Subtopic : For Better and For Worse, Part of the Wider World: Changes and Challenges in the "New West" since 1980
Themes: People and the Environment, Politics and Government, Economics
Journalists and other commentators first began using the term “New West” in the 1980s. It referred to the rapidly changing face of the American West, to its skyrocketing rate of urbanization—to the growing sophistication, affluence, and political power of its cities and suburbs—coupled with both a sharp decline in its older, commodity-based, rural economies and the meteoric rise of its high-technology and financial centers as major players in the global marketplace. In contrast, after a modest growth spurt during the 1950s, almost all of southeastern Oregon’s established towns either grew very slightly or actually declined in population throughout the 1960s and 1970s, a trend that has continued to the present time. The high desert is hardly a major participant in the New West. Malheur County’s Jordan Valley has steadily lost population over most decades since 1920.
The New West’s evolving and highly competitive economy has been tough on family ranchers and others who long prided themselves as personifying “rugged individualism.” With the ebbing political influence of rural areas like southeastern Oregon, representatives of the federal government—such as Forest Service rangers and BLM managers—took on something of a “black hat” role for at least some hard-pressed ranchers and others during the era’s so-called Sagebrush Rebellion, during which some people challenged the federal government’s right to manage public lands for any goals other than the direct economic benefit of local residents. In direct opposition to long-established constitutional policy, well-established case law, and continuing defeats in court, a few such individuals continued to hold on to the faint hope of converting federal grazing allotments and permits into iron-clad, non-negotiable “private property rights.”
Dramatic drops in the availability of federal and private timber in the region have posed a major burden on the high desert’s two biggest towns, Burns-Hines and Lakeview. Timber harvest levels on nearby national forests declined during the 1980s and 1990s. Harney County’s once busy railroad mill at Hines, purchased by the Snow Mountain Lumber Company in 1983, limped along for a couple more years. The logging railroad from Burns north to the little company town of Seneca had been abandoned and torn up prior to 1975, and most of the spur line linking Burns to the main railroad line on the Snake River suffered an identical fate not many years later. Most of the old Hines mill buildings have been torn down.
In Lake County, when the Oregon-Nevada-California Railroad’s owners threatened its abandonment in 1985, the county board of commissioners took a big gamble and purchased the old O-N-C line that ran south to Alturas, California, which had long-before been converted to standard-gauge track. Lakeview’s Fremont Sawmill, which dates to the postwar boom years and benefited in part from the Forest Service’s 1950s to 1970s implementation of special “sustained-yield unit” policies on much of the Fremont National Forest, continues in operation. With the O-N-C tracks still open for traffic, Lakeview’s mill continues to turn out wood products that are shipped entirely by rail to distant wholesale buyers.
The author acknowledges Bill Cannon, Mike Hanley IV, Don Hann, John Kaiser, and Don Rotell, who each provided information that is scattered through several paragraphs in this section.
© Jeff LaLande, 2005
Themes: People and the Environment,Politics and Government,Economics
Regions: Southeastern Oregon
Author: Jeff LaLande
The high desert region of southeastern Oregon is hardly a major participant in what we understand as the “New West.”
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