by Chana B. Cox, Ph.D.
“Rolling terrain extends on the two banks of the Ohio where the soil offers inexhaustible treasures to the plowman every day; on the two banks the air is equally healthy and the climate temperate… On the left bank of the river, the population is scattered… From the right bank arises, in contrast, a confused murmur that proclaims from afar the presence of industry; rich crops cover the fields; elegant dwellings announce the taste and the attentions of the plowman; on all sides comfort is revealed; man seems rich and content: he is working.” – Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1831
Alexis de Tocqueville once attributed the stark difference between Ohio to the north and Kentucky to the south to slavery in Kentucky; but take a journey down the Columbia River today, and you will see a similar contrast. Upriver there are flourishing green fields in Washington and a virtual desert in Oregon. The people in Washington and Oregon seem to have “the same habits, the same civilization, the same laws” but they have made different choices. Washington has chosen to take winter water from the Columbia, store it, and irrigate in the summer. Oregon has chosen not to.
Downriver, transportation and industry in Washington are relatively healthy even during our economic downturn. Washington State is only marginally more friendly to development than Oregon, but even that incremental difference has had enormous impacts.
Washington has four times the rail lines along the river that we have and many more jobs. Energy and transportation build industry. South of the river, Oregon has chosen to become a place where whole industries are abandoned and people who are fortunate enough to have jobs commute long distances to Portland.
The Columbia is a source of great blessings. It gives us low-cost renewable energy, salt-free water, and fertile valleys rich in timber and in agricultural potential. This great river provides a pathway into the heart of America and a gateway to the world. We Oregonians have chosen to turn our backs on those blessings. We neglect our hydroelectric system even as we squander our scarce resources on more environmentally harmful technologies which will not become economically viable for many years – if ever.
Unlike Washington, we do not use fresh river water; we let it flow into the sea. We were told we must kill our timber industry in order to save the spotted owl habitat and the trees. The spotted owl has not been saved, the unharvested forests are dying of disease and fire, and our last timber mills are closing.
And now we are even choking off river traffic.
“The American of the left bank scorns not only work, but all the enterprises that work brings to success.”
We in Oregon have chosen not to labor but to rely on the labor of others. We scrape by on arts, crafts, and tourists; and we continue to destroy our industries one by one. Many people in Oregon believe that humans, simply by existing, are destroying nature. In their new religion, we are the original sin.
In fact nature manages the business of destruction quite well on its own. Floods destroy land; volcanoes and forest fires dump mega amounts of carbon into the air; whole species disappear in the blink of a geological moment; and the climate cycles through cooling and warming periods in tandem with the emergence of sun spots.
Yes, we should have environmental controls but, as stewards of this planet, we should tend the garden, and not simply abandon it.
We should leverage Oregon’s abundant water resources. A bipartisan group of legislators has shown that four inches of winter water from the Columbia will create 10,250 farm and food processing jobs in Oregon
We should tend our hydroelectric system while maintaining fish protection programs.
We should harvest and replant our timber – in federal and state forests as well as on private land
We should use our river valley for transporting commodities. Water transportation is the most cost effective and environmentally safe high-volume transportation.
Three projects are now either underway or seeking approval at Port Westward: a Portland General Electric natural gas generating plant, a “peaking” plant to backup the inconsistencies of windpower, broke ground last week; the twice-failed ethanol plant is now bringing in crude oil and sending it to refineries, and the Ambre Energy Morrow Pacific coal exportation project is mired in the permitting process, while the Kinder Morgan coal exportation project has dropped its plans for Port Westward. Other industries are reportedly interested in locating there.
In regard to projects involving rail transportation, we should support elected officials who will work for improvements to the rail line including highway overpasses, noise reduction, and assurances that all the state and federal requirements regarding preventing spillage and pollution are being followed. We should insist that all projects meet the strict federal and state regulatory standards already in place. Then we should support these projects. Abundant energy has made the economic turnaround in the Midwest possible
If we are good stewards of this planet, both the river and the people on both banks of the river will flourish.
Chana Cox lives near Scappoose on Skyline Ridge. She is a retired Lewis and Clark College faculty member with degrees from Reed College and a doctorate in philosophy from Columbia University. She is the author of books on political theory.