Work in eastern Oregon is tied to the land: Guest opinion Published in the Oregonian Jan 31, 2014
Sustainable land use can pull rural Oregon out of poverty
By John Audley, President, Sustainable Northwest, and Scott Campbell, DVM, Silvies Valley Ranch
At the December Leadership Summit, Oregon business leaders placed poverty reduction on par with other economic priorities for the state. The Oregonian editorial board echoed this call, arguing that the time is right to take on this challenge. We agree, and in fact believe the call is long past due. But in many instances the remedies for poverty in rural areas differ dramatically with those required in our population centers. In eastern Oregon, solving this problem will depend largely upon our ability to put people back to work in a natural resource-based economy.
Youth flight and an aging workforce, education levels below the state average, and high unemployment are leading factors that saddle the region with the highest poverty rates in the state. One out of every 20 Oregonians lives in eastern Oregon – seven persons per square mile - as compared to 1700 in Multnomah County. Sixteen percent of East Oregonians are college-educated, compared to a statewide average of 29 percent. Unemployment averages 8.3 percent across the region, compared to an average of 6.6 percent along the I-5 corridor.
While these numbers highlight trends the state must overcome to reduce the region’s poverty rates, land use is perhaps the most important issue that will help shape how eastern Oregon meets the challenge of poverty. Nearly 70 percent of eastern Oregon is owned by the federal government; a ‘neighbor’ whose home and focus is 3,000 miles away. Oregon’s beautiful eastern landscape and rugged vistas are too distant from population centers, interstate highways, and seaports to make manufacturing a pathway out of poverty. A sustainable future for eastern Oregon depends upon sustainable and innovative use of natural resources: forestry, farming, ranching, energy, and tourism. But, as Senator Ted Ferrioli acknowledged during the Leadership Summit, the social license to utilize these natural resources is controlled by people living in our west-side population centers, not with east-side citizens engaged every day in efforts to make these landscapes work for communities and nature.
One consequence of this unfortunate dynamic is enormous West-to-East transfer payments to cover everything from basic services to desperately needed public support. This transfer often fosters two-way resentment: Some west-siders resent paying for these programs because they are expensive, and because they do not trust East-siders to protect Oregon’s natural resources. Some east-siders’ independence is threatened by the help, and they resent it because they feel they are prohibited from working these landscapes by those who do not really understand what it means to live and work in Oregon’s ‘frontier communities’. To make progress on rural poverty we must address both these perceptions head on.
The Leadership Summit hints at part of the solution to this puzzle: anti-poverty programs "customized" to reflect geographic and demographic differences. The Kitzhaber administration emphasizes reaching agreement over the responsible use of natural resources by fostering local collaboratives designed to find common ground. We agree with both, but propose a finer focus. To unleash the economy of eastern Oregon and end unwanted and expensive wealth transfers, we must reach an agreement on how to utilize natural resources in a creative manner appropriate for its sparse population. While we must learn from abuses in natural resource use that happened in the past, we must allow reasonable uses for the current circumstances. All of Oregon needs to come together to develop our long-term plans and strategies for economic development, with shared resources, to create a prosperous future for us all.
We propose to initiate such a dialogue. We will engage the State’s academic institutions, agency officials, civic and business leaders to discuss how to put eastern Oregon back to work. As we have done with our recent efforts to create sustainable markets for juniper wood products, and secure broad support for federal forest management practices on the Malheur National Forest, we will challenge both rural and urban Oregonians to see past their misunderstandings of one another to foster consensus on natural resource use and protection. Like so many other challenges facing Oregon, we believe that by working together we can reduce poverty in our rural places by finding sustainable solutions that benefit both people and the environment.
John Audley is President of Sustainable Northwest, a non-profit organization committed to finding workable solutions to natural resource issues that benefit both people and nature. This year marks Sustainable Northwest’s 20thanniversary; Scott Campbell, DVM is a fourth generation Oregonian, founder of Banfield Pet Hospitals, and owner of several successful Oregon businesses including the Silvies Valley Ranch between John Day and Burns (where Dr. Campbell grew up). The ranch is being used to pioneer new ecological and economic strategies that will create positive change and a better future for the Frontier Oregon region and the rest of the state.