JOHN DAY, Oregon — As hail pounds the concrete outside, more than 200 people cram into an Elks Lodge — replete with wood paneling and a smoky bar in the rear — to see Judge Laura Pryor, the chairwoman of the Gilliam County Commission and one of the rural West’s most outspoken champions. With her long, manicured nails wrapped around a microphone, Prior tells the crowd of eastern Oregonians how to make their voices heard in the state capitol in Salem, about 250 miles west of here.
Although the arid sagebrush landscape east of the Cascade Mountains makes up more than two-thirds of the state, it’s lonely country. Eastern Oregon holds only 12 of the 91 legislative seats. Frequently, state policies that may be good for the majority of Oregonians — such as requiring all new roads to meet Portland’s engineering standards — create huge logistical headaches for small eastern communities.
In response, Pryor has led the charge to create the Eastern Oregon Rural Alliance, a nonprofit organization that aims to unite local governments, educators, ranchers, farmers and business owners. The group plans to create proposals for state laws that help rural communities. Eventually, it hopes to influence federal policies as well.
Since early 2003, more than 90 people have joined and attended bimonthly meetings like this one. Starting next year, the group hopes to convince legislators to introduce 13 bills, addressing everything from the cost of health insurance to logging on public lands. These bills, says Pryor, would create a "framework that fits us and wasn’t built for somebody else."
Laura Pryor grew up in San Diego County, Calif., where she rode her horse to school until second grade. As that rural landscape was developed and paved, Pryor decided she wanted her four children to have a less urban upbringing, so she moved to Oregon. That was more than 30 years ago.
After a stint at the state Department of Economic Development, she met a third-generation wheat farmer from eastern Oregon, married him and moved to his hometown of Condon, pop. 750. Within two years, the governor appointed her to fill a vacant seat on the county commission. Gilliam County is one of seven in the state that give the title "county judge" and some judicial functions to the chair of the county commission. Three elections later, Pryor has logged 17 consecutive years as Judge Laura.
During her tenure, Pryor has watched the steady decline of eastern Oregon’s traditional economies, such as wheat growing and logging. In 1981, she says, there were 357 wheat growers in Gilliam County; in recent years, as Australia nabbed much of the Pacific Rim wheat market, the number dropped to 56. "We saw businesses go out right and left," says Pryor.
After years of meetings with other county commissioners in which they would "just sit around and complain," she says it became clear that they needed a new tool. And so the alliance was born. So far, it has focused on issues its members believe are holding rural communities back, such as poor education, lack of good transportation, and strict land-use regulations (HCN, 11/25/02: Planning’s poster child grows up).
Although the alliance wants to ease state land-use restrictions in rural areas and increase local loggers’ access to trees on public lands, Pryor is quick to say that the group is not just trying to recreate the glory days of the extractive industries. Her county hopes to revive its wheat industry by looking for new domestic markets, while neighboring counties are focusing on tourism and telecommunications. Pryor would also like to see the governor organize small-business recruitment "missions" to cities such as Los Angeles and Seattle.
Though businesses are often concerned about the limited labor pool in rural areas, Pryor points to a large landfill that opened in Gilliam County in 1990. The landfill needed 120 employees; 400 people applied, including many local people who had moved away, but wanted to return. "It’s not true that everyone wants to live in a metropolitan area," says Pryor. "Our kids just don’t have a way to stay."
State officials are already paying attention to the alliance: At the John Day meeting in late April, Gov. Ted Kulongoski, a Democrat, is in attendance. He announces the creation of the West’s first Office of Rural Policy, which will examine how new state laws affect small communities. Housed in the Governor’s Office, the director will work with a 14-member rural policy advisory board.
Speculating on how the office came into existence, someone in the crowd shouts to Kulongoski that Pryor "kept pulling on your suspenders." The room erupts with applause and laughter, and the governor readily agrees. "This wouldn’t have happened without Judge Laura Pryor," he says. "She is one of the most persistent people I have ever run into."
But without highways or basic phone and Internet infrastructure in many places, it is a constant challenge to organize and motivate an aging and isolated population. And the Alliance’s plans to loosen land-use restrictions and increase logging are likely to meet resistance from environmental groups.
Andy Kerr, a longtime Oregon environmental activist, greets Judge Laura’s ideas with skepticism. "If you’re 50 miles from an interstate highway, you’re dead," he says. "You can change land-use codes to build a factory, but who wants to build there? You can gain access to more timber, but the economic tide has shifted."
Even so, Pryor says, the effort is worth it. "The bigger our urban areas get, the more the major systems that run our society begin to break down," she says. "The hope we have for quality of life in Oregon lies in the health of our smaller communities."
Rebecca Clarren writes from Portland, Oregon. HCN Contributing Editor Michelle Nijhuis contributed to this story.