In the mountainous high desert of Grant County, Oregon, America’s battle over infrastructure appears hopelessly misguided.
While lawmakers debate roads versus colleges and jobs versus climate change, residents of this beautiful but economically struggling region are piecing together a future that scrambles or even renders irrelevant many terms of that debate.
On paper, Grant County appears no different from any other solidly Republican rural area. More than three-quarters of residents voted to reelect Donald Trump last year. In May, voters joined six other Oregon counties in approving a symbolic resolution to secede from the rest of state.
Grant County was a timber-producing powerhouse until changes in the forest-products industry and environmental regulations upended the local economy. The county has lost jobs and population almost every year since the 1990s. It currently ranks as Oregon’s most economically distressed area.
Though the poverty rate matches some of urban Portland’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods, historically there has been little appetite for the sort of ambitious, expensive government proposals in President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan. Politics here often follows a simple rule: If Portland likes it, we’re against it.
Yet, Grant County has hatched a counterintuitive effort to reverse years of economic decline by becoming more like ... Portland.
John Day, the county’s largest city with roughly 1,750 people, has embarked on an ambitious series of infrastructure projects intended to transform the town into a model environmental community, what City Manager Nick Green called “the first self-sustaining community in the country.”
The plan rests on a $13 million wastewater treatment plant that will replace the city’s existing 72-year-old facility with a hydroponic system capable of recycling up to 80 million gallons of wastewater per year — essential in a dry region prone to drought and wildfires.
The recycled water will be used in a network of high-technology greenhouses where the city is test-piloting a program to grow fruits and vegetables under controlled, water-efficient conditions for local consumption and export. Most county agriculture is dedicated to cattle feed, forcing local stores to import produce.
The water also will be used at Malheur Lumber Company, Grant County’s last remaining sawmill, which was saved from obsolescence nearly a decade ago by an unusual coalition of loggers, environmentalists and state and local lawmakers. The mill processes timber cut under terms drafted by a local forestry planning partnership that seeks to reverse the disastrous effects of decades of fire suppression, clear-cutting and overly stringent environmental regulation.
The plan’s final step calls for replacing another local sawmill, shuttered decades ago, with a wood pulp digester that will use lumber mill byproducts to generate energy for the wastewater treatment plant and greenhouses.
Surrounding land will be developed into a recreational area and what the city calls an “innovation hub,” with office buildings, greenhouses and, some hope, a community college. “John Day is like a 100-year-old startup,” Green said.
How did such a future-oriented, climate-friendly plan take root in Trump country?
The initiative is the result of a countywide “Future Vision” series of surveys and conversations conducted in 2017, during which residents overwhelmingly supported development projects that addressed local environmental problems and boosted the region’s attractiveness to tourists and remote workers — people impressed by wood pulp digesters and intact old-growth forests.
Nick Green said a force quite distinct from politics drove residents’ willingness to experiment. After years of back-to-back wildfires, drought, job losses and shrinking towns and schools, it became obvious that “we need to adapt to survive,” he said. “We can’t live in the past anymore.”
Some longtime residents still hold out for a return to timber-harvesting glory days, Green said. Others balk at the plan’s high cost — $23 million so far, paid for with a combination of state and federal grants and loans plus local taxes and a sewer rate increase. “The city council is really excited,” Green said. “It went from me prompting them to them taking the ball and running with it and driving the change agenda. ... It’s a politics of pragmatism and local self-reliance.”
Such complex, unclassifiable views are neither new nor uncommon in supposedly monolithic electorates. Blue Mountains Forest Partners, the nonprofit that helps to guide sustainable forest management in Grant County, was founded 15 years ago. It is among the first in what is now a network of roughly two dozen similar organizations throughout the Pacific Northwest. The forest collaboratives, as they are known, are credited with helping to broker a fragile truce in the region’s timber wars.
Today, alongside the timber industry and agriculture, Grant County’s dominant economic sectors are health care, local schools, transportation services and local and federal government. A recent economic assessment staked future growth on high-technology agriculture, tourism, telecommuting and higher education. The 4,529-square-mile county has a well-staffed hospital with specialist doctors and a nursing home but no college campuses.
Residents must drive two hours across two counties to attend community college. Here, higher education classifies as essential infrastructure.
One obvious model for John Day would be the town of Bend, 150 miles west and blessed by relative proximity to populous western Oregon. With its access to skiing, Bend has ballooned into a rapidly growing adventure town with requisite traffic and housing supply bottlenecks.
Where does all of this fall along the spectrum of the federal government’s infrastructure debate? Simply put, it doesn’t. The debate’s sharp ideological divides and partisan posturing have little to do with the actual needs, eclecticism, and local wisdom and openness to change in places such as Grant County.
All it takes is a few phone calls to local residents to reveal the irreducible complexity of a supposedly sharply divided America. Talk to anyone long enough and they become impossible to categorize.
A former county judge, Mark Webb, is the founder and leader of Blue Mountains Forest Partners, the group seeking solutions to the timber wars. He says his Christian faith enabled him to admit he was wrong about forest management and to work with environmentalists. Webb studied at the University of Notre Dame and has worked as a forester, fence builder and college teacher. “You have to have epistemic humility,” he said.
The economic development projects in John Day were the brainchild of Green, the city manager, who grew up in rural Utah and Iowa, studied microbiology at Brigham Young University, worked as a biological weapons analyst for the Defense Intelligence Agency after 9/11, then switched careers and earned a public policy degree at the University of Washington in Seattle.
Green married a woman from John Day and moved to her hometown. He arrived asking a challenging question: “Can disruptive innovation and redefining the sense of urgency we went through in the Defense Department [after 9/11] be used in the fight for the lives of rural communities?”
Rob Klavins, a field coordinator for Oregon Wild, an environmental organization that has worked with and pushed back against forest collaboratives, spends his spare time running a pet-friendly bed and breakfast (Barking Mad Farm & Country B&B) in the small town of Enterprise, 184 miles to the northeast of John Day. He cited research showing that rural areas with protected public lands and recreation-friendly economies are better positioned to attract high-earning remote workers.
“People are not coming out here to look at clear cuts,” he said. “They come out to look at forests and wildlife. That doesn’t have the same romance as cowboys and loggers, but those are real dollars. People come and spend money at our bed and breakfast, and buy from the local bookstore and markets, and hire guides.”
To deal constructively with infrastructure in the real world of the United States, policy makers and others who are involved have to set aside preconceptions and political bias. It is hard to admit what you don’t know and learn from someone you don’t start off respecting.
That’s what it will take to solve America’s actual rural infrastructure problems.
“There’s an important difference between being solutions-oriented and protecting your turf,” Mark Webb said. “There are a lot of lessons in the Jewish scriptures about giving the land a rest, the farmers being charged with not trying to get every acre. … There’s a sense there of caring for others. That lesson should pervade how we go about it now.”
Jim Hinch is a senior editor at Guideposts magazine.