Oakridge Native Sarah Altemus-Pope’s Compassion Earns Her Member of the Year

By Craig Reed

Photo: Courtesy of Sarah Altemus-Pope

When Snowmageddon hit Oakridge in 2019, Sarah Altemus-Pope stepped up to help residents in need of warmth, shelter and food. When woodstove smoke during the winter and wildfire smoke during the summer created health hazards for Oakridge residents, Sarah helped secure air purifiers.

She has compassion for her hometown, an understanding of the community’s values and needs, and shares her experience, knowledge and energy to help improve the quality of life for the area and its residents.

Sarah, 43 and an Oakridge native, left the rural community on the west side of the Cascade Mountains after her high school graduation in 1998. However, unlike many young people from small, rural communities who leave to seek a higher education, a job or a different type of adventure, Sarah eventually returned after earning college degrees and working in a big city.

Sarah is now the executive director of Oakridge-based South Willamette Solutions. 2 key initiatives are managed by the nonprofit organization. 1 is the Southern Willamette Forest Collaborative, a master’s degree project started by Sarah in 2014. The other is Oakridge Air, a $7.9 million Environmental Protection Agency-funded project to provide home heating upgrades—mostly wood stoves, ductless heat pumps and weatherization.

Reforestation has a strong pull in Sarah Altemus-Pope’s life. Photo: Courtesy of Sarah Altemus-Pope

Sarah’s work to benefit Oakridge earned her Lane Electric Cooperative’s Member of the Year Award for 2023.

“I do it because it is fun, rewarding work,” Sarah says. “It’s important to a community to fill a gap when nobody else is filling that need. It’s important to live in a rural community, to raise kids in a rural community, but also to have your career and give back.

“There are a lot of needs in rural communities. It’s just a matter of finding the need that fits you,” she adds.

Lane Electric board members Susan Knudsen Obermeyer and Paula Brown nominated Sarah for the co-op’s annual award.

“Sarah is a force of nature,” Susan says. “She just has a lot of energy, she loves living in Oakridge and she wants to do things that help Oakridge. Having somebody who cares enough to want to bring industry and jobs back to Oakridge is wonderful.

“Sarah doesn’t expect anything Reducing Barriers Oakridge native Sarah Altemus-Pope’s compassion earns her Member of the Year 4 October 2023 in return,” Susan says. “It just makes me feel good to be around people like her.”

Reforestation has a strong pull in Sarah Altemus-Pope’s life. Photo: Courtesy of Sarah Altemus-Pope

Judy Hampton, a retired Oakridge High School principal, says Sarah was “a very driven, very smart student.”

“She’s unique in how much she has done for this community,” Judy says. “I think Sarah has found her niche here.”

After high school, Sarah worked for 10 years as 1 of the few female smokejumper firefighters during the summer wildfire seasons in Missoula, Montana. During those years, she earned her bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Oregon and a doctor of jurisprudence/master’s degree in conflict resolution.

After working for the U.S. Forest Service for 3 years in Washington, D.C., Sarah and her husband, Clem Pope, decided to raise their family in a small community rather than make numerous moves that a Forest Service career requires.

Clem, also a smokejumper from McCall, Idaho, a rural town of about 3,000 residents. Picking Oakridge or McCall was a tough decision, Sarah says, but Oakridge won because it gets less snow and cold weather.

South Willamette Solutions was established as a nonprofit in 2019. An 11-member steering committee oversees the management and activities of the Southern Willamette Forest Collaborative and Oakridge Air.

The mission of South Willamette Solutions is to promote, coordinate and support creative solutions that strengthen rural communities, economies and landscapes.

Reforestation has a strong pull in Sarah Altemus-Pope’s life. Photo: Courtesy of Sarah Altemus-Pope

The Southern Willamette Forest Collaborative’s slogan is “coming together for healthy forests and communities.” The collaborative brings together stakeholders, interest groups and land managers to find common ground on balanced restoration approaches.”

“The collaborative is a conduit to the public,” Sarah says. “My job is to make the space, set the table and reduce the barriers to talk. It’s an opportunity to bring people together to share concerns and to show there is more shared interest than conflict.”

The monthly meetings are open to the public.

The collaborative was awarded a grant that paid for fuel reduction work on about 350 acres around the Oakridge area. The greater Oakridge area is certified as a Firewise Community. Another project, the Community Firewood Program, provides cured, efficient burning wood with delivery and discounts to senior and disabled citizens.

During last year’s Cedar Creek Fire, Oakridge suffered through 37 days of unhealthy air, Sarah says. Oakridge is 1 of a few smokesensitive receptor areas in Oregon.

Sarah believes it’s important to live and raise children in a rural community, and those same beliefs extend to her own family. Photo: Courtesy of Sarah Altemus-Pope

The Oakridge Air program was established and obtained air purifiers from the Oregon Health Authority. The program gave obtained 1,100 air purifiers from the Oregon Health Authority. The purifiers were given to residents to help in their homes. Sarah says a few hundred more were distributed this year.

Sarah also worked with the city and state to acquire $1.5 million to start the renovation of the Willamette Activity Center into a community center.

“I feel fortunate we’re here,” Sarah says. “We’ve built a reputation as a trusted community partner. There’s absolutely a lot of support for the work we do. People are concerned and they want to do what they can to prevent fires and to have cleaner air.

“We’ll continue to look for grants and to work on problems that are a threat to our communities.”