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Home on the range: Wheeler County still poorest in Oregon

In 1990, Wheeler County was named the poorest county in the state of Oregon. Things haven’t changed much since.

According to Judy Potter, District Manager, of Wheeler County’s Soil and Water Conservation District, and the owner of a cattle ranch in the area, the county is still the poorest in the state. It is only getting worse.

Northern_Spotted_Owl_(8434206372) (2)

Spotted Owl (Bureau of Land Management photo)

Historically, the county’s economic base depended on timber and agriculture – primarily ranching. In 1990, the spotted owl was listed as an endangered species and, on the basis of faulty science, the environmentalists claimed that logging in Oregon had to stop in order to preserve the spotted owl.

Twenty-five years later, we have no forest industry, the spotted owl population is down 40 percent, and our forests are burning and dying. Unlike counties situated along the I-5 corridor, there are far fewer business options in the middle of nowhere Oregon.

Except for a few jobs from tourism and hunting, ranching is one of the remaining options, but now regulations purportedly to protect fish habitat, are being used to close down agriculture in Wheeler County. Wheeler County is the home of Painted Hills Natural Beef and other natural ranchers whose products are sold in the high-end grocery stores which cater to the most environmentally conscious shoppers.

Ranchers are closing operations because the government regulators are putting more and more onerous and expensive requirements on landowners purportedly to protect fish habitat. The situation is similar to what is going on in California where the government is dumping river water in the sea at a time when a drought is killing farms.

In Wheeler County, irrigation systems must be buried at great expense and fences must be built to keep cattle and other livestock from approaching streams, rivers, lakes, and flood plains. The farmers are being forced to make massive investments on the basis of very questionable science. The agencies’ appeal to the authority of science or scientists, but they seldom question the scientific validity of the underlying theories.

Grazing cattle (Photo by Gary Halvorson, Oregon State Archives via Wikimedia Commons)

Grazing cattle (Photo by Gary Halvorson, Oregon State Archives via Wikimedia Commons)

And, like the forests, the rangeland is dying. Environmentalists are creating new deserts in Oregon. Grass needs to be grazed to grow. If there is no grazing, the grasslands will simply die or it will burn. Government policies are not, in fact, saving the fish anymore than they saved the spotted owl. They are, however, killing other species, including farmers and ranchers.

The government gives grants to finance some of these costs, but applying for these grants is time consuming. In addition, the government installs water monitoring equipment for the rancher or farmer. However, all the data from the equipment is available to the government, which has used it to go on “fishing” expeditions in order to intrude more and more on the daily operations of the farms and ranches. So the land owners buy their own equipment and do their own monitoring.

The EPA and DEQ are supposed to regulate water quality and temperature of each stream to improve riparian habitat. As reported in state literature:

In 1993 the Oregon Legislature passed the Agricultural Water Quality Management Act, also known as Senate Bill 1010 (SB 1010). SB 1010 requires the Oregon Department of Agriculture to help reduce water pollution from agricultural sources, thus improving water conditions in the watersheds throughout the state. The Federal Clean Water Act requires the testing and listing of waterways that do not meet water quality standards.

What this means is that there is a continuing struggle between Oregon Department of Agriculture, EPA, DEQ, and the landowners. ODA has been able to manage implementation of these regulations and put more and more pressure on the districts and farmers. But the real purpose seems to be to stop agriculture and stop business in rural Oregon. The landowners simply do not have the money or the energy to stay in the game.

Highway_207_Barn_(Wheeler_County,_Oregon_scenic_images)_(wheDA0143) (1)

Highway 207 barn in Wheeler County (Photo by Gary Halvorson, Oregon State Archives via Wikimedia Commons)

One wonders if regulators understand what it takes to produce food. The true objective seems to be to get cattle off both public lands and private lands. It is not about environmental improvement. Would the government rather import food from a Third World country, where food is not safe, rather than grow food in the US, the safest food in the world?

Environmental regulators dictate what agriculture, ranchers and farmers, can and cannot do. These regulators include not only EPA and DEQ, but Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife, Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board and many others. The US Department of
Agriculture spends most of its budget on litigation, not on helping ranchers, farmers, or agriculture.

Oregon Natural Desert, a well-funded environmental group, spends enormous funds suing the farmers and ranchers and publishing research to drive them out. Whole Foods is a business partner of this organization. One wonders if Whole Foods understands many of its own organic suppliers will go out of business as a result of the growing pressure of these regulations and lawsuits. Painted Hills Beef may no longer be coming to a Whole Foods or News Seasons near you.

H. G. Wells, a liberal historian and author of The Time Machine, wrote that most people do not understand or care what is happening until it impacts them directly. Will Portland Metro wake up only when locally produced food like Painted Hills Beef is no longer at the grocery store?

The loggers are almost gone. It looks like the farmers and ranchers are next.

An earlier version of this story was originally published in the U-Choose Education Bulletin.

Header Image: Gary Halvorson, Oregon State Archives via Wikimedia Commons

Debra Mervyn

Debra is the president and co-founder of the Oregon-based U-Choose Education Forum: http://www.u-choose.us/

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