Hard Times in Rural Oregon

Jeff Alworth

The New York Times has a story today about the widening income gap between rural and urban Americans, focusing on the town of Oakridge, 40 miles southeast of Eugene.  The picture isn't pretty:

Expressed in 2005 dollars, the average pay for a full-time worker in rural Oregon fell to $27,600 in 2005 from $34,200 in 1976. Over the same period, average pay in urban counties in Oregon climbed to $37,800, putting the rural-urban gap at $10,200 and rising, according to the Oregon Employment Department.

About 700 Oakridge residents, from a population of about 4,500 in Oakridge and the surrounding area, visit a charity food pantry each month to pick up boxes of groceries worth $100 apiece. Two-thirds of public school students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, meaning their families are near the poverty line or below it. About 260 of the town’s 1,200 housing units are single-width trailers.

I can't help noticing that the ruby-red expanses of Bush Country are exactly the regions most visciously affected by a decade of GOP economic experiments (home- and Washington-grown).  The Times article mentions how locals "carp about the Forest Service and environmentalists"--yet it's hard to see how environmentalists can be blamed for the pan-American rural collapse.  Add a few of Bush's other grand experiments--Iraq, Medicare--and resources that might flow to help rural Oregon retool aren't available. 

Is it finally time for rural Oregonians to cut their support to Washington plutocrats and reconcile with the party of the people

  • Mike Smith (unverified)

    The argument that environmentalists are causing the pan-American rural collapse stems from the belief that restricting business is bad for workers. By regulating timber and other local industries, the businesses aren't allowed to grow as large as they could; locals probably believe that without the regulation, there'd be more jobs, the business would be more profitable, and thus workers would get paid more. Now I don't agree with the last argument, unless the increase in needed workers outstripped the supply and they had to raise wages to get more workers. Furthermore many conservative thinkers believe that restricting business (seen as the enterprise of successful, model citizens) is morally wrong, even if the other arguments didn't apply.

  • YoungOregonVoter (unverified)

    The reconciliation is not possible because of a clash of values. I graduated from high school from Pendleton, OR and the people there value the environment as a means to feeding their family. Saving the riparian areas? Forget it if it means that my child will go hungry if my cattle cannot graze there. In contrast, those who live in metro areas such as Portland, Salem and Eugene tend to value the environment as their "playground." Urbanites want to save those 'ancient old growth' forests. It is easy to want to save them when you make $50,000/year in a metro area and do not depend on the land for a means of supporting yourself and family.

    The clash of values would not be so apparent if and I mean "if" access to higher education and subsequently a better paying job were made more feasible to the rural oregonian. Seeing as how higher education like every other social program in this state is paid for by taxes, the voters will have the final word on that.

  • (Show?)

    The "values clash" is self-created by both sides and misses the mark. Saving riparian areas, for example, means saving salmon--a species born in fresh water that grows at sea and returning to spawn and die in its home waters, brings nutrients to the forests loggers AND environmentalists depend on.

    Saving what little is left of ancient forests provides genetic diversity for forests, preventing a monoculture that's vulnerable to a single disease.

    Having grown up in Central Oregon, I know that the values of organized are often more dominant in rural areas than in urban locations. If one sees nature as creation--regardless of who we think created it--we will treat it with reverence and sound stewardship.

    These are things we can all agree with. For pragmatic and spiritual reasons.

    Les AuCoin Blog

  • BlueNote (unverified)

    When you see the decline of our rural agricultural communities, you can understand why the French and other EU members are fighting so hard to preserve agricultural subsidies for their own farmers. Free trade has brought you ten dollar DVD players at the mega-mart, but it also forces Oregon farmers to sell their crops at worldwide commodity prices, competing against places like China and Pakistan, both of whom have vastly lower costs of production.

    The "good" news may be that when things get bad enough in the rural communities, America's Fortune 500 companies often come swooping in like vultures to pick up the bones / bargains. In the little town of Quincy, Washington both Microsoft and Yahoo! are building huge (billion dollar) server farms. Both companies cited the cheap cost of land and electrical power and unskilled labor as the reason for locating there.

    I guess the lesson is that today's bankrupt farming community is tomorrow's profit opportunity.

  • Steve Bucknum (unverified)

    And if you want to do something about this - seeing how over half of Oregon's geography is in the Second Congressional District, see the other two posts this weekend on Blue Oregon.

    Vote for Voisin to get the $5,000 prize, and donate directly to her campaign through her website. http://www.voisinforcongress.com/

    Everyone assumes the income gap between urban / rural is about things like the decline of timber. I think it's a little more complex. For example, our agriculture has taken it on the chin from NAFTA and WTO. Here in Crook County, mint used to be a very profitable crop. The bottom fell out of that a couple years back when China got into the mint game. Same happened to apples up in Hood River. Kimberly over in Grant County used to be great for peaches. A few years ago I saw orchards being leveled - and in the local news I see that there was a big bust for a marijuana growing operation there in the last week (a guy's got to make a living somehow?).

    The other thing I see on the ground is that we are becoming a retirement community. I don't have any facts or figures to back this up other than my observations - but a large number of people moving here are escaping high prices in the urban areas to buy cheaper homes here in the rural areas and/or to return to a rural area like where they grew up.

    Until the price of auto gas shot up recently (currently $3.11 per gallon in Prineville), I would argue that less income in rural areas was offset by less living expense. I think that was by in large true until the last 5 years. With the cost of health care, energy, food, and other things people have to buy going up so much; we in the rural areas are now feeling our lower income levels.

    The lack of any Federal concern is telling. The fact that Republicans like our own Greg Walden vote against their own rural districts is telling (see my post on this). And there is the war in Iraq. There is a great deal of unrest with Republicans in our rural areas - I will be interested to see how the vote in November goes (and I expect an October terror surprise).

  • Gordie (unverified)

    The outsourcing of mint production has a parallel with timber production. For instance, we now import 1/3 of our timber needs from Canada. We've outsourced both the jobs and the environmental impacts...and, a much higher percentage of Canada's timber comes the clearcutting of old growth than here in the U.S. In many instances, shutting logging down here instead of improving its practice has been short-sighted from a global environmental perspective.

  • YoungOregonVoter (unverified)


    In terms of the environment, you state the obvious that we need to preserve it in a way for future generations to use. I would argue that since most of those riparian areas are in PUBLIC lands under the authority of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) or the Department of Foresty (in certain areas), no one cares about stewardship because it is NOT their land. I would argue further that private ownership of land IDEALLY creates better stewardship because it is your family's solely, your family can live off of it, and the land is passed down through generations. This where you and I most likely differ. Please correct me if I am wrong about my assertions about the majority of riparian areas laying in the domain of public lands.

    On another note, one has to talk the talk AND walk the walk. Meaning one can reside in a metro area, learn and recite all the latest scientific studies and evidence on the environment. However, the main question for the environmentally-inclined is, how does one translate all those studies and evidence into public policy that meshes with the values of rural and urban alike?

  • (Show?)

    Part of the reason I'm such a big fan of Governor Brian Schweitzer (who will be in Portland on Tuesday, please join us) is the compelling and concise way he told the tale of the decline of American mint farming.

    He is himself a mint farmer, but in a speech in Seattle that I attended, he described (extemporaneously, btw) how Wal-Mart squeezed Proctor & Gamble (maker of Crest toothpaste) and forced a complete re-structuring of the mint-farming industry.

    It was an astonishing tale, brilliantly told, and all the more so because it was an off-the-cuff ad-hoc story. Those who heard it understood - on a gut level, not just an intellectual one - the impacts of Wal-Mart on rural communities and rural families.

  • (Show?)


    They've done the same thing to Vlasic, which of course affects those who grow the cucumbers, peppers, etc. that Vlasic uses in its products.

  • KISS (unverified)

    All comments hit on important issues. But don't forget riparian problems hit the cosmopolitans also. The Willamette river is in big trouble and finding a solution [ no pun intended] isn't easy. DEQ is afraid of the big polluters, 'cept the sewage problem being pushed onto the rate-payers. If you remember, the plight of the farmer started under Reagan. More farmer bankruptcies were filed then ever before...worse than even the depression. Agribusiness is what has killed the farmer and destroyed good land..same applies to mega logging giants. Nitrates are used at a rate that is unbelievable and run off is killing of the fish, both in the rivers and ocean. This is true nation-wide.

  • Harry (unverified)

    Gordie writes: "The outsourcing of mint production has a parallel with timber production. For instance, we now import 1/3 of our timber needs from Canada. We've outsourced both the jobs and the environmental impacts...and, a much higher percentage of Canada's timber comes the clearcutting of old growth than here in the U.S. In many instances, shutting logging down here instead of improving its practice has been short-sighted from a global environmental perspective." ==============

    As someone who is currently enjoying the smokey view of the Three Sisters mountains as we speak, I believe it is the Enviromentalists who are actively preventing any salvage of timber from the burned out B&B complex from a few years ago, stalling it with lawsuits until it is not worth harvesting. Like they did with the Biscuit fire in southern Oregon, and the Cache mountain fire that burned a couple of Black Butte Ranch homes, and also what they will do with the Black Crater and Lake George fires currently polluting the Central Oregon air worse than 1 million SUVs.

    Rather than harvest all these beetle infested dead wood forests, some people believe that it is far better to let Mother Nature burn them up instead, polluting the environment in the process, so we can spend millions of tax payers' dollars putting out those fires.

    I guess if you are an unemployed logger working as a fire fighter, it kinda makes sense. Or maybe an Environmentalist trying to save the forests from the loggers so that the beetles and the fires get them instead.

    As for me, I think that the fires make for great sunsets, like this evening's spectacular one over Mt. Washington.

    And if Americans have to pay more for imported lumber from Canada, instead of using domestic lumber, well sometimes you got to go for the greater good, eh? I mean, Canadian loggers got to put food on the table too, you know? Eh?

  • (Show?)

    There is a good reason why environmentalists fight logging in many of these burned out areas-- they're currently roadless areas. There is work actively being done to make these roadless areas into wilderness areas.

    However, if any logging is done-- even of these burned out areas-- the area is ineligible for protection as a wilderness area. And that means that logging can be done later in areas that aren't burned out.

    Once the area is a wilderness area, it is protected from logging.

    In areas that aren't roadless, there is also the need for burned out and dead trees for nutrients in the soil, homes for animals, etc.

    I've watched both the fires out by Sisters burn this year, as we were visiting family on the Crooked River Ranch. Their living room faces the mountains. It was terrible to watch the flames each night while we were there.

    Click here for an image of the fire near Mt. Washington

  • John (unverified)

    Jenni writes "However, if any logging is done-- even of these burned out areas-- the area is ineligible for protection as a wilderness area"

    Jenni, if that's truly the issue against salvage of these burned areas, than it seems to be an administrative constraint in the law. The solution would then be to change the law or administrative rule which requires an area to be "roadless" for inclusion as a wilderness area. Why couldnt roads be built for the salvage, and then abandoned and put-to-bed upon comletion of the harvest? We have the technology and know-how to do that.

  • (Show?)

    As with the "values" prescription, the "environmental" one is mostly bogus. It is true that many environmentalists function in small, disconnected factions, and have in the past pushed their agendas so stridently that they alienated rural Oregonians. Surely some active support of loggers during the spotted owl controversy would have been a strategically smart move.

    But from farmers like my aunt and uncle to fishermen to loggers to hunters, Oregonians have always had an orientation to healthy, clean outdoors. The loggers who today so despise environmentalists voted for Kennedy 45 years ago. Smear-masters in the GOP have carefully cultivated the myth of the environmental divide, and too often Dems and liberals have played into it. As times get tougher and the state and Federal GOP actively worsen it, I sense the time is ripe for Dems to begin to mend a long-broken fence.

    Steve Bucknum has documented the case of the rural Dem for months on BlueOregon, and I think he's exactly right to point out the subtleties of the situation. We play into that red/blue (read: black/white) dichotomy at the GOP's delight.

  • dan j (unverified)

    I love how Jeff's post was a question about rural vs. urban income gaps and the posts degenerated into typical Liberal talking points:

    • Walmart is evil
    • Save the fish and furry critters
    • Save the cucumbers and apples.
    • bla, bla, bla, bla, bla, bla, bla, bla, bla, bla

    Very little concern in these comments about those acutal people in OakRidge.

    Yes, they were put out of work to save the Spotted Owl. People in the timber industry (spotted owl), the fishing industry (no more fishing even though the farm raised get slaughtered), the farming industry (no pesticides) understand exactly which party the enviro-socialists belong to.

    As for Walmart: people that are un-employed due to enviro tantrums are probably thrilled to be able to pay lower prices. They have no use for your high-minded conversations.

  • (Show?)

    Jenni makes the beginning of a compelling point when she talks about logging of specific areas lowering the chance that they will receive "wilderness" designation in the future.

    Many of the leaders of the enviros take a long view. One need look no further than their plan for wilderness and roadless set asides on Mt. Hood.

    The purported wilderness ideal is to annex land "contiguous" to existing wilderness, but as that just isn't restrictive enough, there are better plans afoot.

    A cursuroy look at the Mt. Hood map shows that they have taken out a bunch of 640 acre (one section) plots to set aside as roadless. That these sections do not currently adjoin other roadless areas is actually the point. Once approved, the enviros can then argue to annex lands that adjoin the property acquired in the latest land grab and gradually color in the newly minted contiguous plots.

    All neat, tidy, and far sighted.

    And, of course, dishonest (but for a good cause).

  • Mike Smith (unverified)

    His post points out an article about the rural vs. urban income gaps. Most of the posts that follow are arguments about his commentary on the article he linked, which is just as relevant as the article itself.

    In response to: Walmart is evil. The specific allegations against Walmart posted above concern a move they made that affected mint farmers, and made it nearly impossible for small-business mint farmers to survive. Isn't protecting small-business and farmer interests one of the main conservative talking points? In regards to your statement about the price of products at Walmart, this link relates a story told in the book "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America" by Barbara Ehrenreich where a Walmart employee couldn't afford to buy a shirt employees are required to wear.

    In response to: Save the fish/furry critters/cucumbers/apples. The concerns about fish, cucumbers, apples and pesticides affect the health of people who eat them, or in the case of pesticides drink water. These are health concerns that companies have historically been poor at looking after on their own.

    I'm still working on an argument for the Spotted Owl that appeals to people who see no inherent value in animals besides eating or taming them.

    In general the environmentalist problem is balancing our need to expand with our need to preserve a stable ecosystem.

  • (Show?)


    It doesn't have anything to do with the roads. Wildnerness areas are supposed to be untouched. As such, if they go in and do logging, they no longer qualify for wilderness protection. Even if all of it was done by hand, with no roads, it was still logged, and therefore ineligible.

    Also, it's no as if we're protecting a lot of land here in Oregon. As was just pointed out in the post about Mt. Hood, we're protecting around 3.7% of our lands now. If we added every roadless area to that, the figure brings you up to around 4%. Other states around us are already protecting 10%+. Personally, I'm with the crowd that says protect as much of Mt. Hood as possible. It's beautiful and a treasure to be protected for future generations. And it absolutely makes me sick to my stomach to see the clear cuts up there.

  • (Show?)

    I'm still working on an argument for the Spotted Owl that appeals to people who see no inherent value in animals besides eating or taming them.

    This is a conversation environmentalists should be having with loggers, not other liberals. (And protecting streams from run-off is one we should have with farmers, and protecting habitat with hunters, etc.) The problem isn't that environmentalists have been wrong about the spotted owl, the problem is that they were trying to save old-growth trees and using spotted owls as a proxy. It gave the timber companies a perfect opportunity to exploit this confused agenda and split loggers and enviros. Personally, I think loggers are great, and as a user of wood products, I'm thankful to them.

    If we work to save family farms, jobs in sustainable logging, commercial fishing, and habitat for hunters, we will create a vast network of support. Talking to those constituents would be a good place to start.

  • Mike Smith (unverified)

    Good point, I was trying to separate the issue of cutting down too many forests and preserving endangered species, but then forgot to make a point about preserving forests.

  • Chuck Paugh (unverified)

    Many jobs in rural Oregon are tied to the agricultural industry. The majority of these jobs are filled with immigrant labor (mostly legal, some illegal.) As last week's census report indicated, Oregon's immigrant population is growing creating a greater labor pool for the agriculture industry thus allowing them to cut wages.

    I think the solution is greater education for these immigrant workers informing them of their wage and labor rights. Additionally, organizing these immigrant laborers in a more coheasive union-like matter to allow them to withhold their services unless a farm pays a higher rate of pay. Plus, if there was a greater enforcement of verifying worker documentation and putting farm managers in jail who don't do it, then you would see the illegal problem go away and legal immigrant wages rise.

  • Steve Bucknum (unverified)

    Dan J writes, "Very little concern in these comments about those acutal people in OakRidge.

    Yes, they were put out of work to save the Spotted Owl."

    Are you kidding?? There is a great deal of concern for the people in Oakridge. I live in a town a lot like Oakridge that has seen 5 very large mills close. Where is the evidence for the "lack of concern"? When you really look at this, the "lack of concern" takes place vote by vote in Congress where the Republicans block and block again all efforts to help people like those in Oakridge or Prineville. -- Take a look at my post on Walden.

    The Spotted Owl is blamed for a complete end of logging. Well it had an impact but not what is advertised. I've been in and out of Oakridge starting in 1970. The hills around Oakridge were pretty much logged out way before the Spotted Owl issue came up. Oakridge was in decline like many small logging towns before the Spotted Owl.

    The Oregon Coast Range and the Cascade foothills were full of people 100 years ago. Slowly, town after town has died and gone away, some towns were completely leveled - and the Spotted Owl only made this longer term issue have a small bump in the road.

    For small town Oregon in the logging areas, the reality has been either adapt or die. The two major political parties are either part of the solution or part of the problem when it comes to adaptation. What has been blocked by the Republicans over the decades and mainly since they gained control of Congress in 1994, is nearly criminal in its effects on small towns that have made every effort to adapt.

    Dan J - you shout the Republican line very well - but, its just wrong.

  • Kevin (unverified)

    I cannot help but be dismayed that this discussion is based upon a New York Times article that was so slanted that molasses would pour off of it like water. That writer selected every picture and every person to show this "poor" example of rural Oakridge. Well, I could do that in New York, too. The article (which showed a shed as the last remnant of the old mill) missed everything good that has happened here in the last four or five years. The industrial park has refurbished buildings and a new building, with tenants! We just annexed 130 acres for new residential development. We had a new Chevron built in town (You can just barely see the sign in the background of the picture of the mobile home park.), and it was built to the new Highway 58 Cascadia Design Standards. How about the new amphitheater in town that has had concerts all summer? No... no mention of that.

    I believe, and this is just my opinion, that timber resources can be harvested and endangered species can also be saved. It's a matter of forest management. Trees are a renewable resourse, and that resource should be utilized. The key, simply, is better management. However, even if the forests were open wide for logging, the mills are not coming back to Oakridge. It is easier to truck them to an existing mill. We have to deal with that fact, and move forward.

    By the way... the same week-end as that horrible article, the Eugene Register-Guard did a splendid story on Mountain Bike Oregon, a second annual event that went from 50 riders last year to 320 riders this year. Sometimes... you need to focus on the positives.

    Oakridge - The Center of Oregon Recreation

  • (Show?)

    The decline in rural America is worse than raw population data shows; rural America is graying as well as sinking into poverty. Most of the small towns in Oregon have even fewer children than the currently prosperous but built-to-die Pearl District in Portland; both areas are structured for a die off in the long run without family friendly jobs, housing, or infrastructure. Last accounting I saw showed multiple school districts in Oregon with 1 or even zero students, and consequently with no open school. It's hard to see how anyone with kids could even contemplate moving into a town with no place to educate them.

    The spotted owl thing is a red herring. If all regulations were removed from logging public lands, loggers would have a couple years of huge incomes and overtime pay up until the moment that the last tree fell (remember hte 80s?). Then we'd be right back were we are now--wondering why we didn't think harder about sustainable yields.

    <h2>But did anyone notice that urban incomes since 1976 have only "risen" from 34K to 37K? That's basically static. It's better than falling wages, but nothing to brag on. Looking at why the whole economy is leaving most of us behind might be a good place to start bridging the supposed rural/urban gap.</h2>

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