The promised land Former Islander represents E. Washington

By Mary L. Grady

For former Islander Joel Kretz and his family, heaven is 1,300 acres of land in the Okanogan Highlands just 20 miles or so south of the boundary between the United States and Canada.

Far from the foothills of the Cascades in a region made remarkable by its violent geologic past, the view goes on forever. Redolent of pine and pasture, the land rises and falls, unbroken by not much more than an occasional pair of dirt tracks that disappear into the long grass off a paved county road. A pair of those primitive tracks winds three miles up to a place called The Promised Land. Kretz, his wife Sara and teenage son, Jed, live there in a house built with their own hands. Kretz's passion for the land and its way of life, led him to the floor of the state capitol, hundreds of miles away. Kretz was elected last fall to the state Legislature as a Republican state representative for the 7th District.

The road to the Legislature for Kretz began with cougars. Farmers and ranchers in Eastern Washington have experienced ever more frequent and devastating attacks on their livestock by the predators, he said. Yet the ability of landowners to protect their livestock and livelihood has been strictly limited.. Consequently the cougars and even the bears have no fear, he said.

He became an outspoken president of the Okanogan Farm Bureau, an organization that represents ranchers as well as farmers, to champion private property rights.

Kretz, his life and beliefs, epitomizes the often wide and complex divide between Eastern and Western Washington. "I never thought of myself as an activist," he said. "Rural Washington is almost under siege by state agencies and environmental groups," he said.

After being the farm bureau president Kretz began to think how he could be more effective.

"I asked some legislators if I could get more done in Olympia," he recalled. "They said yes you can.'" A set of regulations named the Road Maintenance and Abandonment Plan (RMAP) caused a lot of concern for rural landowners. The laws essentially require landowners to bring private roads up to state standards. Bringing rural roads up to state standards would be costly for ranchers and farmers, Kretz said.

And there are other issues tied to the land. Issues you wouldn't expect in the high country miles from moving water. Water management and the upper Columbia salmon recovery plan also have implications for private land. In the on-going conflict between legislators regarding the regulation of land use and how to pay and provide public services statewide, Kretz feels that the realities of life in much of Eastern Washington are left out of the equation.

Basic ingredients for economic growth east of the mountains are missing, Kretz said.

"The last bank in (all of) Ferry County is closing. There are only a few of gas stations in whole counties up here. How can you have an economy without fuel available?" he asked.

The few mines in northeast Washington state that once provided hundreds of jobs, are in the process of becoming extinct. "How can Western Washington legislators wonder why Eastern Washington voters defeat initiatives here," he wondered. Kretz's parents have lived on the Island for 55 years. Kretz's father, Vincent, had long been in the logging business as a timber broker. Rather than turning out for sports in high school, Joel Kretz spent his weekends cruising stands of timber with his dad. After graduating from Mercer Island High School in 1975, Kretz attended community college. But his future was outside the Puget Sound region, away from the urban pulse of Seattle. He soon headed east. He worked at a sawmill outside of Preston and for independent loggers in the Snoqualmie Valley and North Bend. He owned a logging business in Duvall for a time.

Kretz and his wife built their house up on the mountain in the Okanogan Highlands in 1990. They hauled up what they needed but used timber from their property for the house as much as they could. The family has 70 to 80 head of longhorn cattle and 20 or so calves. There are three dozen or so horses who graze in the highland pasture grass. The mares, bred to a prize roan quarterhorse, foal wherever they happen to be on the land. There are simple fences and a couple of cattle guards to keep the livestock in.

"I tell people we live in a gated community," Kretz laughed. Lucy Smith is the proprietress, cook, and one of just two year-round residents of tiny Wauconda, on the road halfway between Tonasket and Republic. She met Kretz 11 years ago when she and her husband bought the one and only building, business and residence in the town, the Wauconda Cafe. The only stop for 40 miles, the tiny cafe with its blue, checkered tablecloths and wood burning stove stocks a few groceries and a pay phone. It no longer sells gas.

"First time I waited on him, he thanked me for waiting on him," Smith remembered. "He told me he was glad I was here." Kretz likes to have the Chinese dinner that Smith serves on weekend evenings, praises her homemade soup and likes to have a double scoop of almond mocha fudge ice cream for dessert, she explained. When asked if Kretz met with voters or campaigned at the cafe, Smith was taken aback.

"No," she said, "He didn't have to. He is a genuine-diamond person. We all want him to be elected to Olympia. We all knew he would do a good job." It is not easy, but Kretz is not deterred. He stays focussed on local needs. "There is always a conflict. What you want for your district has to be weighed with what is doable," he said. In his first year, Kretz was assigned to the Capital Budget Committee, the Economic Development, Agriculture and Trade Committee and the National Resources, Ecology and Trade Committee. His biggest job is to re-educate regulators, more precisely, urban legislators, who don't have real world experience, he explained. "A lot of them will listen -- but we have a hard time getting them over here," he said.

The view from the front porch of the Promised Land house extends 15 miles or so to the west, Kretz estimates. Hop vines twist around the porch -- its pillars hewn from timber cut nearby. There are dogs panting in the shade and several delicate hummingbirds buzzing nearby. There are rabbits, hounds, a few chickens, wild turkeys, and birds that nest under the high eaves of the big house.

Jed is homeschooled. He works as a cowboy for neighbors. He said that when he visits his grandparents on First Hill, it is "too crowded." He does not feel he is missing out on anything. The people of the highlands look after one another. When an elderly neighbor's house burned down, the Kretz family took him in while his house was being rebuilt.

Being a public figure has been a challenge to the soft-spoken man who has spent much of his time on his own.

"It is weird to see your name all over," he admits. "I am a private person. And now I have to get up and meet everyone." But he is glad to respond to his constituents by e-mail and answers his own phone, ready to talk to anyone.

Olympia presents challenges other than hammering out compromise and building coalitions to pass key legislation. There is a dress code for the members of the elected bodies.Jackets and ties are required. Kretz wears cowboy boots with his jacket and tie. "You can only go so far," he smiled.

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