The most recent government statistics on unemployment and poverty paint a grim picture for Oregonians living in rural counties, particularly those in eastern Oregon. It’s time for the Oregon legislature to take aggressive steps to fix this problem.
A case study shows the disparity. For those of you who don’t venture further east than Bend, Harney County is a large southeastern Oregon county, covering 10,226 square miles. The county seat is Burns. As of the last census, the population in Harney County was 7,422. The nearest metropolitan area is Boise, Idaho, nearly 190 miles away.
Harney County shares a border with Humboldt County, Nevada. Like Harney County, Humboldt County is large, spanning 9,626 square miles. Humboldt County is also very rural, with a population of 16,735. The county seat is Winnemucca. The nearest metropolitan area is Reno, nearly 170 miles away.
Agriculture is a major industry in both counties, which are geographically similar. Approximately 1.46 million acres of Harney County is in farms, and nearly 760,000 acres of Humboldt County is farmed, making it Nevada’s largest agricultural producing county.
Neither county is changing dramatically. Between 2000 and 2010, Harney County lost nearly 3% of its population. By contrast, Humboldt County grew by approximately 2% in the same period.
In short, Humboldt County and Harney County are very similar neighbors. But there is one area where the similarities end.
In April, 2013, the unemployment rate in Humboldt County was 5.4%. The unemployment rate in Harney County during the same period was 13.1%. The median household income in Harney County hovers around $35,000. In Humboldt County, it is over $56,000. And nearly 19% of Harney County residents live in poverty. In Humboldt County, that figure drops to 12%.
So why are two similarly sized, similarly situated rural county neighbors so different economically? Why do residents of Harney County have fewer jobs, make less money, and have more residents in poverty than their neighbors to the south? There are a number of reasons, but one of the main reasons is the lack of a viable mining industry in Oregon.
Despite having nearly identical geography as their neighbor to the south, and despite having demonstrated reserves of precious metals, commercial mining is virtually nonexistent in Oregon. To the south, the mining industry is one of Nevada’s largest private sector industries, creating thousands of family wage jobs for Nevadans, paying taxes to fund state and local government services, and contributing to the well-being of the state.
And unlike Nevada’s other primary industries, mining is a rural industry, operating in parts of the state where jobs are scarce and generally low paying. In other words, just like Oregon.
Imagine if Oregon would take a page from Nevada’s book. An industry which sits right across the border from our state line could easily add new jobs and mines to the most rural parts of our state. The local economy would receive a significant boost, poverty and hunger rates would decline, and rural Oregonians would receive a lifeline, and not a handout.
Giving Harney County and other rural Oregon counties the ability to allow mining would be a tremendous boon to their fortunes. They need look no further than to their neighbor to the south to figure out why. That’s why the Oregon legislature should take steps immediately to simplify the process and cut the red tape to allow rural Oregon counties to permit mining operations, before eastern Oregon becomes the western version of Appalachia.