By George Plaven | Capital Press | January 11, 2024
ENTERPRISE, Ore. — The distance between Oregon’s capital city of Salem and Todd Nash’s home near Enterprise in Wallowa County is about 370 miles — a drive of more than seven hours, depending on the weather.
It’s a trip that Nash, 61, has become intimately familiar with, traveling back and forth to meet with lawmakers at the state Capitol. During last year’s legislative session, Nash said he lost count of how many times he made the trip to testify on different bills.
“I probably drive a lot of the lobbyists and legislators crazy during that process,” he said. “But it’s a wonderful feeling to be in a position to represent.”
Over the years, Nash has parlayed his experiences as a logger and rancher in far northeast Oregon to become one of the state’s go-to voices on rural issues, particularly those relating to agriculture and natural resources.
Friends and colleagues describe Nash as soft-spoken and genuine, able to fight for his beliefs as well as listen to opposing viewpoints.
“It is obvious that he cares so much about supporting producers and his community,” said Ellie Gage, a fellow cattle rancher who lives in Powell Butte, 25 miles northeast of Bend. “I think he really understands the complexities and economic challenges of small rural communities, because he’s lived it.”
On the ranch
Nash has spent nearly his entire life in rugged Wallowa County, a picturesque landscape dominated by tall mountains and verdant valleys with a little more than 7,500 residents.
He started as a logger, then went to work at the Boise Cascade sawmill in Joseph, which shut down in 1994. Around that time, Nash joined the Marr Flat Cattle Co. as a ranch hand, tending livestock and caring for the animals.
Nash eventually took over operations of the sprawling ranch, running about 900 mother cows on 89,000 acres of private and federal ground. He remembers it would sometimes take him two hours to drive between pastures.
“It was quite an adventure,” he said. “I did that for 25 years. I was extremely grateful to have the opportunity to be on that ranch.”
Nash met his wife and business partner, Angie, while she was a student at Eastern Oregon University in nearby La Grande. Together, they have four adult children and six grandchildren, whose ages range from 3 to 15.
By 2018, the family had an important decision to make. Todd had been elected a county commissioner in 2016, and with his new responsibilities they either needed to hire additional help or downsize the ranch.
They ultimately chose the latter, forming a new business, T.N. Ranch.
Today, Nash runs 100 head of cattle, most of them on leased land scattered around the area. Spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic, Angie now markets their beef direct-to-consumer, focusing on prime genetics and quality.
“We say it’s generally beef that would have been intended for a white tablecloth restaurant,” he said. “It’s been fun to be able to serve up that quality product.”
Drawn to politics
Nash said he was convinced to run for the board of commissioners by the county Republican Party, replacing former commissioner Mike Hayward. He won the seat in a three-way primary race, securing more than 50% of the vote.
Susan Roberts, a longtime commissioner who has served alongside Nash, said she has seen him grow as an elected official over the last eight years.
“Running a government entity is not like running a business,” Roberts said, adding that county commissioners have to work within the confines of state and local laws. “It’s pretty difficult to come from the private sector where you own a business and are able to say whatever you want, and now you can’t.”
Though there was an initial learning curve, Roberts said Nash has matured in the role, using his likable personality to forge productive partnerships.
“He’s made some really good connections,” Roberts said. “He can deal with people from different entities and different levels of government.”
That isn’t the only leadership hat Nash wears. He is also on the executive committee of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, an organization representing the state’s 18,000 cattle ranchers. Nash is the group’s immediate past president.
Tammy Dennee, OCA executive director, described Nash as a “quiet force” with a heart for service.
“He’s been very visible in the Capitol during his tenure at OCA,” Dennee said. “He’s been very available to elected officials to build those coalitions, and help those legislators as they’re developing policy.”
Inside his office at the Wallowa County Courthouse, Nash has framed copies of three bills that he played a pivotal role in passing.
The first is House Bill 4040, also known as “the impossible bill,” which was narrowly approved by the Legislature in 2016. It ratified a decision by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife removing gray wolves from the state endangered species list, allowing ranchers in Eastern Oregon to kill wolves that habitually prey on livestock.
Environmental groups had sued ODFW after the delisting in late 2015, though the case was dismissed following the passage of HB 4040.
The House of Representatives passed HB 4040 by a vote of 33-23. The margin was even narrower in the Senate, passing 17-11. Nash said the key was convincing several Democratic lawmakers by bringing them to Wallowa County, where they could hear from ranchers firsthand.
“We have had to get people out on the landscape, and we have had to get ranchers over to Salem,” Nash said. “We need to do our best job of talking about why things are the way they are over here. It’s a heavy lift.”
The second framed bill is Senate Bill 995 from last year’s session, which provided a $300,000 endowment from the state for the AgriStress Helpline, a 24/7 suicide prevention hotline specifically tailored to agricultural workers.
Finally, Nash has a copy of Senate Bill 57 — also from the 2023 session — eliminating a longstanding requirement that all beef cows in Oregon be vaccinated for brucellosis.
“It’s a tremendous feeling,” Nash said of scoring legislative victories. “Especially some of those bills that are a little controversial and you’re told there’s no way you’re going to get it passed. I leave no stone unturned during that process.”
Perhaps no issue close to Nash’s constituents has remained as tense and politically charged as wolf management.
Gage, the rancher from Powell Butte, first contacted Nash about three years ago as she became more involved in wanting to help her fellow producers minimize wolf attacks on livestock. She joined the Western Landowners Alliance, which was seeking a federal grant to test non-lethal wolf deterrents on working lands.
“He’s been so willing to support the work that I’m doing,” Gage said. “He got me involved in the short legislative session last February on a couple of bills that were specific to wolf-livestock conflict issues in Oregon. That was an experience I’d never had before.”
Together, they helped advocate for a bill that boosted compensation to ranchers for wolf attacks on their livestock to $1 million for the next biennium.
“I feel in a lot of ways like he’s taken me under his wing,” Gage said. “I’m so grateful for that relationship, and the support he’s offered me.”
While Nash said he feels the state has made recent strides in being more responsive to ranchers’ needs regarding wolves, there is more work to be done.
OCA members voted in November on a list of nine points they would like to see addressed by wildlife managers. These include making it simpler for ranchers to receive kill permits for wolves that meet the definition of “chronic depredation,” and clarifying how much non-lethal deterrence is needed.
“I want to do my part to help foster better relationships between ODFW and ranchers,” Nash said. “But the agency is going to have to continue with actions to step up to the plate.”
Striking the right balance
On Sept. 14, Nash announced he is running for state senator in District 29. The seat is currently held by Bill Hansell, a Republican from Athena, who is retiring in 2024.
Three other candidates have also filed to run in the May Republican primary election, including Hermiston Mayor Dave Drotzmann, former Morrow County commissioner Jim Doherty and Wallowa County resident Andy Huwe.
District 29 covers all of Wallowa, Union, Umatilla, Morrow, Gilliam and Sherman counties, as well as parts of Wasco and Jefferson counties.
“This is radically different than I ever thought. I didn’t see myself ever leaving Wallowa County,” Nash said. “If you’re asked, and you can, do you step up and serve or do you just walk away? I decided to step up.”
Those who know him say Nash is able to gain trust through his plainspoken style, firsthand knowledge of rural Oregon and willingness to listen.
Mary Anne Cooper, former vice president of government and legal affairs for the Oregon Farm Bureau, said she has worked with Nash in the past on issues that broadly affect farmers and ranchers statewide. She said Nash calls things like he sees them, but is willing to adjust his approach when necessary.
”Knowing the right balance between when to stay, when to go, when to push, when to pull … he does a really good job navigating that,” said Cooper, who is a distant cousin to Nash. “He just hits the mark of being a very effective advocate.”
Dennee, with the OCA, said Nash has been a champion for cattlemen and is a compelling storyteller to boot.
“He has an amazing way of attracting individuals to conversation and finding ways to craft some agreement,” Dennee said. “It’s a unique but fabulous skill.”
Whether it’s wrangling cattle or wrangling votes, Nash said it’s all comes down to being productive and delivering results.
”That’s an important part of who I am,” he said.