Sunday, February 25, 2007

Oregon: Story or myth?

"Come visit us again and again. This is a state of excitement. But for heaven's sake, don't move here to live."

—Oregon Governor Tom McCall (1913-83) in a 1971 interview on CBS

There's plenty of reason to believe that the governor's statement was just a clever public-relations stunt that succeeded, through a kind of reverse psychology, in making Oregon even more appealing as a place to live (1). Oregon's population, after all, has increased by about 85% since then, to about 3.6 million. About half that growth has occurred in Portland, whose metro area (including nearby Vancouver in Washington State) now has a population of about two million.

During the thirty-six years since McCall's interview, two related mythologies have evolved about the "Oregon Story" and "Portland - The City that Works." For now I'll only address the first--which is already the subject of my "Trashing the Tillamook"—and in a later post move on to the second, which is more complex.

The elements of the "Oregon Story," which might be more accurately called the "Oregon Myth," are clear enough and—I hasten to add—founded in certain realities:
  • Oregon is gifted with stunning natural assets, from its coast to the Cascades (see photo above) to the vast open spaces of its eastern and central ranges. There's a deeply-held belief—actually more of an assumption—that Oregon has risen to the challenge of protecting its natural heritage from rampant urbanization, reckless logging and other mindless development.
  • Oregonians are unusually talented or, at least (with apologies to Garrison Keillor), all above average, especially in their shared concern to promote what planners like to call "smart growth"(2). A refinement of this principle goes like this: the state attracts intelligent people who have a strong inclination to preserve its natural splendor.
  • Oregon is therefore unique in both its natural gifts and its wisdom in protecting them. Predictably, this perception leads to endless self-congratulation and a kind of hubris that can seem insurmountable.
In fairness, I readily admit that there's considerable truth in these narratives, which explains why they've taken root so deeply. The Oregon Country is certainly well preserved compared to many other states, but to a large degree that's an accident of geography and history.

To begin with the obvious, Oregon enjoys a relatively low population density: its 3.6 million people are spread over nearly 100,000 square miles, for an average density of about 35 per square miles. Washington State, by comparison, has a density of almost 90 persons per square mile (3).

While the fertile Willamette Valley enjoys a moderate climate and abundant rainfall, the rest of the state is relatively inhospitable to growing crops. Much of eastern Oregon's high country is mountainous and heavily forested, with harsh winters and dry summers. Large areas of these vast steppes can support only limited agriculture. Oregon has no oil or coal, though it is a net exporter of electricity due to surpluses of hydroelectric power. The largest growth in the economy has occurred in the high-tech in Portland and its suburbs. Much of Oregon's population growth has been the result of migration from other states and countries to feed workers to the high-tech sector.

For these reasons, Oregon remains a state of open spaces, but (contrary to its reputation) it's no longer pristine except in a few wild enclaves. It's impossible to travel through the larger Oregon forests without passing through a maze of clearcuts that quickly demolish any illusion of true wild country. Any traveler will appreciate why Oregon has led the country in softwood timber production for many years.

Oregonians who congratulate themselves on their state's alleged environmental wisdom have seemingly lost their ability to really look at their blighted landscape. As practiced here, timber extraction is an aesthetic nightmare and a major reason why Oregon has staggered from economic boom to bust for much of its history.

Clearcuts are only the beginning. Summer skies in the Northwest are often discolored by extensive plumes of brown smoke from burning the slash left behind by logging operations; expensive gravel roads for log trucks scar the mountainous landscapes, to the extent that U.S. Forest Service maps often resemble a plate of spaghetti; and pollution from pulp mills can produce a smell resembling rotten eggs for miles in all directions. Aside from the aesthetic effects, clearcuts accelerate erosion, cause siltation of creeks, damage fish habitat and require expensive maintenance for a huge network of logging roads. Even if much of the damage is in unpopulated areas far from the major highways, it's impossible to travel anywhere without noticing it. State laws that attempt to limit the devastation, through such measures as thin screens of trees next to highways and streams, are pathetically inadequate.

When challenged on its destructive practices, the timber corporations reflexively (and hypocritically) blather about jobs—as if there's only one way to log Oregon's forests, and that requires thousands of giant clearcuts up to the maximum allowed by state law (180 acres). Timber is a valuable resource and few Oregonians would prohibit logging, but it's a resource that can be exploited in ways that don't degrade the landscape for decades and risk permanent damage.

Oregonians were once smug about the crowning achievement of the "Oregon Story": their comprehensive system of land-use regulation, which effectively protected forest and agricultural land from urban sprawl. Until 2004, voters had rallied to handily defeat all attempts to subvert the land-use system that had been in place for three decades. That system has been deeply undermined, if not utterly destroyed, by the passage of Ballot Measure 37 in 2004. BM 37 required "just compensation" for "regulatory" takings by state government. The deceptive wording of BM 37—who could oppose "just compensation" for government "takings"?—was undoubtedly appealing to those who hadn't bothered to study the likely effects of the new law on environmental and development regulations.

Not surprisingly, the main supporters and beneficiaries of BM 37 were big timber companies and real-estate developers. Despite emotional appeals on behalf of small landowners, most of the pro-37 funding "came from timber companies and real estate interests that stand to profit if, as many here expect, large tracts of forests and farmland are unlocked for development." Over 7,000 claims have been filed under BM 37, many by huge landowners like Plum Creek Timber (5), throwing Oregon's land-use regulations into chaos.

Like most of the country, Oregon has been deeply divided between the progressive Democratic enclaves of the growing urban areas, mainly in the Willamette Valley, and the laissez-faire conservativism of eastern and southern Oregon. In the wake of BM 37 and the state's refusal to meaningfully regulate logging, the "Oregon Story" is now a shambles. It will need to be abandoned or rewritten.


(1) In a moment of paranoid delusion, I imagined that the governor was commenting my relocation to Oregon from the east coast about a year earlier.

(2) The opposite being "dumb growth," which doesn't seem to enjoy any public support. For more on the political uses of tautology, visit our friend Ellis at Disambiguation.

(3) Yet far more of Washington's forests and mountains are preserved in designated wilderness areas and national parks. Washington has three national parks, for example, compared to Oregon's one. Incredibly, there isn't a single national park on the entire Oregon coast, which has been decimated by development and decades of intensive logging.

(4) To get an idea of the extent of this desecration, this writer again invites readers to take an aerial tour of the Cascades or Coast Range on Google Earth. I recommend setting your altitude at about 8-10 miles for the full effect.

(5) Plum Creek Timber is the largest private landowner in the U.S.

PHOTO #1: The west side of Mt. Hood, Mt. Hood Wilderness (by the author, October 2006).
#2: Replanted clearcut in the Oregon Coast Range above Gales Creek (by the author, January 2007)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You would do well to post a follow-up article about lumber alternatives - recycled materials can be used to make paper and build houses, with no threat to forests. Look up Earthships (cheesy name, I know) and those nifty cement dome houses.