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The Jefferson Journal is JPR's members' magazine featuring articles, columns, and reviews about living in Southern Oregon and Northern California, as well as articles from NPR. The magazine also includes program listings for JPR's network of radio stations.

Of Dams And Trees: 30 Years In The State Of Jefferson

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It hit me recently: I’ve lived in Southern Oregon and worked in the news business for 30 years this summer. THIRTY YEARS. And I suppose it feels like a bigger milestone than, say 25 years, because... well, because I’m a baby boomer, and anything over 30 was once considered old. So here’s a chance to glance back at three whole decades in the “State of Jefferson”: much has changed, and much has not.

You live in any place for a bunch of years, you notice some changes.

The not: the region’s natural features. Being near mountains and streams and forests brought my wife Joi and me here from Green Bay, Wisconsin. Green Bay has its charms, but it never felt like home, and we only spent 15 months there: long enough to get married and find another place to live. We didn’t think of this as a permanent move, but the place grows on you, doesn’t it?

The arguments over the uses of the mountains and streams and forests also have not changed. But over time, the people in favor of preservation have won the upper hand. Within a year of our arrival in the region, construction started on Elk Creek Dam, on a Rogue River tributary north of Medford. Powerful members of Congress from Oregon insisted that it was needed for flood control. Environmental groups insisted it was not, and a year into construction, a lawsuit stopped the project cold. It never got beyond one-third completion, and a dynamited notch in the partial dam lets Elk Creek flow freely once again.

Timber flowed freely from our forests in the mid-1980s. Loggers used to call the TV station where I worked to tell us about the big scores they were making, like single tree trunks so big they filled up a log truck. That came to an end within a few years. The Spotted Owl’s placement on the Endangered Species List in 1990 confirmed what conservationists had been saying for years... that timber cutting on federal land was going too fast; tree growth could not keep up, and ecosystems and their inhabitants were being lost. The Northwest Forest Plan followed a few years later, and vastly-reduced timber cutting became the norm.

So society HAS changed in 30 years; the changes in resource use affected the people whose jobs depended upon those resources. Most high school graduates can no longer expect a timber mill job that will put them firmly in the middle class. The site of the Medford Corporation’s big plywood mill in North Medford is now home to a Trader Joe’s grocery. The former Georgia-Pacific mill site in Fort Bragg is a gem of oceanfront property that the city is now figuring out what to do with. Critics of the timber industry point out that many jobs were already lost through automation, and more would have been lost eventually at the old cutting rates, because mills would have run out of trees later, rather than sooner.

And our societal changes are more than resource-dependent. California’s vote to pass Proposition 13 (in 1978) and Oregon’s vote to pass Measure 5 (in 1990) were all about reducing property taxes and requiring more money from state government. But neither vote raised any other taxes, so the past 30 years have featured massive shifts in spending priorities, as our states took money out of one pocket to put into another. That’s why public universities in both states depend far more on tuition payments than they once did. And why K-12 class sizes are up in both states. Both states have slid in several measures of educational quality. Whether that’s all about the money is always a source of debate.

You live in any place for a bunch of years, you notice some changes. Our current home in Talent had few neighbors when we moved into it nearly 22 years ago. Across the street were a couple of acres of fields, and exactly two houses. Those houses and the open space are long gone, subdivided and filled in with more than 20 homes. Did we like the open space? Absolutely. But since the neighborhood grew up around us, we’ve made many new friends. I know this is the story for many people in the region: move to the edge of town, only to find the edge moving past you. Within a few years, you’re in the middle of things. Can we call it progress? Maybe. But as long as we accept the concept of growth, it’s a situation we have to live with. And that’s a discussion for another day, one we’ve had a few times already on The Jefferson Exchange.

I’ll finish here with one more story of change over 30 years in the region. When we first moved here, I dearly wanted to ride the steam excursion trains out of Cottage Grove on the Oregon, Pacific & Eastern Railroad. But we never got around to it, and the owners closed the line and pulled the tracks up in the 1990s. The railroad bed is now the Row River Trail, paved for hikers and bikers for 15 miles out of Cottage Grove. Joi and I recently biked the length of the trail. Did it satisfy the railroad buff in me? No. But it did satisfy the bicyclist, and I got better exercise than I would have gotten in a coach seat. Change will happen; the response is up to us. Happy 30th anniversary!

Geoffrey Riley began practicing journalism in the State of Jefferson nearly three decades ago, as a reporter and anchor for a Medford TV station. It was about the same time that he began listening to Jefferson Public Radio, and thought he might one day work there. He was right.

Geoffrey Riley is a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and has hosted the Jefferson Exchange on JPR since 2009. He's been a broadcaster in the Rogue Valley for more than 35 years, working in both television and radio.