the range and 4-H departments, and a reassignment to another department from the range department likely would not affect his day-to-day duties.
However, Delaney acknowledged that Dutson's announcement sparked an emotional response, especially among ranchers who know rangeland department staff on a first-name basis.
"There's more rangeland department faculty known by ranchers here probably than faculty of any other department," he noted.
The department is responsible for "positive research" in Grant County, including studies of stream conditions, grazing management and watershed health, Delaney said.
"To do away with the range department is upsetting to a lot of people in Grant County," he said.
More meetings are planned among the department faculty, and Delaney emphasized, "It's not solid in stone."
In Burns, at the Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center, department employees did not foresee major effects from the cuts. Staff reductions were expected only through attrition (discontinuation of vacated positions), and the graduate student program and research efforts were not considered at risk.
Station superintendent Marty Vavra said, "I can say, to me, the ramifications are rather minimal."
The experiment station will undergo funding reductions, but the Eastern Oregon centers - both in Harney and Union counties - will remain active in research in the Blue Mountains and the high-desert basins, Vavra said. Research directions include "livestock systems that are sustainable in the long run," both economically and ecologically, and the benefits of active management such as prescribed fire, he said.
"Our whole mission has evolved around sustainability of the wildlands of Eastern Oregon," he said.
Vavra dismissed charges that the college's proposal was political and intended to weaken the range program on behalf of programs more appealing to environmentalists.
"There's no internal politics. I think this has been a sound judgment," he said.
He credited Ferrioli for withholding judgment on the motivation for the cuts.
"Folks really need to sit back and talk to the administration about this and get more information," he said.
Ferrioli promised to participate in a meeting with the dean. He emphasized that the methodology for making cuts is the main issue.
"The best thing for me to do is find out, what are the mechanisms people are using to set their priorities," he said.
However, he also recognized that the process of developing and announcing the proposal caught many citizens off guard.
"For Oregon State University, cattle ranchers are a core constituency, and they got surprised," he said.
Ferrioli also acknowledged that ranchers feel embattled, and fears of political agendas fueled much of their outcry.
"The ranching community and the grazing community feel that their priorities are being overridden," he said.
Oregon's stagnant economy, which has caused budget shortfalls statewide, remains the primary culprit, Ferrioli noted. He predicted more battles over programs and funding priorities as funding grows scarcer.
"I have a feeling that it's going to be everywhere all the time now that we're in this contraction mode with the state economy," he said.