Saturday, August 19, 2006

Deindustrialization and Poverty in Rural Oregon

I was pleased to see Erik Eckholm's New York Times article today on Oakridge, Oregon. I grew up about 40 miles from Oakridge so it's a town I know fairly well. Eckholm is right on in describing the disaster that has overtaken not only Oakridge but a plethora of small Oregon mountain towns--Coquille, Drain, Sweet Home, etc. All of these towns were as dependent on lumber as Akron was on rubber and Flint on cars. We usually think of deindustrialization in terms of large urban centers and factories. But industrialization always had complex roots in small towns, particularly in the American West where resource extraction dominated local economies. The 1980s were good times in these towns. But these were bound to end because they were predicated on unsustainable timber harvests. When that happened in the late 1980s and early 1990s, in part because most of the big trees were gone and in part because of the listing of the Northern spotted owl on the Endangered Species List, these towns had nothing to fall back on. I think the only reason for Oakridge to exist today is a) it's the first town with gas over the mountains on Highway 58 and b) as a speed trap.

While the story of deindustrialization is one of human tragedy, at the same time, I'm not sure why we should want people to keep living there. Most people are either not working or commuting to Eugene anyway. It's not responsible in an environmental or planning way to have people driving 45 miles down a winding mountain road to get to work every day.

What I found remarkable about the story was the woman who moved to Oakridge from Las Vegas not only because it seemed safe to raise her kids (which I question given meth use in that area) but because she could raise them on little money--it seems quite clear from the article that her intention to work much or find some kind of way to improve her life seems limited at best. Usually I am quite sympathetic with people in these situations, except that she had the agency to move several hundred miles north to make that lifestyle work for her. Really, if you have that kind of energy, why not try to find something a little better than a run-down trailer in Oakridge?