Friday, January 15, 2016

Behind the Harney County standoff, decades of economic decline

 By Molly Young

A deer leaps past the snow-dusted lumber mill, decommissioned years ago. Hay bales stored inside are an empty replacement for the hundreds of jobs the structure once held.

This remote expanse of southeast Oregon, now in the spotlight for a long anti-government standoff, was one of the most prosperous pockets of the state just 40 years ago. No place earned more money per resident in 1973 than Harney County.

All of that changed within a generation. The decline of the timber industry felled the mill, then the regional economy. Timber supported a third of the county's employment base in the 1970s. It now accounts for virtually none.

At the recession's height in 2009, unemployment hit 17 percent, the second highest rate in the state. Two-thirds of the county's children qualified for free and reduced lunch prices in 2012. Young people who leave for college often never return. Today, Harney County is one of the few in Oregon whose population is shrinking.

"It was actually a pretty exciting little town when the mills were going," said Ty Morris, who has lived in the small town of Burns for 32 years, most of his life. He now cuts hair and rents a chair at a barber shop on the county seat's North Broadway Avenue.

"The mills went out," he said, "and Burns died."

The county's long economic slide helps explain the bitterness that fuels sympathy with the causes espoused by militants at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, if not their tactics.

Desert ranching is one of few industries an environment as harsh as Harney County's has been able to sustain, and many residents say federal overreach threatens the future of this fragile bright spot.

...The community's hard feelings toward government are rooted in four decades of economic upheaval, which many blame on changing federal regulations that limited timber harvests.

Oregon Office of Economic Analysis officials say lumberyards and logging in the Malheur National Forest, which straddles the county's northern boundary, supported nearly 800 jobs in 1978. Hundreds of people worked at the Edward Hines Lumber Co., a lumberyard so vital to Harney County that the nearest town was named after it.

A buzzing local business sector grew around the timber industry. Big-name retailers such as JCPenney and Sears competed for customers, Cupernall said. The county's per capita income consistently ranked among the highest statewide in the 1970s.

"So much was driven by the mill, and they made good salaries," said Marjorie Thelen, a writer and researcher who retired east of Burns seven years ago.

The timber industry's decline began in the 1980s and continued into the 1990s when new federal policies limited harvests and increased conservation measures statewide.

Yet Harney County makes a paradoxical stage for activists seeking to limit the federal government's role in land management. Nearly half of the county's jobs -- 45 percent -- are on public payrolls. No other county in 2013 derived a greater share of wages from the government than Harney County, said Josh Lehner, an economist who has researched rural Oregon for his job at the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis. The federal government's role is particularly large. It accounts for 12 percent of jobs but 20 percent of all wages earned outside of farms. "If you take federal away, you might as well finish making us a ghost town," said Jan Cupernall, of Burns, who sits on the local historical society board.

Is this their model for the rural West? Federal dominance or a ghost town? It must be, for this is what federal policies have brought to many areas.

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