Oregon for Oregonians

The New Republic, March 20, 1971


THERE REMAIN standing in California a few dozen mis­sions, forts and houses that were built barely more than a century ago by the earliest settlers.  Many of these wooden and adobe structures are now historical monuments.  To visit one of them is to be exposed to a mild dosage of future shock.  The land upon which the buildings sit was once unspoiled meadow or gently rolling hill or wooded glen.  Today it is cluttered with gas stations, supermarkets and row upon row of ticky-tacky houses.

Seeing the old surrounded by the new, one realizes how abruptly the face of Cali­for­nia has changed.  A hundred and twenty-five years ago there was scarcely a trace of English-speaking, white-skinned man; now there are twenty million English-speakers, most of whom drive cars, watch TV and eat mass-produced fried chicken.  Neither Rome nor any other civilized community was built in a day, but California comes closest to the speed record.

Not so to the north in Oregon — at least not yet.  Here the pace of change is slower, more comprehen­sible, and what’s most important, more controllable.  People came here before they came to California, mov­ing across the vast continent in covered wagons (there were no interstate highways then), but they didn’t rush here, they didn’t overwhelm the land or the quiet lives of those who preceded them.  They built a state that is easygoing, lacking in racial tension and urban woes, proud of its unique­ness and skeptical of outside interlopers.  It was, and still is, the kind of place where people come in search not of instant riches or sun or glamor, but simply of room to work and think and live.  Thus far most of those who’ve planted roots here have found room and enjoyed it, despite an excess of rain and a scarcity of high-paying jobs.  What dismays Oregonians today is that ‘progress’ is about to overtake them.

Most states in America welcome population growth.  They like the clout it adds to the local economy, to representation in Congress and in the electoral college.  But not Oregon.  Nowhere have I found more wariness about unwanted people.  You pick it up right away from the taxi driver, who urges you to spend money, have a good time, and then get out.  You pick it up from the bartender, who informs you how he back­packed into his favorite retreat, a Cascade ridge previously de­serted even on Labor Day, and found the campsite swarming with hikers.  You get it from the Governor, Tom McCall, who tells conventioneers, “Come visit us, but for heaven’s sake don’t come here to live.”  And you hear it from all political quarters, from ecology-minded liberals to card-carrying National Rifle Associa­tion conservatives, from students to hard-hats and from a lot of businessmen in between.

THOSE with a vested interest in home building and financing are, of course, still eager for increased business, but real estate developers in Oregon are not the sacred cows they are in other places.  The residents of Lincoln City, a small coastal town, voted down a high-rise hotel along the beach last year despite promises that it would put more money in local pockets.  Tourism is crucial to communities on the coast, but the people of Lincoln City were damned if they’d permit the desecration of their beach­­front mere­ly for the sake of extra dollars.

Oregon’s attitude toward industry is much the same.  Except for its lumber, paper and small-scale electronics concerns, Oregon has never undergone much non-­agri­cul­tural development, and it doesn’t feel that it has missed much.  The aerospace indus­try, which in its heyday engulfed California and Washington, leap­frogged over Oregon.  So did the military itself, which has no major bases in the state.  Oregon’s economy, as a consequence, has never soared to Cold War heights or plunged to Seattle-like depths.  It remains closely tied to down-to-earth matters such as interest rates which determine how much housing the nation builds and thus how much lumber it buys.

Most states would be greatly distressed at such reliance upon the health of a single, if basic, industry.  Oregonians are concerned, but mildly so.  They would like new in­dus­­try to take up the slack in employment (the jobless rate is currently over six per­cent), but they don’t want new industry at any price.  Above all, they do not want new industry that pollutes.  Governor McCall, when he talks to out-of-state business­men about the prospects of expanding into Oregon, delivers what is almost a sales pitch in reverse.  “Oregon has not been an over-eager lap-dog to the economic master,” he recently told an industrialists’ meeting in Los Angeles.  “It has been wary of smoke stacks and suspicious of rattle and bang.  It has not camped, cup in hand, at anyone’s affluent doorstep.  It has wanted industry only when that industry was will­ing to want what Oregon is.”

Nowadays wanting what Oregon is means spending considerable amounts of money to preserve its liva­bility — and even that is not always sufficient to please everyone.  Astoria is an old port city near the mouth of the Columbia River.  For many years it has been in the doldrums, with unemployment steadily over ten percent.  In 1969, Amax Aluminum (American Metals Climax) announced plans to build a $145 million reduction plant outside Astoria that would employ 800 people and single-handedly revive the area’s economy.  The plant probably will be built, but only over the stre­nuous opposition of local citizens concerned about protecting the Columbia estuaries, and with the as­surance of Governor McCall that scrubbers will remove 93 to 96 per­cent of the flouride emissions or he per­sonally will see that the plant gets shut down.

Though Oregonians are deadly serious about escap­ing the benefits of progress, Amer­ican style, they can be light-hearted in their approach to fighting it.  Among the many graces of the state is that its residents have not yet succumbed to the sense of impending apoca­lypse that grips so many other areas of the nation.  A favorite habit of Oregonians is to talk dismally with visitors about the disadvantages of their state.  “Last year it rained 360 days and the other five days it was damn cloudy,” says Ron Abell, self-styled president of the James G. Blaine Society, an assemblage of at least two persons dedicated to preserving Oregon for Oregonians.  “Did you know,” he adds with tongue firmly planted in cheek, “that the state animal is the earthworm and the state bird is the mosquito?”  Dr. James Brooke, a Eugene bone specialist who speaks for the equally whimsical Joaquin Miller Society (Joaquin Miller was a vaga­bond poet who roamed the Willamette Valley at about the same time James G. Blaine was running unsuccessfully for the Presidency), favors building a tunnel under the state from Califor­nia to Washington, opening the tunnel when it rains and closing it when it’s sunny.  There’s even a faction of militants who call for re-stocking the borders with grizzly bears.

TO A DEGREE, of course, the appeal to humor reflects the fact that there is little a state can legally do to shut out immigration.  Several years ago a Portland mayor sug­gested only partly in jest that passports and visas be required for entering Oregon.  That sort of infringe­ment upon the right to travel in interstate commerce was de­clared unconstitutional thirty years ago when California tried to keep out the Okies.  More subtle forms of dissuasion are nevertheless possible, and Oregon has tried a few of them.  The state highway department’s tourist advertising budget has been slashed.  A campsite reservation system has been es­tablished for the over­crowded State parks, with pref­erence going to Oregonians over out-of-staters.  The Depart­ment of Economic Development changed the name of its monthly newsletter from Oregon Growth to Oregon Quality.  A statewide hotel and motel tax has been pro­posed.

None of these measures can actually stop the influx of visitors, settlers and industry, and the effort to do so is really more a state of mind than a coherent program.  But it is a powerful state of mind all the same, and a refreshing improvement upon old-fash­ioned Chamber of Commerce boosterism.  There is little time left, however, if Oregon is to be spared the fate of its southern neigh­bor.  Already the smog in the Willamette Valley is thickening; a hundred thousand more auto­mo­biles and it could become another Los Angeles.  Banks in Port­land are competitive with each other to build the tallest skyscraper, and “planned community” developers are looking hungrily at Oregon’s low-priced land.

It may well be that no state can long remain un­cluttered when all around it there is overcrowding and urban sprawl, but it’s reassuring to know that some­where the fight is being made.