How a trail in rural Oregon became a target of far-right extremism

To understand the state’s urban-rural divide, start by looking at Yamhill County’s proposed walking trail.

Up the slow rise of a country road, in the shadow of an oak tree, one of the oldest gravestones in the Yamhill Carlton Pioneer Memorial Cemetery lies flat against the wet green earth. Until his death nearly 140 years ago, a white settler farmed here, preached and claimed that he carried bullets in his back from an Indigenous boy’s gun. Presumably, those bullets are buried, too: a reminder of the way stories can eventually become Western myth.

Downhill from the graves, plots of freshly turned soil mark the sites of future homes. Beyond them lies an abandoned railroad line, now just a stretch of trees and bushes. And beyond it a patchwork of hazelnut trees and farmhouses and green velvet vineyards stretches out toward the distant Coast Range. It is a sedimentary view of history. If we tell ourselves stories to live, the dead of Yamhill County have a full view of the truth of this place: what it was, what it is and what it will be.

 

One cold and windy day in late March, an organic fruit and vegetable farmer named Casey Kulla parked his car near some old headstones. Kulla’s jeans were mud-splattered, but his shirt was fresh. He was in his early 40s, a thin man with a big smile and a neatly shaved head.

In 2018, Kulla was elected one of Yamhill County’s three commissioners, besting the conservative incumbent. Over the last 40 years, this county in western Oregon’s Willamette Valley has become one of the world’s premier wine-growing regions, bringing an influx of money and visitors. Kulla, who is unusually liberal for a conservative county, ran on a platform of smart planning for inevitable growth and protecting vulnerable people in the community. At the time of his election, he was also a cannabis farmer.

Philip Higgins, the son of Quaker back-to-the-landers in Yamhill, met Kulla at the cemetery. Higgins, who is a commercial real estate broker, grew up understanding “that when you don’t have a lot of spare money, the government doesn’t seem like it’s there to help you.”

Kulla pointed to a metal tab on Higgins’ pants pocket. “See the little clip on it?” Higgins smiled and pulled out a Kershaw folding knife. Kulla, in turn, fished out a grafting knife from his pocket, well-worn from harvest.

The two men joked about how they contradict the rural stereotypes they seem to signify: Kulla wore Vivobarefoot shoes, Higgins wore a Rolex. “This,” Higgins said, rolling up his sleeve to display it, “is the urban-rural divide.” The men cracked up laughing.

But as they walked down the hill toward the old railroad right of way — the unlikely source of so much local anger — their tone changed. “Yamhill County is the urban-rural divide personified,” Higgins said.

In Oregon, as in other Western states, “urban-rural divide” is shorthand for the cultural, political and economic tensions between the few urban centers — Portland, Eugene, Salem, Bend — and the many rural communities. That divide, Kulla said, is fundamental to understanding the place. He wishes it wasn’t real, he said, “but it is.”

In 2013, the county received a grant to purchase the abandoned railway right of way near the old graveyard. The plan was to repurpose it as a public trail: the Yamhelas Westsider Trail, named for the Kalapuya Tribe, whose homeland this is, and the rail line that trundled through in the 1870s.

The route would eventually span 12 miles. Rail-to-trail projects exist all over the United States; there are 23 in Oregon. Supporters believed it would encourage visitors to come and celebrate the place’s natural beauty.

“People want to come here and experience (Yamhill County),” Higgins said, “and preserving that experience is really what we need to be doing, so we aren’t all of a sudden full of Quiznos and Starbucks.”

But the trail has since become the center of a local culture war. “We don’t talk about abortion in our community, or guns,” Kulla said. “We talk about if you support the trail.” He is currently its lone supporter on the county commission.

 “We don’t talk about abortion in our community, or guns. We talk about if you support the trail.” 

The project was first imagined in 1991. Locals supported it: As recently as June, an online petition in its favor had more than 3,200 signatures.

But the trail, like the railroad that preceded it, would cut through farmland. A group of more than two dozen farmers — some with property alongside the right of way, others from 20 miles away — say the trail would impact how they farm and what they can spray. It would encourage trespassers and maybe attract tent encampments for unhoused people. They say land-use laws mean farmers shouldn’t have to change, no matter what the community wants.

They also say the county didn’t involve them in the planning. “(County officials) pissed people off,” Higgins said. “And Yamhill County is one of those places where if your great-grandfather pissed my great-grandfather off, we’re probably not getting married.”

In a state where politics is dominated by the urban-rural divide, it’s as if the proposed Yamhill County trail is the actual place — the exact line — where that divide begins.

Illustration sources: Casey Kulla image courtesy of Kulla (left); Mary Starrett, OregonLive/The Oregonian (right); Lindsay Berschauer, YouTube capture / KOIN 6 (center); Yamhelas Westsider, YouTube capture; McMinnville winery, George Rose via Getty Images; Map, Yamhill County.

PORTLAND — OREGON’S LARGEST CITY — is only 12 miles northeast of Yamhill County, but Yamhill is a different world, where rows of crops are so straight and parallel, the land looks as if it’s been groomed with a giant comb. Two-lane highways cut through fields of grass seed, hazelnuts and grapes. Usually, traffic flies down those roads, but now and then it creeps behind a combine. Sometimes the rains come heavy, blown in from the west, over the jawline of mountains that guard the valley from the stormy Pacific. People say it’s that ocean air that creates so much bounty, so much green: like a voice that whispers over the mountains, cautioning the wine grapes about ripening in haste.

The county’s 10 small cities differ widely, reflecting the cultural collisions that define, and divide, Oregon. The county seat, McMinnville, has a four-year university and an annual UFO festival commemorating the time a farmer snapped an infamous photo of a flying saucer. In the 1960s and 1970s, rural communes attracted hippies and agrarians. Nearly 10% of the locals claim veteran status.

In the mid-1800s, white settlers grabbed up land and established a provisional government in what would become the state of Oregon. They banned people of color, and the federal government forced Indigenous people to reservations. Around 30 tribal communities from around the state — known today as the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde — were relegated to what is now the county’s southeastern edge. Just 2% of the county currently identifies as Indigenous, compared to 77% who are white.

In the early 1900s, the town of Carlton became a timber hub, with a manmade lake where big logs bobbed after floating downstream from the rugged Coast Range. Then came the Great Depression and the Tillamook Burn, which ultimately destroyed 350,000 acres of forest. By the late 1960s, the timber industry had all but vanished from the county.

Places like this inspired Beat writer Ken Kesey’s 1964 novel, Sometimes a Great Notion, about a hard-headed family of Coast Range loggers. Their motto was “never give a inch” — to anyone. It’s been called the greatest Oregon book of all time, perhaps because it expresses a haunting truth: Rural ways of life have vanished before, and many Oregonians fear that it will happen here again.

Rural ways of life have vanished before, and many Oregonians fear that it will happen here again.

In the 1870s, at the urging of farmers and loggers, the rail line was constructed to connect Yamhill County to the rest of the state. Over the next century, though, it was abandoned. In the mid-1980s, the rails were pried up, and, over time, the right of way became an overgrown strip of forgotten land.

When the Yamhelas Westsider Trail was first conceived, the county’s three commissioners supported it. Locals loved the idea; one winemaker donated $16,000 to the cause. The state gave the county a $1.5 million grant to help purchase the right of way, and the commission hired engineers to build a bridge outside Yamhill that was needed to develop the trail.

An early phase would span 2.8 miles, connecting the towns of Carlton and Yamhill, two communities linked in many ways: The schools share the name Yamhill-Carlton, and the entire area is deemed an AVA — an “American Viticultural Area” — for the loamy soil that allows grapes to flourish here. There is no Yamhill without Carlton, and no Carlton without Yamhill.

And yet the towns differ widely.

Though timber built Carlton, wine revived it: Nearly every Main Street storefront now houses a wine-tasting room. A bakery sells mushroom truffle gougères and complicated artisan breads. Gardens behind white picket fences burst with tulips like spring fireworks.

In Yamhill, most of the storefronts stand vacant, and yard signs and flags project a different vibe: “Blue Lives Matter” and “Don’t Blame Me, I Voted for Trump.” A billboard next to a red barn yells: “The United Nations is Not Your Friend!”

Hand-drawn signs at T&E General advertise ribeye steaks for $9.99 and “ice cold ice.” Around noon, the warm aroma of fried chicken strips and jojos wafts outside, and the parking slots fill with pickup trucks.

Trail construction between the towns began in 2020, with the bridge. But by spring 2021, building had come to a halt, and the half-completed bridge stood along the trail’s path, connected to nothing at all.

Illustration sources: Lindsay Berschauer, YouTube capture/KOIN 6; Landscape, Carl/Flickr; Tractors, YouTube capture/KOIN 6; Truck, Kelly Jordan/Statesman Journal; Map, Yamhill County

LAST YEAR, TWO WOMEN RAN for the single open seat on the County Commission. One issue dominated the race: the trail.

Commissioners set budgets, oversee land-use decisions, and deal with contracts, development and economic growth, among other things. Farmers pay close attention to commission elections, because the county’s economy, and identity, is agricultural.

Candidate Barbara Boyer was a well-known farmer in her mid-50s who co-founded the local farmers market. She has accolades from the state Board of Agriculture, the Agriculture Heritage Commission, the local Soil and Water Conservation Board. She preached compromise and conversation, and waved away political drama with a smile and big laugh.

Boyer’s opponent was a 40-year-old Arizona native and Republican political consultant named Lindsay Berschauer. She has long brown hair and big eyelashes, and often wears power suits. She is known for her willingness to stir the pot. “I would consider myself a consultant who likes to push the limit,” she explained at a forum in 2016. She had worked for Oregon Transformation Project, an organization fueled by anti-Portland rhetoric, which poured tens of thousands of dollars into conservative political coffers, exhorting voters to halt “Portland Creep.” Congestion, density and crime, its billboards warned, were coming for outlying areas.

Until recently, Berschauer lived in a spacious waterfront home on the Willamette River, according to public records. But during the race, she presented herself as a working-class candidate who idolized the Oregon logger. During the election, Berschauer wore a Carhartt vest and jeans.

Her platform boasted that she was a gun owner and a protector of “individual freedoms.” She was proud to be endorsed by Timber Unity, a grassroots group that talks about rural solidarity but welcomes far-right extremists and conspiracy theorists.

Her platform boasted that she was a gun owner and a protector of “individual freedoms.”

During a virtual debate in April 2020, Berschauer called the trail “a symbol of Metro invading our county,” “Metro” being the regional government that manages growth in the Portland area. It was the Portland Creep argument all over again, and it seemed to resonate: Berschauer’s fundraising committee received at least $13,900 from farmers opposing the trail.

Days before ballots were due, glossy postcards arrived in voters’ mailboxes, featuring mugshots of Boyer and a list of offenses dating back to the 1990s, including a DUII and marijuana possession. The political action committee behind it had not received any contributions in at least two years — until that month, when it received one of its largest ever: $10,000 from Stimson Lumber, one of Oregon’s oldest logging operations. (Stimson also donated $5,000 to Berschauer’s committee.)

Turnout was low, but Berschauer won by more than 3,500 votes. Her victory signaled a change: The county didn’t want conversation and compromise. It wanted people like Berschauer.

Among her supporters was a 41-year-old farmer named Ben VanDyke, who grows hazelnuts alongside the proposed trail section between Yamhill and Carlton. He’s a thin man who wears a goatee and a stain-flecked ballcap, and gives off the air of someone who is not easily upset.

Dozens of farmers oppose the trail, and several share the VanDyke name. Ben — like his dad, and his grandfather — runs a farm in Yamhill. He and his family live in the house he grew up in, on the farm where his father taught him to farm. From there, he produces hazelnuts for Nutella, ships grass seed throughout the U.S. and to China, and dispatches blueberries around America to live short happy lives in clear plastic cartons on grocery store shelves.

This spring, there was little to see on the nearby right of way: just a different section of the corridor Kulla and Higgins had walked a few weeks before. “To us, it was abandoned,” VanDyke said. “We didn’t really think much of it.”

When his family first got wind of the project, they weren’t worried. “When we heard about it, it was, ‘Oh, there’s no way this is going through because Yamhill County is still a very ag county,’ ” he said. “Then we started to figure out that there’s some backers that really wanted it.”

But by then, the farmers didn’t want their concerns addressed; they didn’t want the trail, period.

The group hired a high-powered land-use attorney and triggered a cycle of complaints to the state Land Use Board of Appeals. By mid-2020, after several remands from the board stalled the trail’s momentum, the county began to move forward with a master planning process to make sure all concerns were properly addressed. But by then, the farmers didn’t want their concerns addressed; they didn’t want the trail, period.

“(People) think we’re an anti-trail group, and that’s so far from what we are,” VanDyke said. But that particular trail, in that particular spot, was too much of a change. “We’re just trying to uphold land use.”

The fight — like Kesey’s novel — is about not giving an inch. “It’s not like this is the Alamo,” VanDyke said. But he also said if farmers change anything — even by creating a few feet of buffer, even if the community wants the trail — it opens the door for Yamhill County to slowly become an extension of Portland.

“That land is the only thing that puts the food on the table for my family,” VanDyke said. “If I do anything to destroy that, I’m destroying my entire heritage.”

“That land is the only thing that puts the food on the table for my family. If I do anything to destroy that, I’m destroying my entire heritage.”

BY JANUARY 2021, the Yamhill County Commission was majority anti-trail. Newly elected Commissioner Berschauer joined one of the project’s loudest opponents: Commission Chair Mary Starrett.

In Zoom meetings, Starrett’s square gives off a homey ambiance, with a pot of flowers behind her and crimson drapes filtering soft sunlight. She is in her 60s, with brown hair cut in a short, wavy bob and glasses balanced on the end of her nose.

Starrett has opposed the trail since she was elected in 2014. During the 2020 election, she endorsed Berschauer. “For 7 years I have opposed spending money on this project until and unless the County could get all the necessary land use approvals,” she wrote in an email to me. “The newly-elected commissioner campaigned on the folly of allowing the trail and won her race over her pro-trail opponent.”

In the 1980s and 1990s, Starrett hosted the popular AM Northwest program on the local ABC affiliate in Portland. A newspaper once praised the TV anchor’s “winning personality.”

But by the mid-2000s, Starrett was better known for her politics. She co-founded Oregonians for Life, an anti-abortion group, and authored conspiratorial columns for the website News with Views. The website — which the Southern Poverty Law Center branded an anti-government group in 2019 — runs columns from a roster of far-right ideologues. In 2004, Starrett questioned the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “If we judge Martin Luther King Jr. on ‘the content of his character’ and ‘not the color of his skin,’ surely no banks or schools or post offices would be shut down for a day,” she wrote. “Few have the guts to state the truth.”

In 2006, Starrett ran for governor as the candidate of the Constitution Party, which promotes theocratic views. She received few endorsements beyond the Oregon Firearms Federation, a gun rights group helmed by her brother, and support from Oregonians for Immigration Reform, a white nationalist organization.

Her platform in the Salem Statesman Journal illustrated a type of bigotry that has long been acceptable in Oregon: white supremacist talking points that never use the word “white.” “I believe until we start looking at why things are such a mess in this state, nothing will change,” she wrote. “Look at the advocacy commissions for Latinos, Asians, women, African Americans and Native Americans. The Oregon Constitution is clear that no group should receive extras that other groups aren’t privy to.”

Despite the overt racism, more than 50,000 people — about 3.6% of the total turnout — voted for Starrett for governor.

Starrett has had a long political career in Yamhill County and could run for a third term as commissioner next year. She is open about her extremist views, but they seem palatable even to more moderate voters, perhaps because of the down-home niceness she projects.

But the brash and argumentative Berschauer has inflamed the locals. Niceness, it seems, is what separates the two women; one a known quantity, and the other not. (Despite multiple requests, Berschauer did not comment in time for publication.)

“When you have people who cater to resentment and everything is an existential fight — everything — it really becomes difficult to find common ground and problem-solve.”

“When you have people who cater to resentment and everything is an existential fight — everything — it really becomes difficult to find common ground and problem-solve,” Sal Peralta, a city councilman in McMinnville, said. “That’s really where we’re at right now.

“Yamhill County has always been a conservative county,” he added, “but it’s never been mean-spirited.”

Berschauer shrugs off criticism: “I wasn’t elected because I’m a go-along-to-get-along woman,” she wrote on Facebook in February 2021.

That was right after a virtual meeting during which Berschauer berated county employees, wondering aloud whether they had committed “fraudulent actions” by working on the trail. For almost five hours, Berschauer, wearing tortoiseshell glasses that reflected her screen, admonished staff. At one point, she thrust photographs of the unfinished bridge toward the camera, demanding: “Where is the money going to come from then to finish this bridge?”

In the end, Berschauer made a motion to withdraw the land-use application for the trail, which would effectively kill the project, stopping the planning process and halting bridge construction. It would also mean the agencies and parties that gave more than $1 million would want to be repaid.

Kulla cautioned his fellow commissioners against halting the process.

“We can move forward with this in a way that honors everybody in our community,” he said — taxpayers, trail supporters and the farmers who felt ignored. “As a farmer, I respect them just as much as anybody else.”

But Starrett asked for the vote anyway. She and Berschauer voted “Aye”; Kulla opposed.

Thirty years after its conception, the trail died an unceremonious death. (Though Kulla remains optimistic: “As long as the county owns it,” he said, “there can be a trail.”) But by then, it was arguably the least of Yamhill County’s problems. The arguments over the trail had gone on so long, and drummed up so much anger, that a gap had formed in the community — a space just large enough for people with far-right ideologies to shoulder their way inside.

And so, by February, the story of the trail wasn’t really about a trail. It was a story about a community divided, about extremism and bigotry, about powerful people who try on a working-class identity like a costume.

IF NEWSPAPER ARCHIVES are any indication, the term “urban-rural divide” has been in use for nearly 100 years. But since the 1990s, no state’s papers appear to have used it more frequently than Oregon’s.

Around the time the trail was first discussed, in 1995, a Salem Statesman Journal commentator wrote that state legislators’ infighting stemmed from their different worldviews. “What the urban-rural split represents is two Oregon’s, each trying to impose its values on the other,” he wrote. In 2009, a longtime political columnist wrote that the state’s biggest challenge was “the urban-rural divide.”

“People in the Portland-centric Willamette Valley don’t appreciate the challenges facing rural Oregon, and vice-versa,” he wrote. “Too many Oregonians cling to outdated stereotypes of one another.”

“Too many Oregonians cling to outdated stereotypes of one another.”

Timber Unity provides one such stereotype: Rural Oregonians who are working-class and mad as hell.

The group is many things: a grassroots organizing force, a social media hashtag, a political action committee. Its public Facebook group has more than 26,000 followers, and its private group boasts more than 60,000. In 2019, organizers said it sprang from Oregon’s urban-rural divide. “We’re tired of being steamrolled,” the group’s lead organizer said. “There are other parts of the state of Oregon other than just Portland.”

In June 2019, logging trucks swarmed the state Capitol, horns blaring, as loggers in hard hats waved signs. Tractors circled, protesting a controversial bill aimed at capping greenhouse emissions, which would have required industries to buy permits in order to, essentially, pollute the air.

But before the vote, Republicans threatened to walk out of the Statehouse — an act of political theater that made national headlines.

Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, warned legislators that if they did leave the Capitol, a building topped with a gilded statue of an ax-holding “Oregon Pioneer,” she would send the Oregon State Police after them.

Republican State Sen. Brian Boquist — whose district includes part of Yamhill County — responded. “Send bachelors, and come heavily armed,” he told reporters. “I’m not going to be a political prisoner in the state of Oregon. It’s just that simple.” Later, when journalists characterized his words as a “thinly veiled” threat, he corrected them: “Nothing thinly veiled” about it — a shocking promise of violence by a sitting elected official.

The next day, they went into hiding, effectively killing the bill.

Boquist had merely echoed the rhetoric on display at the Timber Unity rally outside the Capitol. Men stood on the building’s steps, holding banners that read: “Where We Go One, We Go All” — the slogan of Q-Anon, a conspiracy theory that claims Satanic pedophiles have infiltrated the federal government and only former President Donald Trump can stop them.

There were Oregon Three Percenter sweatshirts and hats — garb of the far-right militia group — and Oregon Pushback signs: “Legislators want to take your guns.” Proud Boys — a violent far-right group — mingled. And all of it was Timber Unity.

Later, when asked about the groups assembled under its banner, one of Timber Unity’s leaders did not disavow them: “We’re not the free speech police,” she said.

“Timber Unity purports to be a voice for rural working Oregonians in the natural resources field,” said Lindsay Schubiner of the Western States Center, which combats white nationalist groups. “I think that’s a disingenuous way of presenting themselves. And they have a lot of supporters who are involved because of what they say their mission is. But I think that it’s also really important to note they create space for dangerous far-right groups to create influence and reach their supporters.”

On Jan. 6, 2021, Angelita Sanchez, a board member and spokesperson of Timber Unity’s political action committee, attended the rally before the storming of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. — an insurrection that has now resulted in more than 400 arrests.

Sanchez, who remains on Timber Unity’s board, is an administrator of the group’s private Facebook group. Berschauer is also an administrator.

“They’re trying to have it both ways: engaging in anti-democratic and far-right approaches, while working to be seen as a mainstream organization working for rural Oregonians,” Schubiner said.

Berschauer has never been shy about her association with the group. “I’m proud to stand with #TimberUnity,” she wrote online. “The elitism of many of our state lawmakers and special interest groups is costing our working families their livelihoods.” VanDyke, who campaigned for Berschauer, said he doesn’t care about her connection; his family is happy with the job she’s done so far.

“There’s a lot of money going toward those county commission races, and there’s a lot of effort going toward making Oregon county commissions more extreme.”

In 2020, Timber Unity endorsed 11 county commissioner candidates across Oregon, including Berschauer. Nine were elected. “In general, the Timber Unity candidates and the candidates (Berschauer) has historically backed — those folks have done really well,” McMinnville City Councillor Sal Peralta told me. “There’s a lot of money going toward those county commission races, and there’s a lot of effort going toward making Oregon county commissions more extreme.”

Timber Unity’s effectiveness — from electing candidates to derailing the climate bill — coupled with its extremist connections has made it something of a boogeyman in Oregon. Several sources for this story declined to comment on anything related to it out of fear.

In a meeting of one group of citizens that I attended, a presenter said that, in Oregon, Timber Unity “may be stronger than the Republican Party.”

Casey Kulla image courtesy Casey Kulla; landscape, George Rose/Getty Images; Road, YouTube capture/Yamhelas Westsider; Map, Yamhill County

AT ITS FOUNDING, TIMBER UNITY received $5,000 from Andrew Miller, the CEO of Stimson Lumber. Miller has some of the deepest conservative pockets in Oregon. Since 2008, he’s personally contributed upward of $387,000 to conservative candidates and causes, and his company has donated $2.3 million. In 2016, Miller made headlines for funding a PAC that sent out a glossy mailer digging up the criminal history of an Oregon mayoral candidate. It was similar to the flyer about Boyer, Berschauer’s opponent. (Miller said he was not behind the Boyer mailer.)

Miller has deep Oregon roots: Stimson Lumber, which was founded by his great-great-great-grandfather, has logged in Oregon since the late 1800s. The company owns timberland in Yamhill County worth “a couple hundred million dollars,” including Spirit Mountain, a place sacred to the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. He also owns local hazelnut farms.

He is skinny and soft-spoken. His company is known for donating a 75-foot-tall Douglas fir to the city of Portland for its Christmas Tree Lighting. He lives in a 10-bedroom home in one of Portland’s ritziest neighborhoods.

Miller told me that other than his initial contribution, he has “no active role” in Timber Unity. “For some reason people think I’m a master puppeteer or the man behind the green curtain,” he said.

According to Miller, the group was born out of rural Oregon’s deep resentment of Portlanders, who view the sparsely populated part of the state as “a drive-by on the way to somewhere,” he said. “Or maybe a recreational weekend. It’s not really a connection with the people, the communities.”

He believes state politics, and urban Oregonians, tend to ignore rural life. “Urban Oregon (has a) conceit and arrogance in wanting to tell rural Oregonians, ‘No, let me tell you, Mr. Trailer Trash, Mr. Logger. … ’ ” he said. “ ‘I’m going to tell you how you should be living your life, and it’s going to be based on my standards.’ ”

Steve Pedery, conservation director at Oregon Wild, said his nonprofit became “extremely concerned” about Timber Unity because of Miller’s involvement. “What we feared was the timber industry in Oregon, sensing that it was losing even more of its social license in the state, was gonna go full Trumpian. ‘If we can’t have it, no one can. We’ll burn it all down,’ ” he said.

To Pedery, Timber Unity simply exploits Oregon’s urban and rural stereotypes, making the divide a tool for recruitment.

“They have come to stand for the working rural Oregonian in a way that the Republican Party doesn’t,” City Councilor Peralta said. ”And I think it’s ironic because … this is an organization that is, first and foremost, promoting the interests of very large and powerful people in the state.”

That appeal to rural resentment has worked in Yamhill County. Megan Corvus, a lead organizer with a local grassroots group called Progressive Yamhill, said the group has found a foothold here, where she was born and is currently raising a family.

“Timber Unity has a ton of fans here,” she told me. “We don’t actually have a ton of timber here. I think (it’s) sort of fascinating — that story we’ve told about ourselves has become more true than the truth. And people don’t want to hear the truth.”

“We don’t actually have a ton of timber here. I think (it’s) sort of fascinating — that story we’ve told about ourselves has become more true than the truth. And people don’t want to hear the truth.”

Pedery said the term “rural” works as a kind of code: “We don’t mean Indigenous,” he said. “When we say ‘rural,’ we don’t mean Hispanic farmworkers. It has become weaponized in this state’s politics, and most states in the West, as a way to sort of create rural backlash against the general cultural grievance that urban areas, brown people, educated people (and) liberals have too much sway, and we should go back to the way it used to be.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to think about that value proposition and go, wait a second,” he told me. “There is a racial component to that.’”

And there is a racial component to the Yamhill County story, too: Two months after Republicans walked out of the Statehouse and Timber Unity made its grand political entrance, Commissioner Starrett was fighting diversity training for county employees. She questioned whether white privilege was real, drawing on myths about Asian Americans, saying Asians “have better credit scores, they have more wealth. … We could talk about Asian privilege.”

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to think about that value proposition and go, wait a second, there is a racial component to that.”

Her comments drew local outrage, even though they merely echoed sentiments she’d expressed for decades. The following week, dozens of citizens testified in support of the training at a meeting that lasted more than two hours.

Progressive Yamhill’s Corvus was the second person to speak. She is a white woman married to a Black woman, with whom she has two biracial children. “I had no opportunity in the culture that I was raised in here in Yamhill County to even fundamentally understand what it would mean to be a Black person in this country,” she said. “I have learned so much by being given access to training like this. … I now recognize myself as racist. I was raised in a culture that is fundamentally racist, that believes in white supremacy.”

Corvus told me Starrett’s jaw dropped when she called herself racist. “It’s OK to say that we are racist, as long as we recognize it and work to end the ways in which we are racist, to become anti-racist,” Corvus said.

Only two people supported Starrett. One — a farmer who is now part of the organized opposition to the proposed trail — said diversity training would “chip away at cultural norms.”

The other was Berschauer. “I am very concerned this curriculum promotes a political bias and ideology,” she said, adding that she thought elements of the training might violate people’s constitutional rights.

Behind the scenes, Andrew Miller also expressed fury. He wrote to Kulla, who supported the training: “Do you think I should feel guilty for being a successful white man? ... Do I feel guilty? Not in the least.”

Kulla suggested they meet in person to have a more productive conversation.

Miller declined. “I strongly disagree with your public position that white people need to be trained to be better human beings, or need to feel guilty about their existence,” he wrote back. “You are the worst type of racist.”

Sal Peralta, the McMinnville city councilor, is one of the few people of color in a leadership position in Yamhill County. He said that every time he spoke out against Timber Unity or its supporters, his personal information — and sometimes his photograph — were shared online. He thinks he’s targeted because he’s Latino.

One morning this spring, he found a toilet in his front yard. “I don’t know if that was Timber Unity,” he said. “I also have a Black Lives Matter sign in front of my house. I don’t know why it happened, but I can tell you I have been singled out clearly and deliberately so many times that it wouldn’t surprise me if it was deliberate.”

SHORTLY AFTER THEY KILLED THE TRAIL — which Berschauer lauded as a victory for private property — Berschauer proposed an ordinance making the county a Second Amendment Sanctuary, effectively nullifying new gun laws within its borders. (Starrett had tried but failed to pass it in 2019.)

The ordinance “defends the Right to Keep and Bear Arms,” Starrett wrote in an email. “It promotes the idea of ‘Shall not be infringed’ by eliminating the local enforcement of many of the state and federal firearms regulations that restrict the ability of individuals to protect themselves, their families, and others.” It is also part of a trend in Oregon, and in the rest of the country, backed by militia groups and powerful gun lobbyists, to subvert the Constitution.

The idea echoes the 1970s Posse Comitatus movement. Latin for “power of the county,” Posse Comitatus argued that county sheriffs are the highest law enforcement authority. The idea came from a white supremacist from California who urged citizens to form “posses” and hoard firearms in order to combat globalistic forces, particularly the United Nations.

The movement’s reach extended across the West. One southern Oregon posse made the news when it “seized” the county dogcatcher; another, in 1975, threatened an Oregon state senator with death if he didn’t repeal a land-use conservation law.

Posse Comitatus evolved into today’s Patriot movement, the far-right subset on full display at the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol. The movement cares deeply about county-level government, seeking seats on commissions in order to oversee land use, private property rights and gun regulations.

Yamhill County’s sheriff, Tim Svenson, said there were “so many unknowns” about the sanctuary ordinance that he couldn’t answer questions about it. “I can tell you that I have been a strong supporter of Second Amendment rights and have testified in Salem to that effect,” he said. “I am not a fan of passing gun laws that further restrict lawful gun owners.”

“There is definitely a real concern,” Kulla said. People have “essentially been told by the board of commissioners that they can do whatever they want with their guns here.”

Berschauer introduced the ordinance in February. A month later, I met with Kulla and Higgins, the real estate broker, at the site of the trail. Higgins believed it was all posturing — a show put on by the other commissioners. “I may be putting a little more Machiavellian spin on it than is probably necessary, because of the financial liability of unwinding the trail,” he said. “If you can divert people’s attention to this Second Amendment silliness, that sort of makes people look away from the tax implications.”

Kulla tromped off into a bramble of overgrowth, returning with a handful of pods. “That’s really interesting,” he told Higgins, picking through the bits in his palm for mullein seeds. “Your observation is way more gentle and light-hearted than mine.

“Before there was a U.S. Capitol attack by insurrectionists, there was a forced entry of the Oregon state Capitol,” he reminded us.

That happened on Dec. 21, 2020, during a special session of the state Legislature. Republican Rep. Mike Nearman — whose district includes the southernmost edge of Yamhill County — made headlines after he opened a locked door at the Oregon Capitol, allowing a crowd of unmasked protesters waving Trump flags to enter, leading to confrontations with the state and local police. In early June, video surfaced of Nearman giving out his phone number and implying, with a wink and a nod, that he could let them into the building. He now faces criminal charges, and mid-June, he became the first representative in state history to be expelled from the Legislature.

The week before Nearman opened the door, Kulla’s email was flooded with strange messages — conspiratorial, demanding, sinister. The Yamhill County Commission was set to vote on reassessing its COVID-19 restrictions. “It was clear something was going to go down,” Kulla said. “They were attempting to obstruct democracy.”

“It was clear something was going to go down. They were attempting to obstruct democracy.”

The emails came with such speed and ferocity that they felt coordinated, as if someone was directing people to put pressure on Kulla, or worse: Frighten him.

“We will prevail,” read one, “even if it means washing this fine country in blood.” Kulla forwarded it to the county attorney.

“Before email, we got this same drivel on paper from the Posse Comitatus,” the attorney replied. Now it was coming from a new brand of the far right, “who construct their own legal fictions to justify lawlessness.”

Still, it felt like a threat. Kulla started sleeping with his phone next to the bed. And he moved his hunting rifle closer to the house.   

Leah Sottile is a correspondent at High Country News. She writes from Portland, Oregon. 

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This coverage was supported by contributors to the High Country News Research Fund