The Mythbuster

Jesse Abrams sitting in chair
OSU graduate student Jesse Abrams interviewed ranchers, homeowners, business people and local officials to understand changes unfolding in Wallowa County. (Photo courtesy of Jesse Abrams)

On the 1,300-mile drive from Flagstaff, Arizona, to Corvallis, Oregon, Jesse Abrams took a detour. It was the summer of 2007, and he was pondering his upcoming Ph.D. in forest resources. He pulled into Enterprise, Oregon, the county seat for Wallowa County in the state’s mountainous northeastern corner.

It was a homecoming of sorts. For his master’s degree at Oregon State University, Abrams had worked here in 2003 for a nonprofit organization, Wallowa Resources, spending part of his time on the county’s noxious weed program. Four years later, he had other ideas in mind. As a staff member of the Ecological Restoration Institute in Flagstaff, he had juggled the needs of the environment and community development. Now, he wanted to examine the socioeconomic and land-use changes afoot in resource-dependent rural places.

These concerns hit home in a place like Wallowa County, where 58 percent of the land is in public ownership and where farming, ranching and logging have sustained families for generations. In the 1990s, changes to federal forest management led to the closure of three local sawmills. Later, as retirees and vacation-home buyers moved in — drawn by spectacular scenery and what Abrams calls the “idyll of rural America” — land prices started to rise, making it more difficult for young families to get established.

Local Leadership

These and other trends led some to worry that the county’s heritage was threatened and that its future was in the hands of outsiders, says Abrams. “Rather than having a community’s fate decided by the federal government, special interest groups, the courts or corporations, I wanted to look at how local people can exercise leadership and determine their own future,” he says.

So in Enterprise, the student who grew up in St. Petersburg, Florida, met with three Wallowa Resources representatives to discuss how his project might help the organization address some of the county’s problems and develop local solutions.

Abrams set out to define trends affecting the county’s private lands: changes in ownership, road access, grazing by livestock, forest management, weed control, hunting rights and zoning. He interviewed landowners — both newcomers and long-time residents — and talked with public officials. He analyzed past land-use patterns, land sales records and demographic trends.

OSU forestry professor John Bliss advises Abrams and praises his ability to work hand-in-glove with local people. “He convened community leaders to help him get in touch with local concerns and provide feedback. It takes a mature researcher to maintain the necessary academic independence while engaging with such an advisory group, and Jesse has been extremely effective at it,” says Bliss, holder of the Starker Chair in Private and Family Forestry.

Bliss calls Abrams a “mythbuster.” Contrary to the view that before the 1990s, populations and land uses were stable and communities autonomous, Abrams has demonstrated that Wallowa County’s economy and social networks have always been vulnerable to outside forces. “If you look at the county’s history, what defines it is not continuity but change. From the Homestead Era on, land was not just a family asset. It was a commodity. People bought it, sold it, traded it and carved it up,” says Abrams.

“What’s happening now is new in some ways. It’s the first time a significant proportion of private land in the county has been owned by people who don’t depend on forestry or agriculture for their livelihoods,” he adds.

Abrams hopes that information about past trends will contribute to efforts to manage the county’s spectacular resources. He plans to finish his project in December 2010

–Nick Houtman

Related story: Partners in Rural Vitality

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