The Oregon Attitude

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Americans are following their dreams and moving to Oregon. But how is the state handling the influx?



BILL MOYERS: They came West by wagon train and later by the railroad in search of adventure, fortune, and the good life Theirs was the restless, insatiable spirit that founded this country and kept pushing the frontier westward. When they grew dissatisfied with life in Massachusetts, they settled in Connecticut and New Hampshire. If they grew impatient there they moved on to Vermont and upper New York. Those who didn’t like New England sought their fortunes in Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana. In 1843, tens of thousands began the great migration to Oregon. They’re still coming. The old American urge to move on, to get away from it all has precipitated another migration northwest. And Oregon, the livable state, the ample state, is best with people pressure. The whole state is debating whether and how to slow it down. And what’s happening in Oregon is happening all over the country; but here where the old trail west ends, the issue is sharply drawn. Where will Americans go in the future and when we get there will it be any different from what we left?

Welcome to Oregon. Welcome, I should say, if you’re not planning to stay very long. The people out here think they have a patent on the good life and they’re growing increasingly wary of poachers. The fishing is good. The air is fresh. And the scenery — well, when I was a kid we used to sing about “the purple mountains’ majesties, the amber waves of grain and the spacious skies.” Out here they don’t sing about those things as much as they simply enjoy them.

More than fifty thousand newcomers came to Oregon last year to live. Every year more than ten million tourists jam the highways and campgrounds hoping for a short lease on the beauty of this place. The natives, most of whom are from everywhere else are growing worried about all of this encroachment, about the congestion and the noise brought about by the tourist and the newcomers. They’re a friendly crowd but they’re beginning to ask themselves if it isn’t time to bring the Oregon trail to a close.

MAN: Once upon a time we didn’t have any problem with space in Oregon. We had it all to ourself. And it was beautiful. Then more and more people moved into Oregon. And today there are more people per square mile in the Willamette Valley than California, Ohio, or Pennsylvania. We are the people that keep Oregon livable and we’re not against growth. What we are against is bad planning. So we’re asking you to speak out and support far-sighted land planning codes and legislation. For more information on this and other ways you can help, write Keep Oregon Livable. Because if we don’t plan for growth now, we may be overrun by success.

BILL MOYERS: The state-funded campaign doesn’t mention that Oregon has only one percent of the nation’s population and its density is only one-third the national average. But Oregon is the fifteenth fastest growing state. Despite the rain Oregon is attractive, not only for its beauty but for its innovative political system. Due to process of initiative, referendum, and recall, Oregonians have reserved for themselves the final decision on virtually every major legislative issue. Thus the voters upheld Oregon’s first land use planning law in 1970 when they re-elected Governor Tom McCall. The Governor has taken an increasingly tough stand on environmental issues and he hasn’t avoided personal confrontations with his critics.

GOVERNOR TOM MCCALL: Let’s sign an agreement. I’ll tell you what I told Mr. Day this morning. I told him if he didn’t clean up that river I’d get rid of his Commission and fire him.

TOM MCCALL: Publishers got finished in October and in December we wrote Boise Cascade and said, you’re dragging your feet, you’re not committed to cleaning it up and we met with them three times. You ought to look at that river. I flew over yesterday. It’s the worst mess you ever saw.

BILL MOYERS: McCall created a strong department of Environmental Quality with the result that Oregon leads most states in meeting federal clean air and water quality standards. In October 1972 Oregon became the first state to outlaw nonreturnable bottles and cans for beer and soft drinks. The pull tab can was banned. Convenience could no longer be an excuse for litter. Despite the grumbling at the supermarket, Governor McCall says there’s been less litter on the state’s highways and that the savings in energy and resources alone have made the bottling law a tremendous success. After a year, even same bottlers are reporting increased profits on the returnable bottles. And others have begun to apply American ingenuity to creating a self-opening can that can be recycled. Environmental awareness and imagination. The Oregon ungreeting card that’s ‘ungreeting’ card — is the newest example of a provincial humor that aims at keeping Oregon for the Oregonians, an idea that began in Eugene in the spring of 1973 — by Fall, it was becoming a commercial success.

MAN: This is really one of my favorite cards “The people in Oregon don’t tan in the summertime, they rust.” Hugh West is the character and he’s holding this jar of navel jelly — it’s for taking rust off. On the inside: “for your summer sun tan, see Southern California.”

MAN: Right on. Now this is one of the popular cards. But there was another one too, which was: “Last year in Oregon, 677 people fell off their bikes and drowned.”

MAN: Yay.

MAN: Now, the ungreeting: “To find out more about horseback riding in Wyoming this year, call 733-2097.”

MAN: What’s your card say?

MAN: This is: “Tom Lawson McCall, Governor, on behalf of the citizens of the great state of Oregon, cordially invites you to visit Washington or California or Idaho or Nevada or Afghanistan.” We’ve rerouted I-5 around the state. Funny thing you know, you read and ask the Governor this but he’s got such a — before we printed it — so he has no official connection whatsoever — but when we sent him the first, he howled. He just howled.

MAN: What card do you have?

WOMAN: Oh, “Portland ranks among the most beautiful cities in the world: Two thousand, nine hundred and fifty-fourth ”

MAN: what does your card say?

MAN: It says: “People in Oregon don’t take showers -they just dry off.” And on the inside it says “Treat yourself to a funfilled, sun-soaked vacation this year — in Nevada. Thirty-eight miles east of Death Valley.”

WOMAN: This little card here says: “See Eastern Oregon, the great sky country, where the Old West still lives… Opens May first and lasts clear through to November.

MAN: When I created Hugh West, I wanted to create a character who was friendly but stupid in an empathetic way; I mean, he didn’t know when to come out of the rain. Don’t we all get wet?

BILL MOYERS: Bad mouthing the rain is a tradition in Oregon. But nearly everyone has heard of the James G. Blaine Society. The Society’s motto is vague but sinister, its mission — to tell outsiders that Oregon is already ruined. Thousands are members in spirit; about three hundred are paid up. Its spokesman is Ron Abell, sometime writer, teacher, PR man, TV reporter, and drop-out. His friend Mason Druckman edits the monthly Oregon Times, the current outlet for Abell’s pessimism and humor.

RON ABELL: We try to tell the truth about Oregon. And talk about the kinds of weather situations we have here and other natural catastrophes that are an everyday fact of life. We do talk a lot about rain, about earthquakes, about rattlesnakes, about the various diseases, the rabbit bats, and so on. A lot of people like to compare Oregon with the rest of the country and say it’s nicer here, let’s say, in terms of the environment, than it is in Detroit or Manhattan or Miami Beach and it’s hard to argue with that.

But I say we ought to compare Oregon now with what it was five years ago and then project that into five or ten years hence and it’s obvious that what we have here is a Los Angeles in the making. We’re over the hill. People talk about saving Oregon. I say, well, maybe we should slow it up a little but we’re past the point of no return. The very fact that the Governor of the State has been able to take the same position as the Blaine Society has had a lot to do with the public impact that the Blaine Society itself has had. It’s many people conscious in a very humorous and subtle way, you know, of keeping the intruders out.

TOM MCCALL: It’s got to be couched in humor because there’s no way you can do it legally. I mean, it’s anti-Constitution to say don’t come, and you can’t come. So it’s ‘a terribly difficult line to hew because it’s got to be done tongue-in-cheek; it’s got to be done with humor. And you’ve got to prove to them, because their feelings are hurt, that all you’re trying to do is to make sure that we preserve the kind of life that they would came to Oregon as a vacationist to enjoy. That they would came to Oregon as a retiree to enjoy. We’ve got to keep our kids in our state by having enough jobs for them and small immigration and, at the same time, spreading our population is the most important thing — to get away from the Willamette Valley, which is a great center of population where you’ve got seventy-five percent of the people on twelve percent of the land.

BILL MOYERS: No one in Oregon believes that time is running out more than Steve McCarthy, a lawyer who heads OSPIRG — the Oregon Student Public Interest Research Group. OSPIBG was inspired by Ralph Nader’s idea that student funds could support a staff of professionals to work on public interest projects. OSPIRG has published highly critical studies of land use planning efforts in Oregon. And McCarthy has described the state’s most recent land use legislation as virtually meaningless.

STEVE MCCARTHY: And I have a feeling from the rate of development that I see, that in five years the critical land use decisions will already have been made in the Willamette Valley; The transportation patterns will be in shape; the school patterns will be in shape; all these things that affect how land use is actually planned in this country are going. The decisions will have been made and what’s left of the Willamette Valley will just be little bits and pieces. The best farm land in the Willamette Valley is chewed up at the rate of eight thousand acres a year — Class One, Two, and Three farmland— the best we’ve got in this state. It’s being developed at a furious rate. The main freeway in the state goes right through those farmlands, a graphic, somewhat ugly demonstration of what growth can do right here. And thatís upset a lot of people. And subdivisions are going up all over the state; second-home subdivisions in the most priceless areas of the state and you have a state government that by and large — and to a certain extent, excluding the Governor from this characterization — you have a state government that sees its mission as helping developers make same money. Oregon is no different than anybody else in this respect. In order for a lower level state government official, a member of a local chamber of commerce, a planning commission member, or anybody else that’s involved in government close to the people, to stand up and say: “we’ve had enough development, I don’t care if so and so can make a few bucks on it — it’s time we thought a few years ahead, what’s this really going to do to our county or our city?” — nobody would sit down with him at the Elks Club the next day, you know, his kids would be laughed at on the school bus. That’s the kind of pressure that these people are under.

BILL MOYERS: That pressure is understood by the man who originated the bumper sticker: “Don’t Californicate Oregon.” He once raised cattle on almost 3,000 acres of land but he sold all of it except for three acres. He still lives surrounded by the land he once owned. He’s a stockbroker now in Medford. His name is Collier Buffington.

COLLIER BUFFINGTON:: Unfortunately, Californians look at that sign and they think that is an insult to them. It isn’t an insult to them, wasn’t intended originally to be an insult to them; it only says — we don’t want to happen to Oregon what happened to California. And I think that looking back on California, fifty, sixty years ago, it had to be one of the most delightful places there was to live.

BILL MOYERS: Then there is such a thing as ‘The Oregon Attitude?’

COLLIER BUFFINGTON:: Well, sure there is, but it’s not just with us aboriginal Oregonians; it’s with the new people that moved here too. They want to protect it too. But everyone that comes here, ninety-nine percent of the people who come here, I think are wonderful people. But we don’t need any more of them.

BILL MOYERS: There’s a growing feeling in the country, and particularly in Oregon, that property rights are no longer inviolate; that a man can’t do something with land just because he has the title to it. How do you feel about that?

COLLIER BUFFINGTON:: Well, now that I don’t own properly, I agree with it; but I know how property owners feel about that. That’s all right for the other people, but don’t tell me what I can do with my land. This is the way we’ve always felt. These people feel that this is their land and they’re going to do what they want.

BILL MOYERS: Weren’t you afraid when you sold this mountain and this land up here that it would be raked, that one day you’d look out of that black window and see houses staring down at you.


BILL MOYERS: Why did you sell?

COLLIER BUFFINGTON:: Because I wanted the money. I wanted to do the things that I wanted to do. I was tired of the hard work. It was a case of loving the land and loving the cattle but the economics were so bad in it that I kind of said the hell with it.

BILL MOYERS: Main Street, Jacksonville looks like something Walt Disney would have thought up if he were trying to re-create an authentic Western town. But this place is for real. It was an old gold rush town and it’s retained much of that character of the frontier days. You can buy donuts at twelve cents at Mr. and Mrs. Bud’s Bakery there and eat it across the street in front of the Posy Patch. Or Larry’s Ice Cream Parlor. I did just that. And a couple of the natives started a conversation about the weather and how they’re going to keep the traffic from coming down California Street with such a commotion and noise. This is still a place with a discernible past, a feeling for itself and a desire to make haste slowly.

MAYOR SULLIVAN: … one of the oldest buildings in town here, and the interesting point is that they used to bring the women and children here during Indian raids. During Indian scares and they would board up in this building.

BILL MOYERS: How do you, Mayor, keep that old character of a small town like this when you’re faced with the prospect of rapid growth? How do you mix the two — the past and the present and the future?

MAYOR SULLIVAN: Well, it’s been a little difficult. However, we do have, as you know ‘here, a committee in the five-block downtown area that no changes can be made or no buildings built or remodeled, on the outside, the exterior, without a certificate of appropriateness, without a committee checking it. Jacksonville is not just the downtown five-block area. It’s the whole town, actually old town. And we call it the old town. The old homes up and down the street, the flavor of the streets, old streets without curbs and sidewalks. I think this is what gives Jacksonville its character and it’s really why the people want to come here and live.

BILL MOYERS: As we walked, Mayor Sullivan told me that Jacksonville was the commercial center of southern Oregon from its founding in 1851, until the railroad passed it by in favor of Medford five miles away. Medford grew to a city of thirty-five thousand; but Jacksonville slumbered, its original buildings largely undisturbed. In 1967 Jacksonville became a National Historic Landmark, one of nine hundred in .the nation. same two thousand people live in Jacksonville today but planners predict that number could triple within a decade. Currently, home building has been halted because of a ban imposed on sewer connections by the State Department of Environmental Quality. Once Jacksonville solves its sewage treatment problem, the builders will be at the doorstep of the City Council again with plans for new subdivisions. This shopping center on the edge of town was built by a fanner Mayor, Al “Red” Bowman. He feels some people are making too much of a fuss over controlling Jacksonville’s population.

AL BOWMAN: That’s not something to gain on them, I think, there’s other things in the world — because I’ve lived here a lifetime — but maybe, I want to move tomorrow and I would hate to think that I would have to be faced with somebody telling me — now you can come through here, and spend your money, but I hope you don’t stay. Now, I don’t feel that because we live in a historic town that people should be penalized. Now that is not my feeling. Because this is not a dead town. This is not a ghost town. People live here. There are people that have made investments in this area. Years ago. They are entitled to consideration.

BILL MOYERS: You’re not worried about Californicating Oregon?

AL BOWMAN: I am not. And I’m not making’ a statement that canes from another area. That’s not what I am objecting to. I am objecting to the radicals, that came here with one purpose, and that is to stop everything because they’re already here and they’re dug in and that is what I would object to.

BILL MOYERS: Seventy percent of those newcomers are from California. Two who are most active and outspoken are Marshall and Lynne Lango. They left the crowded suburbs of Los Angeles four years ago with their two sons. Lynne works at the local museum and is a member of the Chamber of the Congress. Marshall is on the town’s Historic Preservation Board. He works as a fireman in nearby Medford and belongs to the Volunteer Fire Department in Jacksonville. But despite the Lango’s involvement in the community, they’re still seen as newcomers.

MARSHALL LANGO: There are so many people that are living here right now that were raised in this area during the Depression and they’re still active in this town. And they remember when this town was just a real depressed area. And in the last few years, they’re watching the town, all of a sudden, people want to move into this town and they want to build here and everything. And to them, you know, that’s their kind of progress, and they feel that the town’s snapping out of it. And so there is resentment when they find out somebody that’s interested in possibly no-growth at all in the town and that’s just going to the other side of the fence as far as they’re concerned.

BILL MOYERS: Lynn, how do you get the old timers here to realize what California is like?

LYNN LANGO: There’s no way you could convince the people up here that if they weren’t terribly careful, it will be overrun by people. The open land will know housing tracts. I think that people who are the most vocal are probably the people that come from large areas and realize how much Oregon has.

BILL MOYERS: Don’t you feel a little guilty about having come here to find the beauties of Oregon and then saying” Close the gate, nobody else come after me.”

LYNN LANGO: No. Not at all. We have not built a new home. We are using what is here. Right now.

MARSHALL LANGO: If nothing’s available, it’s like when you’re looking for a house to buy — if there’s nothing available, then you just move on.


BILL MOYERS: Are you saying that you should put a limit on how many people can move to Jacksonville?

MARSHALL LANGO: Well, definitely, I do.

BILL MOYERS: Why do you laugh?

LYNN LANGO: Because I think it’s true.

BILL MOYERS: What if that limit had been in effect before you…

LYNN AND MARSHALL LANGO: We would have moved on.

LYNN LANGO: If we wouldn’t have been able to find housing, if Marshall wouldn’t have been able to be employed — so many people we knew had come back from Oregon, when we were living in California — we would have gone someplace else, I’m sure. I mean, this wasn’t it.

BILL MOYERS: But where do you move on…

LYNN LANGO: You just keep going…

BILL MOYERS:… if you keep filling up the space; keep filling up the Jacksonvilles of Oregon.

MARSHALL LANGO: The whole United States is filling up; it just has to move on.

BILL MOYERS: But where?

LYNN LANGO: Well, I don’t know… it just doesn’t really make any difference where.

BILL MOYERS: If there’s no growth, no one will be able to move on. If there’s uncontrolled growth, there’ll be no point to moving on. But those who want to preserve both open space and the uniqueness of place must come to grips with the realities of those who own the land and want to make a profit from its increasing value. Jim Allison is president of the Oregon Land Owners Association.

JIM ALLISON: There are some who are bound and determined to control the use of our land and most of these people own no land or at the best a city lot. And thatís the sole ownership so far as their land is concerned. And maybe if we were to say that they shouldn’t be permitted to have their well-manicured landscaped lawn just for themselves and the country people who live in the dry air should be able to come in and picnic on their front yard, maybe they’d understand how we feel about the thing. We have no objections to the idea of conserving open space. We’re all for it. And we’re for zoning and planning. But-our Association believes that when government comes along and changes the use of the land and greatly destroys the value of the landowner, then it’s time for compensation.

BILL MOYERS: What about the fellow whose land is rising in value because people are coming up from California? He thinks you’re going to say to him, you can’t make as much profit now as you could ten years ago

TOM MCCALL: Well, it wasn’t his effort that increased the value of the land. We got in front of the Senate Interior Committee testifying and the conservatives were appalled at my attitude that we ought to have sanctions against any state that didn’t do its job of land use planning. And I mean sanctions that would take highway money and park money and recreation money away from them. And Senator Cliff Hanson of Wyoming said, Governor, how much do you suppose that upgrading, zoning compensation, would cost? I said, I’d just take a rough guess, Senator and say three hundred billion dollars. He said, you’re a piker. One trillion dollars, is how much it would cost, to take care of this person, and compensate him so we’d hang on to his land.

And it’s a funny thing, Bill — you don’t worry about the person inside of town who might have held beautiful lots, against industrial encroachment without any compensation, but you get outside of a town and that’s when they start talking about you’ve got to have compensatory zoning and all this sort of thing. Laurance Rockefeller, for example, and the great land use planning experts said, we’ve got to expect tougher land use measures. Governor John Love who just stepped down as Governor of Colorado said in his message to the Legislature: If we’re going to have meaningful land use planning and zoning, we’re going to simply have to expect a little more public infringement, government infringement on our private lives. This is true. And I think the sooner we face up to it and stop being paranoid about it, and fighting each other about it, the sooner we reach a middle ground where there is an advancement of both interests in a rational way.

BILL MOYERS: The men you just mentioned — Laurance Rockefeller, Governor Love of Colorado, yourself, are all Republicans and yet you’re calling for sterner central authority over a traditional American laissez-faire concept of land use. What does that say?

TOM MCCALL: Well, it says that the land is there; it’s a finite resource. And it doesn’t have anything to do with politics. It simply says that here is an awareness of something that has to be done. Here is something we have to save for ourselves that we don’-t really own. But it’s incumbent on us to save and even enhance because it belongs to our children. It’s going to be worth, to the politician to go to the very brink of his own defeat, but he’s got to quit buckling in front of money, in front of the self-aggrandizement of the developers who are really exploiters and he’s got to recognize that this is the last chance to save it and that he is the most responsible official — I’m talking about Governors — for saving it, in the United States.

Because he’s high enough up in the pecking order that he can resist being thrown out of office more than any kind of Commissioner, any city councilman over this issue. And he has the power to do some really desperate things, desperate a la 1970 or 1973, that when looked on by our children, they say —what he did — let’s raise a monument to him for it. And have their children’ put flowers at the foot of that monument.

BILL MOYERS: There will be at least sixty million more Americans around by the end of this century. We won’t find the environment very livable then unless something like the Oregon Attitude prevails. Don’t stop growth, the Oregonians are saying, but by all means, control it. Don’t ignore profits. But consider first that not every source of wealth is a blessing. Above all, the Oregon Attitude says, every man holds his property subject to the general right of the community at large to regulate its use, as the public interest requires it. This higher concept of land use is really nothing new. For it was written in the law books of an ancient people: “The land shall not be sold forever, for the land is mine, saith the Lord, and ye are strangers and sojourners.” I’m Bill Moyers.

This transcript was entered on May 18, 2015.


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