Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

Wallowa County's Old Guard

Suggested Citation. Kerr, Andy. 27 September 1995. Remarks before Lighthawk, meeting in Joseph Oregon.

I want to thank Lighthawk, the nation's environmental air force for inviting me to share the evening.  Lighthawk plays a unique role in documenting environmental destruction and values, and in letting people see for themselves what is going on.  Lighthawk has played a pivotal role in saving the westside forests and I expect it will do the same for eastside forests and grasslands.

Welcome to Wallowa County.  Home of about 7,000 humans and 42,000 bovines.

"Wallowa" is an Anglicization of a Nez Perce word for a fish trap set up on the river just below the lake to catch sockeye salmon.

The sockeye salmon are long gone from Wallowa Lake.  The Coho Salmon went extinct in the Snake River Basin in the 1980s.  The Chinook Salmon, both the spring-summer and fall runs, are on the endangered species list.  The last of the sea-going fish, the Steelhead will soon be on the list as well.

Salmon are a barometer of ecosystem health and this barometer has been going down for more than a century.  The river was much cleaner then and is much straighter now.

My wife and I have lived in Wallowa County for a little over a year and one-half.  I have been coming to Wallowa County since my first post-high school road trip where I bought my first beer at the Wallowa Lake store.

I want to share with you some of my personal impressions and observations about Wallowa County, the rural West, and the changing economy.

Wallowa County is a good as an example of any of the changing rural West.  It's population peaked in 1920 at 9778.  It was perhaps higher than this before the First World War which saw an large emigration to cities and to the front that never returned.  The population has been 7,000 ± 800 since 1930.  The trend presently seems slightly upward, but nothing compared to the State of Oregon's population growth.

In terms of overall number, the local population is relatively stable.  This population base is being maintained even though it appears that the vast majority of children are leaving the county after the graduate from high school.  So who is moving in?  Data is sparse, but it appears to be wealthy urban refugees.

The economy is also in transition.  Unemployment ranks among the highest in the state.  Historically, timber, grazing and a little cultivated agriculture were the mainstays.  These are generally on the decline.  Increasing are tourism and recreation, and the craft of making art, especially bronze pieces.  A major increasing source of income in the county is transfer payments, people spending their money here that they either made elsewhere or from government entitlements.

Economically, we are seeing a retreat to Interstate 84.  In Joseph, we are 75 miles from the Interstate (and the first stoplight).

The branch rail line from La Grande is proposed for abandonment from Joseph to Elgin (outside the county).  US National Bank has pulled out, selling their operations to the Bank of Wallowa County.  General Telephone and Electronics is seeking to sell its operations in Wallowa County.  Both seek to concentrate their business along the interstates.

Economically, the county has historically had a severe dependence on the federal government.  The feds are one of the largest employer in the county  About 70% of the county is federally owned.

An interesting political dynamic is in transition.  Traditionally, the federal government theoretically held much power.  But in fact, it has historically served as handmaidens to local political interests of timber, ranching and farming.  This is changing.

The rail line is going out because of a drop off in shipments.  The fatal blow as the closure of the Boise-Cascade Corporation sawmill in Joseph.  That mill closed literally the week we were completing our move here.  Of course,  I was blamed personally and sometimes exclusively.  (If I had just 10% of the power my detractors ascribe to me, I'd be a happy person.)

I think the mill closure had more to do with strategic decisions made by the absentee mangers in Boise decades ago to run the Joseph operation until it wore out or ran out of logs, and to modernize its Elgin operation.  They didn't put a dime into the Joseph mill except for grease for many years and it couldn't handle a log less than 18 inches in diameter.  The mill closed with a deck full of logs, that Boise-Cascade hauled off to its other mills.

That left Wallowa County with two mills: The R-Y operation in Joseph by the airport and the Rogge Mill in Wallowa.  Later last year, the R-Y operation closed without warning and also with a full log deck.  The logs were sold to Boise-Cascade.  It was more profitable, apparently for R-Y to sell its logs than to make product from those logs to sell.

This second mill closing was just too much for the community power structure.  They were desperate to keep the mill in operation, including looking for state and federal funds so the county could buy the mill.  Quite ironic for a community that views itself as independent and free-market, don't you think?

A couple of people got together and decided buy the mill.  One used to manage it awhile back and the other is an industrialist who owns a house on Wallowa Lake.  They have been looking for logs, the mills had been pretty aggressive buying private timber, so those stocks are near depletion.

The new Joseph Timber Company then announced they had secured an initial source of logs.  They are buying 2 million feet of logs already in the yard at the Rogge Mill in Wallowa and are paying the liens on the logs before they are milled.  The Rogge operation has closed and will likely be sold for parts.

As the actual economic importance of timber and grazing decline, among the old guard, their social importance takes on mythic proportions.

Fearing a loss of power and lifestyle, this old guard clings desperately to the past.  To compensate for declining economic importance, one sees increasing rhetoric about the social importance of livestock grazing and logging.  Not content to simply proclaim the joys of grazing and logging, this old guard declaims any who would deviate from the party line.

They hold power today, not because they are the strongest, but because of their historical dominance and their contemporary arrogance.  If any dare venture a view on the environment, contrary to their beliefs, the intimidation machine takes over.  In Wallowa County, it is easier to discuss your sex life and religion than your environmental views.  If you have kids in school, or if you are a storekeeper you are vulnerable to various forms of intimidation.  Unless you have an independent livelihood, you cannot speak without fear of intimidation or retribution.  To speak out means a possible boycott of your business, harassment of your kids or worse.  As a result, Wallowa County has few "out" environmentalists.

Being confined to one landscape can have has an effect on social attitudes.  We can see this by the development of a social idiom.  Take the phrase "The County."  Here in Wallowa County, it is common to refer to "the county."

If you engage in a conversation with a long-time resident, he or she will likely say "you're not from here."  They won't likely say "you're from Portland," but rather "your not from the county."

If you are in LaGrande—seat of Union County to the southwest—you might well hear one tell you "I am going up to the county," not "I am going to Wallowa County."

Most Oregonians don't identify much with counties.  Most Westerners live in urban and suburban settings where their interaction with their county is limited to matters pertaining to licenses for dogs, marriages and concealed handguns.

But in Wallowa County, the identification, not just with local government, but with the geography of the county is much stronger.  There are two state highways leading into (or out of) the county.  From La Grande you drop down a steep grade and almost come to the Minam River before you enter the county.  From Lewiston, you climb out of the Grande Ronde Canyon and cross a state line to get to the county.  Once here, you are hemmed in by the Wallowa Mountains to the South and the Snake River to the East.  Only in summer, after the snows have melted, can you leave the county toward the South on a somewhat paved Forest Service road.

The result of this influence of geography, especially if one doesn't get out much, can be a severe provinciality and the development of an "us v. them" attitude.  This is exacerbated by the "urban v. rural" split in Oregon and every other state, for that matter.

Long-time residents see their kids going off to cities and never returning except to visit.  They see their traditional economies in decline and a new economies emerging and leaving them behind.  We all hate change.  The conflicts arise because people perceive change differently.  If to you the status quo is a high level of logging and grazing, then decreases in that are unacceptable.  If to you the status quo is a any level of salmon and grizzly bears, then decreases are unacceptable.

It also depends on whether your brain is wired to value more the long-term or the short-term.  Take the statement "we only have 10 years of logs left."  If your reaction is, "well, the forest has been overcut, the mills are going to close anyway, we have to save what's left," you're likely an environmentalist.

But an equally sincere reaction is "in 10 years, I'll be retired, or I'll have paid off my house, and I've never had the same job 10 years."

And if you are the Chief Executive Officer of a corporation your reaction will undoubtedly be: "10 years is 40-quarterly reporting periods for which I am under a fiduciary responsibility to the stockholders to maximize profits every 90 days; hell I won't be in this job 10 quarters, let alone 10 years."

Wallowa County: Things are different here.  Take the common bumper sticker: "Kill the Pipeline."  I'm usually against all pipelines, but I was seeing this bumper sticker on big pick-ups, usually with bumper stickers I didn't approve of.  The "pipeline" in this case was to make water use for irrigation more efficient than open ditches.  The local outcry over piping the water was immense.  It centered on "custom and culture" arguments such as "we've always done it that way" and "our kids have always played in the ditches.  A Nez Perce wryly noted that we European Americans don't have a treaty which has the retained the right to forever use the usual and accustomed swimming holes, like Native Americans have for fish.

There are three major psychological factors that I have found to be important in understanding how this old guard behaves:

• small-world view;

• intolerance; and

• paranoia.

Let me give you an example.  I—and a good deal of scientific evidence supports my view—don't believe that livestock grazing and logging is good for fish and wildlife.  This old guard's small-world view is internally reinforcing because they only talk to themselves.  They don't get out much.  "Why everybody knows that grazing and logging is good for fish and wildlife, just as sure as everybody knows the sun rises over the Seven Devils each morning!"

They are also intolerant.  This old guard will not grant me, or anyone else who doesn't think like them, the simple sincerity of one's position.  They believe that acknowledgment of a contrary viewpoint is acceptance of such and this weakens their own position.

Combining narrow-mindedness and intolerance, the old guard sincerely believes "that any damn fool knows livestock grazing and logging are good for fish and wildlife, and therefore anyone who espouses such a view much have a hidden agenda."

Here, the third factor, paranoia sets in.  Since environmentalists must have a hidden agenda, what is it?  Well, it's easy: environmentalists are out to get them personally.

If the other side will not even grant you the sincerity and good faith of your position, it makes it very difficult to have a rational dialogue on the issues.

Increasingly, the division and hatred that seems to be upwelling in this nation is manifest with the assumption of bad faith.  The increasingly mean-spirited conservative right increasingly seems to operate from an assumption of bad faith.  Anyone who disagrees with them must therefore have the worst possible motives for having such beliefs.  This does not bode well for the Union.

Lighthawk first became interested in holding their annual fly-in in Wallowa County after Ric Bailey of the Hells Canyon Preservation Council and myself were hung in effigy in September 1994 during a so-called "wise use" conference.

Ric and I were disappointed that we weren't invited to the event.  Had we known, we would have changed our schedules to be there.  As it was, we were both out-of-town.  (I've had better effigy.  In this case, I found the craftsmanship was sloppy and uncreative.)

The effigy thing and the so-called wise use conference was driven by a gentlemen then running for County Commissioner as a Democrat.  The Republican incumbent, no bit player in the unwise use movement himself, had the edge and the challenger needed public attention.

The challenger's campaign seemed to center on running Bailey and Kerr out of town.  I say this not out of arrogance or ego, but from evidence.  Other than some lawn signs—with the very east-coast trait of having the candidates picture on them—the remainder of his campaign seemed to be a mailing of a brochure to each voter.  The brochure took no potentially controversial positions, and in fact said that one should write the candidate if one wanted to know his position on anything.  It also included testimonials from his children on what a great guy he was.

The local newspaper was more than willing to give him his ink.  Nonetheless, he lost be a 2-1 margin, which I take to be closer to expressing support for tolerance, than for the environment.

More have sought to make my wife and I welcome in Wallowa County than have not.  Many have had to be discreet in showing such civility, 'lest they suffer the wrath of this old guard.

Of course, a number have gone out of their way to make us unwelcome.  It is a small minority though.  My problem is that most of my publicists don't work for me.  Instead they work for the timber, cattle, mining, agriculture and such industries who have chosen to demonize myself and ONRC for their own purposes.  As a result, the reputation that I enjoy is often inaccurate.  (One of the reasons I keep my hair short, is so that when people recognize me, they will see that I don't have horns.)

When an old guard begins to lose power, the tendency is to do what they have been doing, only more so.  It used to be that federal agents in Wallowa County were always accommodating handmaidens of industrial interests.  If any federal official did have the audacity to act up and try to obey the law or otherwise conduct land and resource management contrary to local custom and culture, a phone call to the local Congressman would put an end to it.  But this is changing.  Federal officials are increasingly pressured from other sides and now, and can't always accommodate the old guard.

The old guard responds by getting louder and more threatening.  This works in the short-term, but as a long-term strategy it is destined for failure.

Perhaps you have seen the bumper sticker that says "Bag Bailey, Babbitt and Kerr."  I was tempted to display it on my car, after surgically altering it to more accurately reflect the order in which they should be concerned.  But I didn't want to cut up my only copy; as I didn't think they would give me another.

Some have asked me why don't I sit down and talk with these extremists.  It is easier said then done.  Besides their small-world view, intolerance and paranoia, some of this old guard also suffers from delusion.  They are whacko.  They sincerely believe that the United Nations is quartering troops in nearby Wilderness Areas; troops there with the acquiesce of the federal government; troops who will soon swoop down to take away our guns.  They say they have seen black helicopters flying over the county; helicopters who are carrying federal agents on their way to heinous missions.  Our respective realties are so disparate, that dialogue is impossible.

One of my professional reasons for moving to Wallowa County was place myself in a hostile habitat.  Living in Portland, one tends to be surrounded with people who generally think like I do.  While this is reinforcing and gratifying to the ego, it can be deceiving.  I had prided myself on being able to think like my adversary.  Take a timber beast: emphasizes the short-term; values money over nature, etc.  But I am going to admit an inadequacy here.  I'm not paranoid and delusional enough to think like some of my opponents from the genera that comprises the unwise use/identity Christian/KKK/Aryan Nation/Neo-Nazi/Militia sects.

While old guard views themselves a free-enterprise Americans, they in fact simply have their hands deeply in the pockets of Uncle Sam (actually the taxpayers).  Their traditional activities have been for the most part subsidized by the federal government: grazing, timbering, and wheat farming. 

Wallowa County is a hot-bed of the county supremacy movement.  It's just a 90s style Sagebrush Rebellion which occurred during the Reagan Administration.  Such uprising have been tried before under the Cleveland, Hoover and Eisenhower administrations.  The big difference this time is that the rap isn't "state rights" but "county rights."  The reason is that in this terribly urbanized West, where 80% of the people living west of the Continental Divide live within 50 miles of Interstate 5, that if the federal lands were turned over to the states, the local special interests won't necessarily be better off.

What is driving this issue is a feeling among some in the rural West, that understandings—laws, regulations, policies, grants, etc.—made during the past near two centuries between select beneficiaries of federal largesse and the federal government—are now unraveling.  They are.  They weren't understanding between equal powers.  They were essentially grants-in-aid from Congress, on behalf of the entire people of the United States to certain Westerners.  What we the people give, we the people can take away.

To forestall this, an amusing legal theories which requires constructions of the law never before seen in this nation, and few lawyers would risked by sanctioned by a court to frivolously bring.  If we were to apply such a narrow reading of the Constitution as my friends here desire, USDA farm support programs are similarly unconstitutional as public lands.

Rather than inventing cock-eyed constitutional theories in a vain attempt to maintain the old relationship, we Wallowans need to look instead at removing ourselves from the public teat, be it timber, mining, grazing, irrigation, crop, power or other kinds of subsidies.  The raw political numbers, in terms of the small number of beneficiaries relative to the large number of taxpayers, is writing enough on the wall.  We ought to negotiate a severance package.  Politically, such a package could be achieved for a graceful end to federal resource subsidies.  But if these welfare kings continue to hold out, political and fiscal reality will hit and the subsidies will end, relatively abruptly and with little compassion.

For the westside forests, where the northern spotted owl hangs out, the Clinton Administration is providing $1.2 billion dollars of economic transition assistance.  That's $120,000/dislocated worker who lost their job due to changing federal policies regarding the spotted owl.  Our fellow residents who lose their job due to changing federal policies in regard to salmon, grazing, forest management or whatever, deserve no less.  Unfortunately, most of this westside money is being sucked up by the bloated bureaucracy, not getting to the ground or to the worker.

ONRC proposes that this transition money be split three ways:

$40,000 for each dislocated timber worker directly to said worker to use as he or she sees fit.  They can pay off their house, coast into retirement, go back to school, start a business, move or whatever best fits their individual needs, including partying their way through denial, if that what one thinks best.

$40,000 to the county in which the dislocated worker is located to spend as they see fit.  For infrastructure development, for community assistance, or whatever.  Each local county's need is difference and can't be met by one federal program, or a bunch of federal programs.

$40,000 per dislocated worker allocated to watershed restoration—removing unneeded roads and culverts that harm fish runs.  These could be transition jobs for woods workers unable or unwilling to change.

We also propose to buy out public land welfare ranchers at the fair market value of their grazing privileges.  This should satisfy both them and their bankers.

Some in Wallowa County believe the issue is a question of: "Are people more important than animals?"  I would answer most affirmatively that people are.  The reason I support the Endangered Species Act is based upon enlightened self-interest.  Over one-third of our pharmaceuticals come from plants.  The rosy periwinkle, a very endangered plant from Madagascar contains a compound that knocks out a rare form of cancer.  The Pacific Yew tree, once considered a weed, gave us taxol, effective against late-stage ovarian cancer.  A tree in the state of Sarawak in Malaysia was sampled and found to have a compound that killed the aid virus in a petri dish.  When scientists went back, the tree had been logged.  Others, of the same species, nearby did not have the compound.

Endangered species may hold the answer to questions we may not even yet know to ask.

The question over endangered species is not really one of balancing the interests of between the members of the generations that now inhabit the Earth, but of maintaining a balance between these generations and those that will follow us.

My detractors in Wallowa County harbor real fear.  Their problem—and mine—is that they find it convenient to fear and demonize me, rather than face up to their real problems.

Rural areas have been declining in population since World War I.  This population loss now seems to have stopped, but is being filled with urban refugees who come to the rural West today for different reasons than those a century ago.

We've logged off most of our forests.  The question is simply one of will we save and restore what is left before logging ends.  Beef consumption is declining about 1% year.  Public land grazing in the West is the most marginal of ways to produce beef.

The traditional bell curve distribution of income in this country is turning upside down.  Going is the relatively few poor, the large middle class and the relatively few rich.  The rich are getting richer, and a few more of us are getting richer; but most of us are getting poorer, and the poor are getting poorer.

The profits of corporations no longer bear much relation to the quantity or quality of individual jobs.

There is another factor which is often overlooked.  If you inquire about the brothers and sisters of this old guard, you'll find that they long ago moved to the city in seek of a better economic future.  So did their aunts and uncles.  So did their great aunts and great uncles.  Those in rural areas most resistant to change are so because of a social, if not genetic, selection process which has occurred over the last century or more.  Those left are the least capable of accepting change.

The challenge for environmentalists, and for communities in counties like Wallowa, is to take advantage of this ongoing economic and social transition by guiding it toward economically and ecologically sustainable activities.

This is easier said than done, and if history is any guide, it won't happen.  But history is reason enough to make us try.  As we do so, we must always keep in mind the following:

• The next generation of people is more important than the next quarter of profits.

• Ecologically sustainable activities are economically sustainable ones as well.

• Opportunity and education must be available to all.

• As society and the economy go forward, we can't afford to leave anyone behind.

• Nature bats last; there are limits to growth.