Section II: The Roots of Oregon's Economic & Political Crisis

We Need to Understand Our History! The Roots of Rural Oregon’s Economic and Political Crisis

By Daniel HoSang and Steven Beda

Passing through Grants Pass with a view of the Siskiyou Mountains in the background. (Photo courtesy of Shawn Records).
Passing through Grants Pass with a view of the Siskiyou Mountains in the background. (Photo courtesy of Shawn Records).

All of the economic and political transformations shaping rural Oregon come into striking view in Josephine County, tucked in the southwest corner of the state. If you are a motorist driving from California through the Siskiyou Pass toward Eugene, Portland, or Seattle, you will travel through Grants Pass, the county seat. Josephine County encompasses an area larger than Rhode Island but with only 8 percent of the population. You might stop in Grants Pass for to fill your tank or your stomach. Perhaps you will take a detour to the new money wineries rising in the nearby Applegate Valley, planted with Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah. Spend the night and you might have time to take a whitewater rafting or fishing trip from one of the tour operators along the Rogue River; tourism lifts parts of the Josephine economy for a few months each summer.

But visitors to Josephine County should know what every one of its 84,745 residents understand with certainty. If you find yourself in an emergency, especially outside of Grants Pass, you may be on your own. Emergency 911 service across much of the county is spotty at best. In 2013, years of budget cuts left the sheriff’s office with a single deputy to respond to general calls across the entire county; a few years earlier there were 22. Patrol service takes place for only eight hours a day, five days a week; those are the only times the Sheriff’s Office can respond to life threatening emergencies. (State police may provide a limited response after hours if this involves “eliminating the current threat.”) In 2012, the Sheriff’s Office offered residents the grim advice that “if you know you are in a potentially volatile situation (for example, you are a protected person in a restraining order that you believe the respondent may violate), you may want to consider relocating to an area with adequate law enforcement services.”

In Cave Junction, a city of 1,900 residents 45 minutes west of Grants Pass, three people were killed within a single week in late 2013. There were few resources for any sustained investigation after the sheriff closed its major crimes unit. The Records Division was also closed; residents who wish to report crimes can go online and log the information themselves, but only for the purposes of record-keeping. No investigation or response will necessarily follow. As reported burglaries and theft cases increased by more than 70 percent, applications in the county for concealed handguns rose 50 percent.[i]

In May 2007, all four public libraries in Josephine County were closed due to lack of funding. They eventually reopened as privately run public libraries, relying primarily on a volunteer staff and contributions from members.(1)Matthew Preusch, “Community’s efforts reopen Josephine County library,” Oregonian/OregonLive, January 23, 2009, Since then, several mental health and transportation programs were privatized or eliminated. Both unionized and nonunion county workers have seen pay and benefits reduced; cost of living increases were eliminated. The county’s operating budget was cut another 9 percent in July 2015, eliminating millions from public works and public transit projects, and requiring even deeper cuts to the Public Safety Fund.

Even more than their neighbors in other economically strapped counties, voters have cast ballots against raising the funds needed to run their government. At the same time, the federal government’s subsidies to their piece of the rural United States grow ever smaller. But the story about the economic challenges facing Josephine and other rural counties in Oregon is not a simple one.

The Ironies of Governmental Abandonment

The conservative zealot Grover Norquist famously explained, “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” As much as any place in the country, in Josephine County, the government thrashes about in the tub, appearing to gasp its last. The only revenue source keeping the Sheriff’s Office open now is the federal government.

For much of the twentieth century, a portion of revenues of timber harvests funded public services. From 1957 to 1980, these revenues were so abundant that the county charged no property taxes at all; from 1981 to 1994, it charged a mere 30 cents per $1,000 of assessed value.

At the end of the 1990s, as environmental protections expanded and timber sales declined, the federal government formulated a safety net payment program that provided direct payments to timber-dependent counties for schools and other public services. Josephine County once had 22 timber mills. The last closed this year. In 2007­–2008, Josephine County received $14 million annually from the federal government in such payments. But those payments have declined steadily since then, and continually face the prospect of being eliminated altogether. In 2014–2015, the county received only $2 million in such funding. Still one-third of the county budget comes from an array of federal subsidies.(2)See Nigel Duara, “Inside Trump Nation: In a down-on-its-luck Oregon mill town, the savior they’re waiting for is Donald Trump,” Los Angeles Times, May 2, 2016,; Scott Learn, “Rough & Ready Lumber, Josephine County’s last sawmill, a casualty of southwest Oregon’s enduring timber wars,” Oregonian/OregonLive,

The same trends have taken place in every timber-dependent county in Oregon. Large rural counties with few inhabitants, high levels of unemployment and underemployment, and a diminished tax base cannot meet basic funding needs, especially for public safety. And while the Oregon delegation tries to lobby the U.S. Congress to restore federal funding, rural residents have been much more ambivalent about their perceived dependence on the government. In the early 1990s, Oregon voters passed a series of ballot measures to amend the state Constitution to severely limit local property tax rates. Josephine County today has the lowest permanent property tax rate of any county in the state at 59 cents per $1,000 of assessed value. (The average among all 36 counties is $2.59.) Since November 2004, Josephine County voters have considered 10 property tax levies to restore modest funding to public safety or libraries. Only one levy passed: a May 2014 measure to fund an animal shelter.(3)Josephine County 2015-2016 Budget Adoption, Josephine County, Oregon,, 10.

Here then is the great paradox of governmental abandonment for rural Oregon in a moment of deep economic crisis. As rural counties and communities become more dependent than ever on the federal and state governments redistributing income their way, organized antigovernment currents only sharpen and multiply. Budget cuts that sharply reduced 911 and emergency response services have created the space for Patriot movement groups to offer “emergency preparedness training” to vulnerable communities. The extraction economies that shaped the legacy of these regions no longer demand the labor of those living there, and the government does little to address their precarious situation. Meanwhile real estate values and many employment sectors in the Portland metropolitan area prosper. The depth and impact of the economic shifts and governmental neglect in places like Josephine County is unprecedented. To read the rise of paramilitary activity at this moment as solely an expression of White nationalism risks missing the ways that changing political and economic conditions during the last 30 years provide such fertile ground for paramilitary and other Patriot movement organizing.

The Decline of the Rural Economy in the Pacific Northwest

To understand how so many parts of the rural economy in southern and eastern Oregon have grown so desperate, we need to look at the economic and political origins of the timber industry in particular and of extraction economies in general. Many militia and Patriot movement groups claim to advocate for a “return” to local control of the land and its resources, suggesting that if federal regulation of rural lands were relinquished, rural communities could reassume a control over their livelihoods and lands that was taken from them.

But these claims rely on a false understanding of the region’s political and economic history, and an equally flawed account of the current conditions facing many rural communities today. As we will see:

  1. They ignore the long dispossession of Native and tribal claims to the land, as well as the contemporary interests and experiences of American Indians today.
  2. These stories obscure the historic role of industrialists, land speculators, and other business owners in extracting profits from rural communities and workers and making them more vulnerable to economic crisis.
  3. They grossly misunderstand the history of movements for “local control” and rural people’s willingness and desire to work with the state.

1. Ignoring the continued dispossession of American Indian communities

Militia groups frequently demand that the federal government should “return” publicly regulated lands to “the people” so that local communities can have autonomy over their political and economic future. However, as leaders of the Burns Paiute Tribe pointed out during the occupation of the Malheur Refuge, all of the land seized by the occupiers was originally part of the 1.5 million acres constituting the tribe’s ancestral homelands and appropriated by the U.S. government in 1879. Today, the tribe has only 760 acres on the outskirts of Burns. Tribal members waited more than 90 years to receive a paltry $743 each as compensation for the theft of their land by the government. As Burns Paiute tribal chair Charlotte Rodrique explained her tribe’s view at a press conference after the occupation began, “This is still our land, no matter who is living on it.”(4)Amanda Peacher, “Tribe Denounces Malheur Refuge Occupation,” Oregon Public Broadcasting, January 6 (updated February 16), 2016,

The land taken from the Burns Paiute exemplifies the dominant story across Oregon, in which hundreds of indigenous communities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were forcibly displaced by the U.S. Army and groups of White settlers. In the 1950s, the federal policy of “termination” stripped 62 Oregon tribes and bands of control and sovereignty of their land. In the decades that followed, individual tribes and bands struggled continuously to have at least some of their land claims restored. Today, Oregon’s nine federally recognized tribes have authority over some 875,000 acres (about 1.4 percent of the total land in the state) and there are more than 100,000 Oregonians who self-identify as American Indian or Alaska Native. Just as importantly, Oregon’s tribal governments and leadership maintain complex and dynamic relationships to this land and the related ecosystems, relationships central to their economic, spiritual, and cultural survival. Paramilitary and other Patriot movement leaders who claim they want a return of the land to “the people” while making no acknowledgement of these historic ties and relationships are essentially repeating one of the foundational actions colonial genocide: the disappearance and erasure of Native peoples.(5)Kelly House, “Burns Paiutes to Ammon Bundy: You’re not the victim,” Oregonian, February 7 (updated February 23), 2016,

Similarly, demands for return of the land to “the people” often ignore the long-standing labor, lives, and contributions of a diverse group of Latino/a Oregonians who played a vital role in building the rural economy in the last 75 years. Since World War II, families and workers with origins in Mexico have labored in the forests, vineyards, orchards, and fields of across the Willamette Valley and through much of eastern Oregon. They have struggled in the face of low wages, discrimination, and harsh working conditions to build thriving communities and families. Yet their experiences, ideas, and voices are often ignored in discussions about the economic crisis and abandonment of rural Oregon, a dynamic which must change for these areas to thrive to build a sustainable and lasting future.

2. Extracting profits from rural communities

While logging and other extraction industries have been central to the rural Oregon economy for much of the twentieth century, it is important to remember the outsize role that elite business interests played in organizing the structure of this economy and profiting from its gains. Here’s a bit of history.

Early white settlement in the Pacific Northwest largely revolved around agriculture. There certainly were fish in the rivers, timber in the hills, and ore in the ground, and some amount of commercial fishing, mining, and logging did take place. But because the trees were so large and the terrain was so difficult to work, resource extraction was, throughout the late-nineteenth century, a very small part of the region’s economy.(6)William G. Robbins, Landscapes of Promise: The Oregon Story, 1800-1940 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997); Richard White, Land Use, Environment, and Social Change: The Shaping of Island County, Washington (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1980); Thomas R. Cox, Mills and Markets: A History of the Pacific Coast Lumber Industry to 1900 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1974).

This began to change in the late nineteenth century. The arrival of the transcontinental railroads throughout the 1870s and 1880s linked the Pacific Northwest to markets in the east and created new demands for the region’s natural resources.(7)Thomas R. Cox, The Lumberman’s Frontier: Three Centuries of Land Use, Society, and Change in America’s Forests (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2010); Robert E. Ficken, The Forested Land: A History of Lumbering in Western Washington (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1987). And while mining for gold and other minerals formed an important part of the state’s pioneer culture and was an early driver of White migration to Oregon, mining did not shape the political and economic character of the state in the long-term. For example, in 1903, the peak production year for gold mining in Oregon, the state accounted for less than two percent of the total gold production in the entire western United States.(8)George Kramer, Mining in Southwestern Oregon: A Historic Context Statement, Heritage Associate Reports Number 234 (Eugene, OR, December 1999),

Instead it was industrialists who bought up Pacific Northwest forestland in the early twentieth century that would come to shape much of the state’s rural political economy. These industrialists did not initially intend to harvest the timber they’d purchased or even hold onto their lands for very long. Rather, these were speculative ventures and investors hoped to buy land cheap, wait for the price of standing timber to rise, and then sell off their lands at a healthy profit, all without having to do anything more than sign their names to a few bills of sale. However, a series of fires in the early-twentieth century sent insurance prices skyrocketing. States and local municipalities also started raising taxes on standing timber. Soon, the carrying costs of holding timberland became too steep to guarantee profits and so speculators began harvesting timber as a way to recoup their investments. Since the overwhelming majority of these speculators had no interest in long-term landownership but were rather in the Pacific Northwest to make a quick profit, they wanted to harvest the timber as quickly as possible and then release their interest in the land. Sawmills sprang up nearly overnight. Forests were transformed into giant outdoor factories. This was, to use the popular phrase, the era of “cut out and get out.”

In 1899, Washington and Oregon combined produced less than a billion board feet of lumber. By 1920, Washington and Oregon’s annual cut averaged close to 20 billion board feet.(9)Herman M. Johnson, Production of Lumber, Shingles & Lath in Washington & Oregon, 1869-1939 (Portland, OR: Pacific Northwest Forest & Range Experiment Station, US Department of Agriculture, August 25, 1941). The rapid pace of cutting led to wholesale destruction of forests. Between 1909 and 1929, Pacific Northwest lumbermen cut through more than 15,258 square miles of forestland, or, the approximate area of Delaware, New Jersey, and Connecticut combined.(10)Steven C. Beda, “Landscapes of Solidarity: Timber Workers and the Making of Place in the Pacific Northwest, 1900–1964” (PhD Diss., University of Washington, 2014), 63–64; US Forest Service, “Douglas Fir: An American Wood,” US Department of Agriculture, FS-235, October, 1984; Johnson, Production of Lumber, Shingles & Lath in Washington & Oregon, 18691939.

The near complete stripping of the forests would have long-term consequences and it critically shaped the conflicts to come in the 1970s and 1980s. When new constituent groups, such as the modern environmental movement, began to argue for more forest protection in the 1960s and 1970s, the near complete loss of forests in the earlier part of the century meant that there wasn’t enough forest left to support production and preservation.

To draw workers to these remote areas in the early years, employers built entirely new communities. Some were company towns, owned entirely by the bosses. Others were so-called “independent towns”—technically independent municipalities but controlled by employers.(11)Beda, “Landscapes of Solidarity,” 84–110; Linda Carlson, Company Towns of the Pacific Northwest (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003). For an analysis of company towns in Northwest mining, see David Bullock, Coal Wars: Unions, Strikes, and Violence in Depression-Era Central Washington (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 2014). Whether they were company-owned or “independent,” these towns had one thing in common: they were built entirely around lumber production. These were not diverse economies with multiple ways to make a living. Every working-age man in town worked in lumber and the few that didn’t worked in an industry or job sector that supported the lumber industry. In other words, these communities tied their residents’ fates and fortunes to the fates and fortunes of the timber economy.

When times were good no one seemed to notice. But the collapse of the lumber economy in the late part of the twentieth century left people in these communities with few options.

An early sign of trouble for Northwest timber workers came in the early 1970s, when sawmills undertook an aggressive plan of automation. Advanced saws run by computers, automatic lumber sorters, new machines for moving logs through the mills, and the combination of many stages of the milling process dramatically reduced the need for workers. While these innovations arguably made the industry much safer, reducing the devastating levels of workplace injury and fatality associated with timber harvesting and processing, automation also effectively rendered thousands of workers dispensable. Problems in the sawmills were also driven by raw log exports to Asian countries. By the late 1960s, Japanese importers found that it was easier to build sawmills in their own country and import unmilled (“raw”) logs than pay for milled lumber that bore the high cost of union labor. By the early 1970s, as much as 16 percent of Pacific Northwest lumber was being shipped abroad, raw. This meant more layoffs for sawmill workers.(12)Loomis, Empire of Timber, 196.

Manipulation of commodity markets throughout the 1970s also sent lumber prices falling, encouraging many companies to abandon logging altogether and instead make money on real estate development and sales. For most of the twentieth century, the value of timberland had been in its trees. But when Northwest real estate prices started their rapid rise in the 1970s—and as timber prices drastically fell—landowners could make more money developing their land and selling it off. Loggers also suffered when many logging companies left the region altogether in the 1970s, relocating to union-free labor markets in the South.(13)Devon McCurdy, “Upstream Influences: The Economy, The State, and Oregon’s Landscape, 1860-2000” (PhD Diss., University of Washington, 2013), 246.

At the same time the Northwest’s rural working-class was being pinched by automation, capital flight, and structural changes to the economy, it was also facing pressures from a new environmental movement. For much of the twentieth century, rural working-class communities saw themselves as stewards and caretakers of the land. Accordingly, loggers and environmental groups worked together closely to protect wilderness areas and maintain a healthy and sustainable resource extraction economy. But in the 1960s the environmental movement became more closely associated with the urban affluent who were less willing to partner with the rural working class and who increasingly saw all logging as inherently destructive. The most famous episode, of course, was the conflict over the endangered spotted owl. In 1990, environmental groups successfully won a series of court cases that resulted in the owl being listed under the Endangered Species Act, which meant that no logging would be allowed within 10,000 acres of a spotted owl nest. In the early 1990s, environmental groups sought additional protections for the owl, which culminated with President Bill Clinton’s Northwest Forest Plan, which closed off an additional 6 million acres of public land from timber harvest.

All these factors drove down employment dramatically throughout the 1970s. In 1978, the timber industry employed more than 136,000 people. By 1982 that number had fallen to less than 95,000. The massive layoffs throughout the 1970s led to rapid declines in unionization.(14)Beda, “Landscapes of Solidarity,” 217.

By 1981, federal deficits due to the Vietnam War combined with two major oil boycotts to unleash a terrible round of inflation in the United States. To bring inflation under control, interest rates were raised to over 18 percent, making mortgages more expensive. Home building crashed, along with the entire timber industry. When the economy recovered by the mid 1980’s, the timber industry was crippled. In the new Reagan era of deregulation and easy credit, the timber industry was attacked by corporate raiders who sold off whole production lines, broke the unions, cut wages, and eliminated job security, while saddling the companies they bought with debt.

Faced with the collapse of the logging industry and unable to court new industries, several rural communities began to transition to a tourist economy in the 1980s and 1990s, simply because few other options existed. Yet, for many rural communities, tourism represents what historian Hal Rothman has called a “devil’s bargain.”(15)Hal Rothman, Devil’s Bargains: Tourism in the Twentieth-Century West (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1998). Jobs in tourism are rarely unionized, as jobs in the timber industry had been, pay extremely poorly, and come without the occupational prestige. Moreover, as large condos, resorts, and vacation homes spring up, rural people are priced out of their homes. For instance, in the former logging and agricultural town of Mount Hood, Oregon, which began aggressively courting tourists in the late 1980s, affluent Portlanders and Californians have cornered the real estate market. By 2006, the median home price in Mount Hood was $400,000.(16)Jason Pierce, “The Winds of Change: The Decline of Extractive Industries and the Rise of Tourism in Hood River County, Oregon,” Oregon Historical Quarterly 108 (Fall, 2007): 410­–31.

The longtime residents in these tourist economies end up losing control of their towns and resources to the affluent newcomers. Indeed, what these communities sold to tourists was the natural beauty of their landscapes. Towns like Bend, Oregon promoted their pristine forests, rivers, and mountains, and promised affluent urbanites fun in the wilderness.

In short, the Northwest was changing, from a rural resource extraction economy to an urban industrial and high-tech economy. Throughout the 1980s, as Washington and Oregon’s timber economy lost more than 25,000 jobs, the two states as a whole gained more than 600,000 jobs, mostly in Seattle and Portland.(17)Loomis, Empire of Timber, 195. The economy, and political power, was shifting to urban areas. The rural resource economy was in free fall. Layoffs were routine and the unemployment rate in some logging towns topped 30 percent.

Corporations and owners who profited from generations of rural labor and resources were not required to reinvest any of their profits into these communities. And they didn’t.

If the history of the Northwest’s rural working class reveals anything, it’s that these are communities that have never been in control of the land on which their lives depend on. They’ve always been at the whims and wants of businesses running the show. The problems in the rural Northwest are more than a century in the making and solving those problems will entail a host of complex and complicated social and economic policies. But, if any of these policies are going to succeed, in whatever form they may take, we must all shift the way we think about rural people and rural industries. We all use and benefit from the products of rural people. Our homes are built of lumber, our newspapers made of pulp.

3. The fantasy of return to “local control” and extraction economies

Paramilitary and other Patriot movement groups imply that if the federal government gives the public land it manages to local control, then logging, mining, and other extraction industries would revive and could revitalize rural communities. But these claims are grounded more in nostalgic fantasies. While rural Pacific Northwesterners have long argued for local control of natural resources, for most of the twentieth century this has meant developing partnerships with the state, regulators, and government foresters. For instance, in 1947, loggers sought (but failed to achieve) legislation that would have established community boards—composed of workers, community members, and environmentalists—for overseeing timber harvests and setting responsible harvest quotas to be enforced by the state. Or, in 1964, several logging communities supported the Wilderness Act because they believed it would democratize the process of seeking wilderness designations and give working people the ability to more effectively lobby their legislators for expanded forest protections. In other words, for much of the twentieth century, local control for timber-working communities meant creating a working partnership with environmentalists and the state, not simply turning control of lands over to rural people.

At the same time, Patriot movement groups overemphasize the role that a renewal of logging could play in the modern economy. Even setting aside the critical issues of protecting the ecosystem and environmental sustainability, the global timber market, which is affected by complex forces of supply and demand, simply cannot sustain or support a massive increase in logging in Oregon’s forests. The county decided not to harvest the timber, however, because the market had fallen so sharply it would not be profitable. In addition, automation and the decline of unionization means that an expansion of this industry will not result in many well-paying jobs.

While market forces and current economic conditions suggest that rural economies can no longer be entirely dependent on resource extraction, logging can and should occupy a place in the modern resource economy. New plans should revolve around conservation-based logging, domestic production, clean energy production, and restoring the forests and waterways that everyone depends on, including city people.

There are other historical experiences and lessons that can serve as an inspiration for the health and well-being of rural communities. First, the area has an important tradition of working-class people fighting together for social justice, especially during the middle decades of the twentieth century. The Northwest’s rural working class had emerged from the Great Depression with strong unions. Founded in 1937, by the 1950s the International Woodworkers of America (IWA) had grown into the Northwest’s largest and most politically powerful union, with well over 100,000 members. Its rival, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, was smaller, representing about 50,000 Northwest timber workers but still among the largest unions in the region. Other unions also represented workers in the timber industry, such as the Association of Western Pulp and Paper Workers. These unions were premised on an understanding that workers in rural areas did not always have the same interests as corporations and landowners, and that strong organizations of working people were necessary to hold such companies accountable. As the region faces new economic opportunities and challenges, this history holds lessons for workers today. While the industries and economic sectors have certainly changed, the basic underlying insights about power and economic conflict remain the same.(18)On the IWA and labor unions in Pacific Northwest timber, see Erik Loomis, Empire of Timber: Labor Unions and the Pacific Northwest Forests (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016); Beda, “Landscapes of Solidarity;” Jerry Lembcke and William M. Tattam, One Union in Wood: A Political History of the International Woodworkers of America (New York: International Publishers, 1984).

Second, rural America has an important environmentalist history of its own protecting public forests, and this can help guide current debates over balancing extraction, sustainability, and environmental protection. With the near complete stripping of private forestland before the war, logging mostly moved to public land afterward, in particular on U.S. Forest Service lands.

Though the Forest Service had been founded with the noblest intensions—to manage public forests for the greatest good—political pressure placed on the agency by employers and politicians who wanted housing to remain affordable in the postwar period shifted the agency’s priorities. It was turned, more or less, into the public management wing of private industry, a bureaucracy that managed forestlands less for the public good and more for private harvest. The Forest Service plays an important role in making public lands accessible in Oregon’s rural communities, but the agency has also faced significant criticism over several issues, including its facilitation and management of timber sales and ecological restoration projects.(19)William G. Robbins, Landscapes of Conflict: The Oregon Story, 1940-2000 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004), 147–212; Nancy Langston, Forest Dreams, Forest Nightmares: The Paradox of Old Growth in the Inland West (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996); Paul W. Hirt, A Conspiracy of Optimism: Management of the National Forests Since World War Two (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994).

Both environmentalists and workers worried that this threatened the future of the lumber industry, the economic health of rural communities, and continued access to outdoor recreational opportunities. Together, throughout the 1950s, the two groups partnered to protest Forest Service policy and timber sales, and protect parts of the forest designated as wilderness. Indeed, before the 1960s, loggers and environmentalists were allies who worked in close partnership to preserve and protect the longevity of the forests.(20)Beda, “Landscapes of Solidarity,” 200–204; Kevin R. Marsh, Drawing Lines in the Forest: Creating Wilderness Areas in the Pacific Northwest (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2007); Michael Pebworth, “Evergreen Struggle: Federal Wilderness Preservation, Populism, and Liberalism in Washington State, 1935–1984,” (PhD Diss., University of Oregon, 2003).

This history invites us to think about the historic role rural communities have played as caretakers of the land. Because their fates and fortunes are tied to the land, many used—and can continue to use—that land wisely and responsibly. Rural people who use the land for their economic livelihood have deep stakes in this battle and so, an important role in it.

History of a County

Josephine County is today more than 92 percent white. The area’s original inhabitants include the Tututni, part of a diverse people whose settlement spanned the Rogue River as it descends from the Cascade Mountains en route to the Pacific. Gold first drew white miners into the region to take the land (backed by the munitions of the U.S. Army’s First Pacific Division) but it was the dense forests of Douglas Fir and Western Hemlock that came to dominate the economic, political, and social trajectory of the region. In the late nineteenth century, after the Army and white settlers seized the land from indigenous people, the federal government dispersed large parcels through the Oregon and California Railroad Company intended for white homesteaders.

But in the early twentieth century, a massive fraud by the railroad companies was uncovered; railroads had distributed less than 25 percent of the properties to individuals. In the wake of the national public outcry that followed, the federal government reasserted its control over the land through the newly created U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.

Today 62 percent of the land in Josephine County is managed by an agency of the federal government. It is one of nine Oregon counties in which more than half of the land is under federal control; 53 percent of the land in the entire state is federally managed.