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The Long-Term Impact of the Timber Economy

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As some of you know, I have a pretty complex and ambivalent view of the history of the Pacific Northwest, largely because I grew up in a timber-supported household when the industry was disappearing and when environmentalists were suing to end the unsustainable and environmentally unsound forest practices that helped create the crisis of the 1980s. The ambivalence comes from very deep sympathies for working-class people in the Northwest (where by all rights and odds I should be struggling to make ends meet now instead of being a professor in Rhode Island) but at the same time knowing that environmentalists were basically right on all the issues, even if the approach wasn’t always the best.

What I’m not ambivalent on is the responsibility of the timber industry for these problems and the lack of a diversified economy that still plagues the region today. While most people think of the Northwest as Portlandia and beer and mountains, huge chunks of the region are mired in poverty. Much of that poverty, especially on the west side of the Cascades, is directly related to the legacy of the timber industry. That most definitely includes southwestern Oregon, where you have counties that were for decades reliant on funding from the O&C land grant, a defaulted railroad land grant of timber that reverted to the government and which supported the basic government functions of these counties. When the spotted owl crisis was happening, the timber industry used this to their advantage, saying that ending logging on these lands meant the defunding of schools, police, roads, whatever. They were right about that, of course leaving the part out about their own culpability.

Even today, 20 years after the end of most old-growth logging in Oregon, the implications of this are still profound. You have Curry, Josephine, and Lane Counties, basically Eugene and the southwestern corner of the state, absolutely struggling to fund even basic government functions like the police. Because voters don’t want to raise taxes and because there really is no alternative economy in Curry and Douglas counties (outside of untaxed marijuana production), there isn’t much functionality in the county governments. That leads to some pretty severe social problems, as we are seeing.

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