Welcome to the "New West," where out-of-work loggers live side by side with wealthy retirees. That's what's happening in Wallowa County and soon to happen in other scenic rural areas in Oregon. It's an imbalance that likely won't right itself and, unfortunately, usually gets worse.
The disparity is shown in the 2000 U.S. Census, which uses a formula called the "Gini coefficient" to measure such things. Wallow County is the fast growing in the wage disparity area, but it doesn't have the largest gap. That's reserved for Josephine County on the California border.
What we're seeing here are our beautiful, isolated communities being "discovered" by those folks with enough money to buy second homes or live wherever they want. This is in sharp contrast to the people who have lived there for years and now find themselves struggling to hang on. Mill and ranching closures and have hit these communities hard. Unemployment in Wallowa County is the highest in the state at 17 percent.
The bad news is that this income disparity likely won't change, and, in fact, will grow larger. That's because the wealthy folks will keep on coming and the middle- to low- income residents don't have much hope of recovering the jobs they lost.
As more wealthy people move in, property values soar. This prices middle-income folks out of the housing market and property taxes increase. Just look to communities such as Jackson Hole, Wyo., or Bozeman and Whitefish, Mont., to see what property taxes and skyrocketing home prices have done to the people who live there all year and have done so for decades.
Places such as John Day are experiencing much the same thing. When people are out of work and businesses fail, wealthy people move in and scoop up prime property with great views. There are no jobs created by these people coming to town, and, in fact, many of them have no ties to the community other than they live in their isolated trophy homes. They don't have children or grandchildren in the local schools, so bond levies often fail. Other community improvements are tough sells to these folks for the same reasons.
This doesn't mean our rural towns should be unfriendly or unwelcoming to new people coming in, but we must do what we can to prevent such disparities in income. This is done only by local, state and federal folks turning over every stone to find jobs for these areas. And we're not necessarily talking about tourist, service industry jobs. These jobs typically don't pay enough to change this disparity. What's needed are family wage jobs, just like the mills and forests provided. In fact, a good start would be to reopen these idle mills and put people back to work. That may be wishful thinking, but it's also, in many cases, our only hope.
- Richard Hensley, editor of the East Oregonian in Pendleton