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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Emerging New Economies in the Pacific Northwest

Air Date: Week of November 5, 1993

Henry Sessions reports from Oak Ridge, Oregon on a former logging town that's having some success moving from a timber economy to new jobs and industry. Four hundred jobs were lost when its largest employer, a local lumber mill ,shut down several years ago. But the community has capitalized on the its attractive location to aggressively pursue new, more sustainable industries.

Transcript

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood.

Tall trees, massive mountains and roaring rivers - in popular American culture, the Pacific Northwest has embodied a rugged and beautiful part of nature that's not all tamed. But the image has outlived the reality, and these days the area's undergoing a dramatic transformation. Many of the forests are nearly logged out, and much of what's left is now locked up. And the urban areas are booming. This week on Living on Earth, we continue our series of programs focusing on the changes sweeping the Pacific Northwest. We begin in the small town of Oakridge, Oregon, once one of the many timber towns that thrived on the cutting of the forest. Three years ago as the supply of timber dwindled, Oakridge lost its main employer. The Bald Knob Lumber Company shut down its sawmill and put four hundred people out of work. But far from lingering in the doldrums, the town is capitalizing on the flow of newcomers to the region, to bring new life to its economy. Henry Sessions reports.

(Sound of highway traffic)

SESSIONS: There's a new rest stop along the highway between Eugene, Oregon and the popular skiing and hiking area at Willamette Pass. The City of Oakridge built it to try to get people to slow down and poke around in the town for a while.

(Sound of restaurant)

SESSIONS: Those who do slow down might end up at Mrs. McGillicuddy's Cafe, where former millworker Dan Craft serves something that couldn't be bought in Oakridge a few years ago - espresso.

CRAFT: The logger mentality wasn't conducive to espresso coffee. If it wasn't black and out of a Thermos, it wasn't any good.

SESSIONS: When he isn't working in this cafe, Dan Craft runs a fishing guide service catering to out-of-towners hungry for a wilderness experience. He says he and his wife figured out a long time ago that if they wanted to stay in Oakridge, they'd have to learn to do something besides work in the sawmill.

CRAFT: If a guy sees himself as only able to do one thing in life, even if he does it well, sooner or later he's going to come to a place where that one thing isn't doing him any good. It's not gonna help him out any and when you say I'm not gonna do anything but log, I'm not gonna do anything but work in a sawmill, pretty soon you're gonna come up against a place where you're not gonna do anything.

SESSIONS: Like Dan Craft, the town itself is diversifying, catering to the stream of fishermen, hunters, and backpackers heading into the Cascade Mountains and to retirees from California and southern Oregon attracted by affordable housing, a slow pace of life, and the breathtaking mountain scenery around the town. But Oakridge is aiming at more than just service jobs. The town is developing a small but significant manufacturing base that's adding value to wood.

(Sound of scrap metal being kicked)

SESSIONS: Amid the rusted scrap metal and abandoned warehouses at the old Bald Knob Mill site, new life is poking up.

(Sound of mill saws)

SESSIONS: Former logging crew leader Bob Adkins, with loans and consulting help from the city of Oakridge, has started a small company in what used to be the mill's electric shop. He employs four people who make planter boxes out of cedar boards discarded by the fencing industry. Big discount stores have begun buying his products by the thousand. Adkins says Oakridge can have a more stable future by encouraging small businesses like his.

ADKINS: As far as becoming a 600-member mill, I could give a hoot. I really have a job ahead of me providing employment for my projected 25 employees in the next five years.

SESSIONS: Adkins' company, and two other small firms, employ about 15 people on the mill site. They lease the land from Bald Knob, which still owns it. The city of Oakridge wants to buy the site, put in sewer, water and electric services, and attract other industries. Those plans depend heavily on President Clinton's forest plan being implemented. Much of the roughly $1.8 million needed to purchase and improve the site would come from economic development grants that are part of the plan. Oakridge city officials are confident the money will come through, and there are already signs their industrial park could be a success.

(Sound of plastic molder)

SESSIONS: Three years ago, Harold and Jackie Cole moved their plastic mold manufacturing business to Oakridge from Paradise, California, not far from Redding. The Coles were dismayed by the suburban sprawl and rising crime in Paradise, and liked the fact that Oakridge is almost completely surrounded by national forest, making rampant growth unlikely. It took seven semi trucks and a lot of money to move the business to Oregon, but Cole says the city of Oakridge did everything it could to help the company find a building and get the permits it needed to do business.

COLE: We had to do everything here that we would have had to have done in any other place. It just seemed as though everything went smoother. I got nothing but good to say about the city government here.

SESSIONS: Cole's 16-employee business provided a big psychological boost to the town when it arrived three years ago. Now city manager Wes Hare, who's spearheading the effort to revive Oakridge, hopes the offer of cheap city land at the old mill site, and the area's quality of life, will attract more outside interest. He says it's far too early to turn out the lights in Oakridge.

HARE: Last year the assessed value of residences in the town went up by 17 percent. So it makes a myth I think to some extent out of the notion that timber towns are doomed if you don't have a timber economy.

(Sound of women's voices in cafe)

SESSIONS: Beyond just economic change, the Bald Knob Mill's closure may have boosted the quality of life. The town's mayor, Dick Culbertson, says now that residents have more free time, they're spending more time socializing, meeting in cafes and restaurants over a cup of coffee. Many former millworkers have gone back to school to learn new trades, from nursing to electronics. The mayor himself, after getting laid off by the Forest Service, started an appliance repair business. Gradually, Oakridge is starting to divorce itself from the idea that the only way to stay alive is by cutting the big trees. For Living on Earth, this is Henry Sessions.

 

 

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