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Right-Wing Rage in Oregon

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Yamhill County, Oregon doesn’t really seem like it would be a center of right-wing rage. The edge of the county is only 12 miles from Portland. It has a nice liberal arts school in McMinnville–Linfield University. There are lots of wineries. But oh boy is it a center of right-wing rage. Sure, it’s a rural agricultural county, but we aren’t talking about west Texas here. And as Leah Sottile explores in High Country News, it’s over some pretty dumb things.

In Oregon, as in other Western states, “urban-rural divide” is shorthand for the cultural, political and economic tensions between the few urban centers — Portland, Eugene, Salem, Bend — and the many rural communities. That divide, Kulla said, is fundamental to understanding the place. He wishes it wasn’t real, he said, “but it is.”

In 2013, the county received a grant to purchase the abandoned railway right of way near the old graveyard. The plan was to repurpose it as a public trail: the Yamhelas Westsider Trail, named for the Kalapuya Tribe, whose homeland this is, and the rail line that trundled through in the 1870s.

The route would eventually span 12 miles. Rail-to-trail projects exist all over the United States; there are 23 in Oregon. Supporters believed it would encourage visitors to come and celebrate the place’s natural beauty.

“People want to come here and experience (Yamhill County),” Higgins said, “and preserving that experience is really what we need to be doing, so we aren’t all of a sudden full of Quiznos and Starbucks.”

But the trail has since become the center of a local culture war. “We don’t talk about abortion in our community, or guns,” Kulla said. “We talk about if you support the trail.” He is currently its lone supporter on the county commission.

The project was first imagined in 1991. Locals supported it: As recently as June, an online petition in its favor had more than 3,200 signatures.

But the trail, like the railroad that preceded it, would cut through farmland. A group of more than two dozen farmers — some with property alongside the right of way, others from 20 miles away — say the trail would impact how they farm and what they can spray. It would encourage trespassers and maybe attract tent encampments for unhoused people. They say land-use laws mean farmers shouldn’t have to change, no matter what the community wants.

They also say the county didn’t involve them in the planning. “(County officials) pissed people off,” Higgins said. “And Yamhill County is one of those places where if your great-grandfather pissed my great-grandfather off, we’re probably not getting married.”

In a state where politics is dominated by the urban-rural divide, it’s as if the proposed Yamhill County trail is the actual place — the exact line — where that divide begins.

Yes, the urban/rural divide certainly matters. But it’s more than that. The thing about the modern right–which really should just be considered the far right now since there’s no difference–is that anything, even something as innocuous as a rail trail, is the spark not just for political disagreement, but for incandescent rage at all the imagined enemies of these people. In this case, you have people who live in Portland, environmentalists, and the homeless, right away. No doubt other groups get caught up in the enemy list too. And like everything else in Oregon, it all goes back to the spotted owl, even though that was largely settled 30 years ago. I don’t think you can overestimate just how important this became in Northwestern politics and how important it remains in rural communities today. Sottile goes into this in some detail, so I definitely recommend reading the whole thing.

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