When Marty Vavra was hired in 1971 as a researcher at the OSU Agricultural Experiment Station at Union, he had no intention of staying more than a couple of years.
"I had just finished my Ph.D. at the University of Wyoming and looked at my new position as a typical first job. I figured I would get some research publications under my belt and move on to a real job teaching classes and doing research on a university campus somewhere," Vavra said.
Now, almost 30 years later, on a bright, late summer day, he sits in his small office in La Grande, just 11 miles down the road from where he began his OSU career.
"It didn't take me long to realize this was a real job and that I liked being able to do research in my own back yard," he said. And, as he discovered over the years, there are benefits to being so far from the campus setting he once coveted: fewer distractions, fewer committee assignments, more time to concentrate on research.
These days, Vavra divides his time between La Grande and Burns. He spends three days a week in La Grande as team leader on the Starkey Project, a wildlife research project conducted by the U.S. Forest Service's Pacific Northwest Research Station, the OSU Experiment Station, and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife at the Starkey Experiment Forest and Range, 28 miles southwest of La Grande. The project is designed to measure the response of cattle, deer and elk to each other and to the intensively managed forests and rangelands of the future.
The other two work days of the week he is in Burns, where he has been superintendent of the Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center since 1984. Research at the center, which includes the Union branch station, focuses on ecology and restoration of wild lands, environmentally compatible livestock systems, and forage crops in the Great Basin and inland pine and fir forests.
Vavra's research interests include livestock grazing on forest and rangeland, and livestock-wildlife interactions. Little did he know in those early years at OSU that his research would move into the mainstream public debate over grazing on federal lands. For much of the 1970s, his research and that of his colleagues focused on improving beef production.
"The idea was to find ways to optimize the off-take of grass and bring to market the same pounds of beef each year without degrading the land. That was defined as sustainability."
Today, he said, the notion of environmental sustainability is much broader.
"For example, one of our scientists is counting butterflies as part of his research on juniper ecology," Vavra said.
"Twenty years ago, you couldn't get research money to do that because butterflies don't affect beef production. Today we want to know how many kinds of butterflies are present and how land management affects them."
The change in research emphasis is an improvement, according to Vavra. "We're much more sensitive to the environment today and better able to maintain the quality of life for all citizens," he said.
Vavra served on the panel of scientists for Governor Kitzhaber's State of the Environment report. The report, released last summer, concluded that the state's greatest environmental challenges are concentrated in the Willamette Valley and intensively managed farmlands.
"We still have environmental problems on forest and rangelands. Rangelands are generally getting better though riparian areas still need attention. But there's no question that population pressures and intensive farming on the west side pose more immediate problems," Vavra said.
Although he has been based in eastern Oregon for his entire career at OSU, Vavra has done his share of international work. He consulted in British Columbia, Kuwait and Brazil. His most memorable trip, however, was a visit to the Peruvian Andes in 1999. "The foothills are 14,000 feet. That's where the people and livestock are located and you're still looking up at the mountains!"
Vavra grew up on a family dairy farm near Binghamton in upstate New York, a circumstance he credits with influencing his eventual decision to study animal science. "I spent a lot of time outdoors when I was young and knew I wanted to be a naturalist."
Following a move to Texas when his father was recalled into the military, he attended the University of Arizona, where he received his bachelor's and master's degrees, and met his wife, Carol. They have three children-Martin, Cody and Sara.
Vavra's hobbies reflect the eastern Oregon lifestyle. An avid back-country horse rider and packer, he owns three horses. He also fly-fishes and hunts. For 23 years, he has taught hunter education, a program that teaches 10- to 14-year-olds about hunter safety and conservation.
The Vavra children, who grew up in La Grande and Burns, are now on their own. The boys work for the Bureau of Land Management in Oregon. After graduating from Southern Oregon State College, his daughter Sara moved to New York City where she works for the Wall Street firm Goldman Sachs.
A rebellious daughter seeking to escape the rural life? Hardly. "She was the first of the kids to kill a bull elk. She's also the one most interested in horses. She's going to save her money and buy a small ranch back here," Vavra said.