By STEVE FORRESTER
East Oregonian Publishing Co.
Late in life, my mother discovered a photo that was taken in Sumpter, Ore., in the first decade of the 20th century.
Standing in the snow, a man wearing a heavy coat and hat appears to be her father, Edwin Aldrich. He was a 1900 graduate of Oregon Agricultural College. In about the same year, my maternal grandmother, Elsie Conklin, was teaching school in Clifton, a river town just east of Astoria. Subsequently, she would teach in Sumpter and Pendleton, where she would marry Edwin.
Rural places run through our family history. Rural Oregon, Washington and Idaho is where our company's newspapers circulate. We feel the reversals that challenge farming, logging and fishing. My mother spoke of how farmers around Pendleton during the Great Depression brought eggs to pay for their subscriptions to the East Oregonian.
Oregon has become a largely urban state. My economics professor at Portland State University pointed out that New England is more rural than Oregon.
A large share of urbanites have scant exposure to rural Oregon. I cease to be surprised at Portlanders who come to Astoria for the first time, or who say they haven't been here in 20 years. It's only a two-hour drive. When my wife and I talk about Pendleton and the Round-Up, Portlanders say wistfully they've always wanted to travel there -- as if they were talking about a faraway place, like Europe.
The recession has taken its toll on Portland. Walk downtown, and you'll see empty storefronts. But a metropolitan area has a much more diverse economy than one finds in rural Oregon. It has more avenues for recovery.
In small towns with natural resource dependence, the recession has a more dire effect. When the economy of a rural place shrinks, there are fewer sectors to stimulate for recovery.
Of all our company's markets, the John Day newspaper, the Blue Mountain Eagle, faces the biggest challenge.
A few weeks ago, Grant County received the bad news that Malheur Lumber Co. would close its sawmill in John Day. It was an earthquake.
Now it seems there is temporary relief. The mill is gaining timber from private lands that will keep it in operation for one or two months past the prior announced shutdown in November.
That reprieve, while a relief, falls short of a long-term solution. Company officials say the timber extends things, but doesn't remedy the problem -- supply off federal forests -- that prompted the shutdown. A fix is possible, but it will require a concerted effort by local, state and federal officials. And it's needed quickly.
The hopeful news is that discussions along those lines are taking place. Rather than shrug off another mill closure in an industry with a long history of them, a growing cadre of leaders is recognizing the need for this mill in John Day. They are pushing to find ways to assure its continued operation.
That the dialogue is happening at all is heartening. It also is a direct result of Malheur Lumber's commitment over the past six years to the collaborative process, a willingness to talk with all the stakeholders, including environmentalists, and to think outside the box.
Will all the talk be enough, and soon enough for Grant County and Malheur Lumber?
In the meantime, it's important to note that this is not a pity party for John Day, for Grant County, or for Malheur Lumber. The situation there is symptomatic of the challenge facing many rural communities, and certainly many timber communities. It seems axiomatic that the shift to a restoration mission for the federal lands should not be allowed to foreclose the very industries needed to achieve the restoration. The bureaucracy is coming to recognize that -- even if the policies still fall short.
Forest communities are uniquely positioned to play a key role in the work needed to protect a national treasure, our federal forests. The powers that be -- the feds, the state and the public -- need to decide whether mills such as John Day's will be allowed to partner in that work, or whether that community will be relegated to making sandwiches for firefighters.
Steve Forrester is president of the East Oregonian Publishing Co., publisher of the Capital Press. The company also publishes the East Oregonian in Pendleton, Ore., The Daily Astorian in Astoria, Ore., Wallowa County Chieftain in Enterprise, Ore., The Hermiston Herald in Hermiston Ore., Blue Mountain Eagle in John Day, Ore., and the Chinook Observer in Long Beach, Wash.