By Ryan Ramon
Meadow Lark by Jane Cox Farmer bbbbb
Where is my beautiful Oregon? The place I have known since my mother sang to me when I was in her womb as she and my father traveled from their mountain village in Mexico in search of the ancient Spanish land claim of my seafaring ancestor.They never found the little bay and headlands Capitan Rivera claimed but they did find a land rich in beauty and potential. Recently, I drove my car (my beloved 1959 MG) to Portland and Troutdale from Spencer Creek Valley, on one of my occasional trips to the outside world, making a loop through the spring rich and still soggy Willamette Valley to the metropolis of Portland and up the Columbia River Gorge and back. I tuned the radio to one of my radio stations and cruised through the rain and sun on I-5, the never ending road widening project. For once the traffic wasn't too bad but a strange feeling grew with each mile north. Where were the farms? All the sheep with their newborns? The fields were shrinking and it had nothing to do with the rain and sun.
Eugene/Springfield, Albany, Salem, Woodburn, Wilsonville, Sherwood, Tualitin, I saw so much raw, new development that wasn't there a year ago that I wonder how it will be for my future grandchildren. Will they hear the spring symphony of spring peepers, or see the new born lambs nursing? Will they see discrete communities surrounded by fertile farm lands and forests and linked by rail and Internet or will they see what I saw magnified by the coming years and the idea of land development as the perpetual motion/money machine? I saw new roads with factory retail outlets, more places to buy fast foods, (thanks you, McDonald's for your clean restroom somewhere south of Wilsonville), I saw even more shopping malls, new house and new apartment buildings and motels built right next to the interstate freeway. I saw new high-rises near the muddy Willamette River in downtown Portland whose urban growth boundary is indiscernible as Portland, too becomes a huge endless roaring monster city. Today Portland, tomorrow, Mexico City.
"Why didn't I take the train?" I groaned as I got gas on the road at almost two dollars a gallon, still nowhere near the real cost. The Amtrak and Congress have played cat and mouse with train commuters here in the NW corridor. Just when we are getting used to a new reconstituted service (the cheese), it is canceled (the cat pounces). A few days ago, there was an announcement for yet another new train service at reasonable hours. I can't wait. Really. I love to be playing the last great detective of the West in pursuit, as I read my Dashiel Hammett book in a comfortable seat sipping cooled wine. Who is that wondrous redhead two seats ahead? She needs a light for her cigarette ...
I used to tell people from other parts of the country that Portland was one of the few cities that has improved in the last twenty years, thinking of its riverside parks, great museums, cultural and ethnic communities, the intercity Max light rail and visually exciting buildings. But as I drove and walked through town I noticed persistent problems that have gotten worse. Far flung areas of suburban sprawl with neglected housing and "post industrial" wastelands. Roads that spin out from the city center for strip mall mile after endless strip mall mile. We don't need passports in this country to move from zone to zone but we are zoning people and places as surely as if we had a caste system in place in our society. As the older city is being reclaimed by the chic and the forests are being rezoned and developed for the mini-manors estates, and the farms are being developed for housing tracts, many in-between people are being squeezed into the in-between zones near the freeways. Hear they will find apartments, shopping and low wage service employment. And noise and smog in plenty.
The next day, a fine Sunday afternoon, I left my friends in Portland and headed east to see my nephew. I drove on the new improved, widened freeway of I-84, a monument to engineering, up the Gorge to Troutdale on table lands above the flood plain of the mighty Columbia River. I hadn't been up the Gorge in years and didn't recognize it except for the river that was a distant broad sheen in the grey afternoon. Like everywhere else, I saw wide new roads, new gas stations, new strip malls and shopping centers, new apartment complexes, even a school in a mobile classroom right on the freeway. (Don't breathe too deep, kids, during recess!)
I followed his directions and found the address on a wide deserted street not too far from I-84. It was a huge apartment complex. I had a good visit with my nephew and his sweetheart. He told me about his new job with a marketing firm. The job is straight commission and he works long hours (up to fourteen a day) contacting and convincing developers to "site package" their freeway service projects as a marketing entity. He is very exciting by the possibilities because he knows he needs money to marry and have a quiet place in the country. Meanwhile, he drives his car all over just as I drove to see him and people in Portland. Of course, people have to live and work somewhere. But can't we do it better? What is the matter with the model of cities and villages with greenbelts? We need transportation but building up our world for cars is killing the land and our spirits. And us. Pulmonary disease is on the rise, as is cancer. Stress is a very real condition that affects our health. Speaking of stress, I got back on the road. The traffic was getting pretty bad. I switched the air intake over to 'closed - recycle' only. The visual pollution was depressing. Malls, malls, business parks, malls, fast foods. Huge billboards where there used to be dairy farms.
As an antidote, I left the freeway at Albany and headed out to old route W99 south through the rain and sun. Along the route there are still barns and herds of cows. And modest farm houses, old and new. Farming is alive but the food growers are also shrinking. There are still working farms but some fields are orange with herbicides. These are the fields of grass seed growers who have found a great cash crop. Willamette Valley grass seed is exported to Korea to turf-up new golfcourses built on old farmlands to attract Japanese tourists. But where is our land to support food-growing for our towns and cities?
We marvel at the engineering genius of the Roman Empire. We are amazed at their political quandaries and the use of lead pipes that harmed so people in so many Roman cities around their world. We ask, how could they be so savvy and so stupid? So unaware of their own self-interests? Might we learn a lesson from the Romans? I want to get my vegetables and wheat from the closeby and fertile Willamette Valley, not some place far away. After all, I can live for a while without a new shirt from Korea or Mexico. If fuel costs continue to climb and clothing importers slow down, it may effect the world economy but I won't starve. But if all our food is imported, I could.
Consider the following: there was a federal report released last December, 1999. The US Dept. of Agriculture said that the USA lost 16 million acres of farm and forest to urban and suburban development in a five year period in the 1990's. And we continue to chew up 3.2 million acres a year, more than double the annual loss in the preceding decade. Top soil is being scrapped, poisoned, paved and eroded away at stupendous rates. Three new species from western Oregon were just added to the Endangered Species List: the Willamette Daisy, Kincaid's Lupine and Fender's Blue Butterfly. (The little blue butterfly lays its eggs on this particular lupine.)
All three species were found in the vast wet native prairies that once covered the Willamette Valley before it was converted to farms and sprawl and cities. There are a few remnants left to preserve including the meadows of Spencer Creek Valley where I live. The US Supreme Court upheld the Willamette River being named one of fourteen US rivers for protection as an American Heritage River but the state of Washington was not allowed to make rules to regulate the safety standards of tankers to protect its waterways. So many Oregon Land Conservation and Development Commission (LCDC) regulations look great on the books but do little to stop sprawl and species loss. They do do a good job telling my neighbor he can't build a house ( and be able to raise a family and stay) on the ranch to help his mother. But when will they put the brakes on Wal-Marts and Home Depots? How many of them do we need around here, for pity sake?
When is enough enough? Basta ya! How do we as a nation and as a species thrive without pooping in our own nest? If you are like me, we have thought about these things. How do we ordinary people influence the will and directions of our society? How do we change ourselves? When will I stop hopping in my car to zoom up the valley and curse all the tragic changes of the countryside? What wild wailings! One encouraging grace note is the March 2000 study by the Portland State University professor who surveyed 500 people throughout the state and found an overwhelming majority support the concepts of sustainable development and economics as a guiding principle for future government operations and private business. I will rant and rave more about these problems and possible solutions in the future. I promise to ride the train the next time I go to Portland. If it is still available. Please Congress, give us rail funding. Amen. So I may see my beautiful Oregon.
To Inspire Us
Notes from 1000 Friends of Oregon
Singing About Sprawl
"Daddy won't sell the farm," an urban sprawl country song by Montgomery
Gentry, is climbing the billboard charts. Lyrics include: "He's gonna
live and die, in the eye of an urban storm. Daddy won't sell the farm."
** "Valley of Plenty Fights to Survive"
California's Central Valley, widely regarded as the richest farmland on the
planet, is losing ground to urban sprawl. Some say Fresno is beginning to
go the way of Los Angeles, with its massive sprawling neighborhoods and
suburbs. Few cities in the Central Valley have traded sprawl for compact,
higher-density building strategies or invested heavily in revitalizing
blighted urban communities. Even fewer have implemented mixed-use,
residential zones that combine homes, offices, and retail stores. The
American Farmland Trust estimates that by 2040, approximately 1 million
acres will be lost from the 6.7 million acres currently under cultivation
in the Central Valley's 11 core counties, and about 2.5 million more acres
will be at serious risk. (USA Today 3/1/00)
American Farmland Trust: http://www.farmland.org