A tale of two - or three - Oregons


Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

Oregon thrives on a stereotype. Many outsiders imagine the state to be full of flannel-shirted outdoor enthusiasts, slogging through damp evergreen forests with a cup of coffee in one hand and a fishing rod in another. Images of ancient Douglas-firs and healthy, progressive citizens attract droves of tourists and newcomers to Oregon: Eleven million people visited last year, and nearly half a million people have moved to the state since 1991. But some of these new arrivals are surprised at what they find.

"There are two Oregons," says Coos County commissioner Gordon Roth. "There's the urban Oregon, and then there's us, the rural Oregon."

Most of Oregon's reputation for progressive social and economic policies springs from its urban centers. These divisions become obvious each fall, when residents stake cardboard lawn signs to make their sympathies part of the landscaping. While environmental groups in Portland and Eugene champion on the 1998 ballot an initiative banning clear-cutting, for instance, signs in its more conservative suburbs proclaim vehement opposition. And in 1992 and 1994, when debates over successive anti-gay rights initiatives convulsed the state, Portland seemed an island in a sea of pro-family-values banners.

These political faultlines spring from a split economy. In the rural westside counties, decades of intensive logging have left the fabled old-growth forests in tatters. There, water and cheap electricity are still plentiful, but jobs cutting trees and fishing for salmon are all but gone. Since the early "90s, logging on federal land has been reduced by nearly 80 percent, due in part to the 1993 Northwest Forest Plan. Timber employment in the state has fallen by more than 15 percent since 1990, with most logging now taking place on private lands.

On Oregon's coast, plummeting salmon runs have taken a toll on the fishing industry. Bottom feeders like catfish and rockfish have partially made up for the economic impact of the declining salmon populations, but many observers fear this harvest is not sustainable.

Westside counties still make their living off the state's federal lands, which make up more than half of the state. But these days, they're beginning to count on tourism, which has risen 36 percent since 1991. Tourism-related jobs in Oregon, most of which depend on visitors to Forest Service or Park Service holdings, have increased by over 20 percent since 1990.

On the eastern side of the volcanic Cascade Range, rural Oregon turns into a desert. Roughly two-thirds of the 96,000-square-mile state is part of the Interior West, where high schools paint letters on the bare mesas above town and one sprawling southeastern county supports the only public boarding school in the United States. Huge chunks of eastern Oregon are roadless sagebrush flats, and the population is concentrated in a few pockets. A large part of the region has less than one resident per square mile. Here, the biggest landowner is the Bureau of Land Management, and most people have a stake in the struggling public-lands ranching industry.

In contrast to the narrowly based economies of the wet and dry rural areas, urban Oregon makes its living in a variety of ways. About two-thirds of the state's 3 million residents are concentrated in the westside corridor of Portland, Salem and Eugene. The high-tech industry has been drawn here from California by the relatively clean air, lack of sprawl and proximity of the Northwestern cities to outdoor recreation spots. Many urban Oregonians not part of the new industries get by any way they can, often accepting lower-paying or lower-status jobs simply to stay in the state. University of Oregon professor Ed Whitelaw has dubbed this the "second paycheck" phenomenon, since many of these residents consider their quality of life to be a salary bonus.

Despite their differences, the two - or three - Oregons must share one governor. For a politician who champions collaboration and balance in problem solving, the state may offer the ultimate challenge. In Oregon, the battle lines are already starkly drawn.