Sunday, May 06, 2007

Jackson County, Oregon

Jackson County is not a good place. Although it has the semi-major southern Oregon regional center of Medford, the county has never adjusted to a post-timber economy. In response, Jackson County has closed all 15 of its libraries for lack of funding. Josephine and Curry counties, also in southwestern Oregon, face similar funding declines. All of these counties face tax increases in order to continue basic services.

Of course, local residents blame the decline of the timber industry for these problems. There is some truth in this idea, but it is far more complicated than they care to admit. County Commissioner Dennis C.W. Smith remarks, “The real problem is this segment of absolutists that will not tolerate any use of federal lands for timber resources." This is a less than veiled slap at the environmental community that filed lawsuits which helped severely curtail the timber industry throughout the Northwest in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Smith represents the thoughts of many, but they are wrong. What they don't understand is that the timber industry in the Northwest would be virtually dead now anyway. Globalization was already destroying the region before the spotted owl crisis put the final nail in the industry's economy. An increasing number of raw logs were shipped overseas and cheaper timber was pouring in from British Columbia, New Zealand, the American South, and the tropics. Like many regional industries, timber in the Northwest can't compete in a globalized economy. If the government stripped away all sense of environmental regulation, it is true that the region would see a brief economic revival, but that would be the calm before the storm of its complete collapse when all the timber was gone.

Most importantly in understanding the history of this problem is that the timber industry used the spotted owl crisis to get out of the Northwest. They could blame all these mill closures on environmentalists while moving their operations worldwide. Few timber workers saw that their real enemy was not the environmentalists, who like the timber workers, wanted to see trees remain in the region forever. The enemy was the big timber companies who had severely overcut the region beginning after World War II and reaching a crescendo in the 1980s. All of this undermined the ecological base of the forest, leading to the spotted owl lawsuits and the end of the regional industry. Of course, many small operators did lose everything. But the big multinational corporations that had slowly gained a stranglehold over lumber production over the previous decades did just fine.

Americans still get their wood supplies and they are cheaper than ever. The only people hurt by this were the timber workers of the Northwest. For them, I feel bad. But like old mining towns such as Butte and Leadville, Coquille, Bandon, and Medford need to understand that the industry is not coming back. For them to survive, they need to develop alternative economies. Ashland has done quite well. With Southern Oregon State University and the Shakespeare Festival, they have figured out how to create a successful economy without timber. Others have turned to tourism, which is increasingly tenable, particularly along the Rogue River. It is hard for people to change their ways after growing up understanding that the timber would also be around. Maybe the government needs to play a bigger role in transforming these areas, although they have been involved pretty heavily since the beginning of the Clinton administration. In any case though, it's time to move on.

Of course, there is actually a pretty damn active alternative economy in southwestern Oregon. That is marijuana. Southwestern Oregon and northwestern California provides a huge amount of pot for the nation. Of course, none of this is taxed. But when people talk of the economic decline of the region, they don't mention the very active and lucrative underground economy.

Thanks a ton to Maggie for sending this along