LA GRANDE, Ore. (AP) — On July 11, the Wallowa Mountains Visitor Center, an imposing lodge pole pine structure on Highway 82 at the outskirts of Enterprise, burned to the ground.
The center, completed in May 1990, housed the Wallowa and Eagle Cap ranger districts' administration offices and served 72,000 visitors to Wallowa County a year.
By July 15 it was back in business and served 590 people in the first five days in its new location in the Wallowa County Chamber of Commerce building, several hundred feet south of its original location.
Center staff said it is "business as usual" with all services available. They have retained their telephone numbers and continue to provide visitor information by phone. They have received inventories of maps and informational brochures, are selling firewood permits. In other words, they are serving the needs of the public as they always have.
"There are things we have lost, things that we can't replace. Artifacts, historical data it's gone. But providing visitors' services is still our job and we are moving forward," said visitor center staff person Nancy Rudger.
She said she and her staff are still adjusting to the shock of the devastating fire. She said it is particularly hard to think about the loss of the 387 year old ponderosa pine tree that graced the front lobby of the center and the antique oak desk used for decades by each forest supervisor.
Rudger said many visitors ask about the fire and are curious for details, but the official investigation results have not been released.
According to Wallowa County Chamber Director Vicki Searles, the Forest Service staff has been great to work with and the services offered by both agencies complement each other quite well.
"Of course, we referred people to the visitor center and they referred people to us; we've worked together like that for years," Searles said. "We are glad to keep these visitors' services going, it is so important to show a continuity of services. Our traffic has doubled, obviously, and we are able to remain open more hours with the increased staff. They are great partners," Searles said.
She added that the only down side to the arrangement was the small space they are working in, but so far it is working out.
According to the public affairs officer for the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, Judy Wing, the idea to co-locate at the chamber office across the highway was a natural one. The relationship Nancy Rudger and Vicki Searles had developed over the years helped make the transition happen.
"With Chief Joseph Days the next week, we were looking at a heavy visitor time and needed to get something in place for that," Wing said. "It was just a matter of working through an agreement to co-locate and finding out what would work for Nancy and her crew."
She added that this arrangement is for six months only and no long-range plans are in place yet, but that the needs of Enterprise and the surrounding area will be taken into consideration in the process.
Wing also said the meticulous records of the numbers of visitors using the center kept by Nancy Rudger will help to determine the extent of the need to provide visitor services in Wallowa County.
Approximately 70 people worked at the Visitor Center and those employees are working out of various other locations. District Ranger Mary de Aguerdo said the forest fire staff is now housed in the warehouse in an area of the Forest Service compound that was not affected by the July 11 fire. The recreation staff has been working out of a barn also on that site.
Even though it has been traumatic for the staff, they seem to be moving past the initial shock, she said. Weekly staff meetings have been held to promote communication among all staff members. She said that eventually, and as soon as next week, permanent staff will be moving in to the Joseph Elementary School.
According to de Aguerdo, office furniture was obtained from another Forest Service unit and is now being installed in the large classroom areas in the school. The challenge has been setting up telephone and computer systems in the building. A six-month lease has been negotiated with the school district while modular office space is constructed behind the warehouse in the forest service compound.
"In 2012 our lease will expire on the original site. At that time the GSA will compile a description of the needs we have and will advertise those on the local markets and open it up for bids. Anyone could submit a bid, even the current owner of the property we now have leased. Twenty years ago when the Wallowa Mountains Visitor Center was built, we had 13 other offers submitted. We've always been in Wallowa County and Enterprise is so centrally located, it's been good for us," de Aguerdo said.
She also expressed appreciation for the support and patience the communities have shown.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.