Interfor timber manager Chuck Burley and Oregon Wild environmentalist Tim Lillebo were the least likely of friends.
But they were friends. The two met in the 1990s and went from battling on opposite sides of the old-growth timber debate to working together on forest management.
“He and I over the years started to develop a better working relationship,” said Burley, a conservative former state representative. “Frankly, I think we are all going to miss him.”
Lillebo, 61, died Feb. 8 after collapsing while shoveling snow at his Tumalo home amid a heavy snowstorm. A public memorial is set for Feb. 23 in Bend. His sudden and unexpected death has left a void in the environmental movement in Central Oregon and silenced the voice of a man who learned to stick to his beliefs but not alienate others.
“A lot of people looked to Tim,” Burley said.
Marilyn Miller was among them. She’s a former Sierra Club leader in Central Oregon and now an environmental consultant here, involved with the same forest collaboratives as Lillebo. The collaboratives bring together people with differing views about how public forests should be used, trying to have them work together and avoid litigation gridlock. Miller and Lillebo were friends for 14 years, and he taught her about forest health and how to use conversation, rather than court cases, to reach their goals.
“Over the years, he realized that we were getting more done, instead of by the appeal, by collaboration,” Miller said. “He could bridge gaps.”
Lillebo was with Oregon Wild — which used to be the Oregon Natural Resources Council (ONRC) and before that the Oregon Wilderness Coalition — for nearly 40 years, serving as the face of the group east of the Cascades. His was a face regularly topped by a crushed felt hat and usually showing a smile.
His personality helped in his long mission to protect the woods in Central and Eastern Oregon while improving their health, said Doug Heiken, conservation and restoration coordinator with Oregon Wild.
“He was often the only environmentalist in the room, so he learned how to survive in treacherous water, so to speak,” said Heiken, who had worked with Lillebo since 1990.
Started in 1974, what is now Oregon Wild is focused on protecting and preserving wilderness around the state. The group, including Lillebo, was involved in lawsuits to protect old-growth forests in the 1970s and ’80s.
While Lillebo often won in court, he eventually realized the forests he was fighting to protect were in deteriorating health, said Phil Chang, program administrator for the Central Oregon Intergovernmental Council.
He and Lillebo were part of the Deschutes Collaborative Forest project, which started in 2010 and helped the Deschutes National Forest obtain a 10-year, $10 million federal grant for forest restoration. Lillebo was a key player in the collaborative, fighting for what he believed in but working with others.
“Tim didn’t think that to achieve his goals that he had to deny what everyone else wanted,” Chang said.
Lillebo, who was among the first Oregon Wild employees, was one of the most loved and respected people in the environmental movement, said Ric Bailey, a friend of Lillebo’s throughout his four decades of work. He expects at least a couple hundred people to show up for the public memorial service.
“Eventually, he came to be known as the soul of Eastern Oregon, the conscience of Eastern Oregon,” Bailey said. “And he came to be respected by friend and foe alike.”
Bailey, now a river guide, used to lead the Hell’s Canyon Preservation Council, an Eastern Oregon conservation group, and served on the board of what is now Oregon Wild.
A hiker, hunter and rafter, Lillebo roamed throughout Central and Eastern Oregon. He was particularly fond of the forests, having once been a logger who decided decades ago that people should be preserving the oldest and biggest of trees, rather than cutting them down. He brought his experience in the woods to the collaboration.
“It will be impossible to replace someone with that much knowledge,” Heiken said.
Sean Stevens, Oregon Wild executive director, agreed.
“There is no replacing Tim — he was a one-of-a-kind person,” he said.
Oregon Wild’s leaders haven’t determined how they might fill the post Lillebo long held. He was the Eastern Oregon field representative for the group.
“We don’t know what’s next,” Stevens said.
— Reporter: 541-617-7812, firstname.lastname@example.org