Farm it or mine it?


A gravel company's proposal to mine 550 acres of farmland near the Willamette River has farmers fighting to save their soil.

A mild, wet climate and top-grade soils make Oregon's Willamette River Valley a prime farming location. "Anything you put in it will grow," says Thom Lanfear, planner for Lane County. The river valley, however, also contains high-quality gravel used for road base.

Now it's up to the county to decide whether growing food or building roads is more important. In 1999, Eugene Sand and Gravel Co. applied for Lane County's permission to mine gravel at a site about four miles north of Eugene. Critics of the proposed gravel mine say hundreds of truck trips per day and increased dust will disrupt wildlife, including threatened chinook salmon, and hurt local farms and businesses.

A couple who own a farm and a popular produce market bordering the proposed mine have already gathered more than 10,000 signatures opposing the company's plan, mostly from customers at their roadside stand. Randy Henderson, owner of Thistledown Farm, says the increased traffic from gravel trucks will harm his retail business, and he also worries that digging below the water table will ruin his irrigation system.

"We just don't think (the mine) is a very good use of our resources," he says. "It's short-term thinking for the profit of a few people. It doesn't have the people of Oregon in mind at all."

"We've gone to great lengths to listen to all concerns out there," says the company's president, Mike Alltucker. Eugene Sand and Gravel has submitted more than 1,000 pages of studies to the county, and is required to mitigate impacts on neighbors of the site. The company plans to reclaim the area, gradually turning it into a wildlife refuge during the 20-30 years it is mined.

The county is expected to decide by the end of the year whether to change the site's zoning designation from agricultural to industrial.

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