A small town in Oregon gets ugly

  • Effigies of local environmentalists Rick Bailey and Andy Kerr

    Rick Swart

After tarred-and-feathered effigies of two environmental activists were strung up in the center of Joseph, Ore., Sept. 30, the local newspaper headlined its story: "Enviros can learn a lot from a couple of dummies." Some residents then organized an economic boycott aimed at driving the two environmentalists out of town.

Were these tactics reminiscent of the 1920s, when the Ku Klux Klan held sway in Oregon, as the East Oregonian in Pendleton editorialized? Or was it just a prank intended to build solidarity in hard times, as some elected officials and organizers suggested?

In Joseph these days, the answer depends on your point of view.

The recipients of this attention were Ric Bailey, executive director of the Hells Canyon Preservation Council, and Andy Kerr, executive director of the Oregon Natural Resources Council. Both have become scapegoats for federal logging and grazing restrictions as well as two mill closures in Joseph.

Northeastern Oregon's Wallowa County, population 7,150, sits at the base of the rugged Wallowa Mountains. It is one of those places where the future of the West is taking shape, as recreation and a thriving artists' community add new threads to the now fraying economic tapestry of logging, farming and ranching.

Bailey has spent 17 years in Joseph, battling the U.S. Forest Service almost single-handedly over logging, grazing and recreation management in Hells Canyon National Recreation Area. Kerr, a household name in the forest preservation movement, moved to Joseph from Portland last summer.

In one sense, Wallowa County has sustained more than its share of bad news. In May, Boise Cascade Corp. closed its Joseph mill, eliminating 52 jobs. In July, a federal appeals court ordered a halt to logging, grazing and road-building until the Forest Service completed consultation on protection of wild salmon. Five ranchers had to move their cows.

Then, in late October, R-Y Timber announced that it would close its Joseph sawmill, costing the community 68 jobs. One sawmill remains in the county, but it has laid off 60 people this year.

Even so, Wallowa County's overall economy, fueled by tourism and recreation, is robust, with unemployment at just 5.3 percent.

The demonstration and hanging occurred the day before a conference that attracted 110 people to the Joseph Community Center to hear wise-use organizers Ron Arnold, William Perry Pendley and Wayne Hage; Republican gubernatorial candidate Denny Smith also spoke.

Dale Potter, a retired teacher and Forest Service archaeologist who is a candidate for the Wallowa County Court, said he organized the rally and conference "so the people of Wallowa County could find out what they need to do to protect themselves from the eco-environmental movement."

Potter defended the use of nooses and effigies, with their loaded symbolism. He said he was merely responding in kind to rhetoric from the other side.

"Effigy symbols have been used for eons to make a point. Andy and Ric have been very bold about their position. They use environmental issues for their own agenda of social engineering and cultural cleansing."

Rick Swart, editor of the Wallowa County Chieftain, which co-sponsored the wise-use conference, dismissed the idea that the symbolic hanging might invite violence.

"It was kind of a special event, a publicity stunt," Swart said. "You look at those people; not a one of them would hurt a fly. It's more the John Wayne, hang "em high, Wild West flavor. It let them vent."

Swart, whose front-page stories on logging and grazing issues make little pretense at balance, defended the newspaper's sponsorship of the conference.

"There's a message to be heard that is not being heard, about people having lives and jobs and job security. People here are not used to lights, cameras and having to engage in debate with Andy Kerr. We wanted to send the message that it's okay to be loggers and ranchers in a small town."

No environmentalists were invited to speak at the conference.

Soon after, a handful of local residents reportedly attempted to organize a very personal boycott. Merchants were encouraged to refuse Kerr and Bailey service to drive home the message that they are not welcome in Wallowa County. Customers were urged to boycott businesses that served the two.

The East Oregonian denounced the tactic in a strongly worded editorial, saying: "Make no mistake about it. Forcing people to leave their homes because of their political or religious views is evil. Suggesting boycotts against small businesses because they serve certain people deemed undesirable is evil."

Kerr says he has been largely untouched by the boycott. "I've had a lot of members (of Oregon Natural Resources Council) and donors express concern. Support has been shown both inside and outside Wallowa County."

But Bailey said he is encountering hostility from local businesses and has to take his truck out of town to get it serviced.

Joanne Harrison, the owner of a small shopping mall where Bailey has an office, told The Oregonian that businesses there are being boycotted because of Bailey's presence and said she wants him out. But merchants at the mall later denied that they were being boycotted.

Bailey said he has a two-year lease with 20 months to go and has no intention of leaving.

The demonizing of Andy Kerr also extended to a local March of Dimes healthy baby campaign. After Kerr agreed to be an honorary fund raiser, a number of people refused to contribute. Nevertheless, the campaign raised nearly twice as much money as last year.

Not everyone agrees with the tactics of exclusion. Sandy Wiedemann of the Oregon Lands Coalition said her group supports loggers, millworkers and ranchers but does not back the boycott.

Some ranchers agree. "We wish they lived somewhere else," said Betty VanBlaricom, a Wallowa County rancher. "But this is America. They have a right to live where they want to live. We wouldn't personally drive them out."

County Commissioner Bob Boswell says the entire matter has been blown out of proportion by the news media. "This was just a little letting off of steam that may or may not have been appropriate," he said.

There is room in Wallowa County for environmentalists, Boswell said. But he believes they need to contribute something to the community and reach out if they hope to gain acceptance.

Since the incidents, Kerr has become a martyr of sorts. The Portland alternative news weekly, Willamette Week, noting that Oregon's rural economy is strongly on the rebound even in Wallowa County, suggested that the county might one day want to memorialize Kerr by raising a statue in his honor.

Kerr says his feelings weren't hurt by the effigy-hanging (-My sensitivity knob is turned all the way to the left') and predicts it could backfire on organizers by generating sympathy and money for the Oregon Natural Resources Council.

His foes in Wallowa County give him credit for far more power than he has, Kerr says. But he sees little chance for mediation. "Intolerant people have short attention spans. There's so much to hate and so little time."

Those who disagree with him won't even grant him the sincerity of his point of view, that logging and livestock grazing are not good for fish and wildlife, Kerr says.

"They believe I must have a scarlet agenda to destroy their lifestyle. It's a mischaracterization of my position, so how can we have a dialogue?"

The reporter free-lances from Portland, Oregon.

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