Oregon History: Taking Stock

painting of Tom Hatfield promoting environmental reform
Governor Tom McCall pressed environmental reforms in Oregon. This portrait by Henk Pander hangs in the Oregon Capitol. Learn more about McCall. (Oregon State Archives Photo)
In 1962 Thomas Lawson McCall, a journalist, caught the state's attention with a television documentary, "Pollution in Paradise." In his clipped, forceful narration and with compelling photography, McCall showed what had happened to the Willamette River. Sewage, industrial wastes, garbage, abandoned docks and warehouses, tires, and hulks of automobiles befouled a once pristine, fish-filled stream. Between 1850 and 1920 the Willamette had served as western Oregon's artery of commerce and transportation. Use had bred abuse and, almost without seeing it, Oregonians had transformed the stream into an open sewer.
Tom McCall was elected governor in 1966. Stressing an eleventh commandment, "Thou shalt not pollute," McCall, a Republican, forged a broad-based coalition to address the consequences of rapid development, growing population, and ecological changes in the state. McCall's ideas were not always popular and his commentary sometimes appeared quirky. His approach, however, was earnest and, for a majority, compelling. During his eight years in office he and like-minded leaders--Stafford Hansell, a hogfarmer from Boardman, L.B. Day, a labor leader from Salem, and others--began a process of moving Oregonians from outright "ownership" of land to "stewardship."
The tally of accomplishments during the McCall years included creation of the Department of Environmental Quality (1969), extensive research and solution to Willamette Valley fieldburning, blocking of shipment of additional tons of nerve gas to the Umatilla Army Depot, creation of the Willamette Greenway--a 170-mile-long corridor of easements and park properties, the Bottle Bill (1971) requiring deposits on returnable beverage containers, and Senate Bill 100. This much-debated bill created the Land Conservation and Development Commission (1973). The LCDC moved every county and incorporated town into a system of statewide land-use planning. Hearings on draft goals and guidelines drew thousands of participants to meetings. Volunteers and staff hammered out a system for evaluating, in light of the statewide guidelines, comprehensive land-use plans required of all government entities. Repeatedly critics tried to overturn the LCDC. Each time a majority of voters sustained the system. Oregonians had started to come to terms with the realities of growth and the responsibilities inherent in sustaining livability.
Willamette River
The Willamette River at Jefferson, part of the Willamette Greenway corridor. The greenway was one of several environmental accomplishments during Tom McCall's administration. (Oregon State Archives Photo)
The 1990s were a sobering decade for dozens of small towns and for the thousands involved in logging and lumbering. The boom ended in the forest products industry. Shrill voices decried the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and charged that spotted owls and marbled murrelets were not worth jobs and payrolls. The reality was that Oregon had not attained sustained yield in management of forests and that overharvest, similar to overfishing, forced adjustment. Sawmills closed. Towns like Powers, West Fir, Oakridge, Swiss Home, Hines, Valsetz, and Vernonia were shaken by the closures and departure of residents. Most communities adjusted. Some Oregonians, however, wrestled with difficulty when they discovered that the national forests and lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management--acreage on the other side of their fence--belonged to all the people of the United States, not the locals, and that interest groups thousands of miles away had a valid voice in crafting land policy and use of public resources.
The 1990s was also a decade of diversification in Oregon's economy. High-tech industries came of age. From modest beginnings in a garage in 1948, Howard Vollum and Jack Murdock built Tektronix, an electronics company, into one of the nation's largest companies by the mid-1980s. Oregon's reputation as a decent place to live with willing workers encouraged several corporations--among them Hewlett-Packard, Intel, and Wacker Siltronics--to construct fabrication plants and manufacture computer components. These billion-dollar facilities contributed to a thriving urban Oregon economy. While many rural Oregonians struggled with survival, many urban Oregonians found good jobs in new industries. Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman, longtime track coach at the University of Oregon, transformed the tennis shoe into a styled, engineered icon of the "fitness generation." Their Nike Corporation grew by the 1990s into a major manufacturer and retailer of sports and casual clothing. Its distinctive "swoosh" logo appeared on the outfits of professional athletes, amateurs, and even great-grandmothers who found ease and comfort wearing nonlacing tennis shoes or fleece jogging outfits.
Nike campus
The sprawling Nike Campus in Beaverton was part of the diversification of Oregon's economy in the 1990s. (Oregon State Archives Photo)
In 1984 residents of the state approved a lottery. It grew rapidly in popularity as new games and promotions increased player options. Gambling profits proved irresistible to legislators who appropriated them to meet costs of basic social services and education. In 1992 the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians negotiated the first gaming compact with the governor under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. Within five years the tribe was the second largest employer in Douglas County, operating a casino, restaurants, hotel, truck stop, and other businesses at Canyonville. Other tribes followed. In 1998 Spirit Mountain Casino, owned by the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community, surpassed Multnomah Falls as the most visited traveler destination in Oregon.
Oregon had not solved all its problems. Adequate financing for education at all levels eluded legislators, governors, teachers' unions, and students. Salmon recovery plans, at times, seemed more abundant than fish. Indian tribes, federal and state agencies, sport and commercial fishing organizations, and fish biologists all wrestled with finding ways to save remaining runs and rebuilding those that teetered on the edge of extinction. Poverty continued to grip Oregonians. Thousands of new residents--many of them Hispanics who had found hard jobs and tough living conditions in following the harvests and working in the state's nursery business--tried to make do.
A willingness to embrace new ventures has persisted in Oregon. In 1990 Measure 5 placed severe limitations on property taxes to support schools and government. In 1993 Oregonians were first in the nation to hold a vote-by-mail election. The following year they approved a Death With Dignity Act, permitting doctor-assisted suicide. In 1998 Oregon raised the minimum wage to the highest in the nation, easing for the hourly worker some of the struggle for existence but threatening enterprises operating on a shoestring. Oregonians refused to approve a sales tax, but continued to pay high property taxes and income taxes.
Such is the course of Oregon history. A majestic territory of immense potentials drew newcomers in the 1840s. In less than a decade they wrested control from the American Indians, changed the face of the land with surveys and property ownership, and engaged in ambitious exploitation of the state's resources. When it finally became evident that nature's plenty could not continue to yield in profusion, Oregonians embraced new models for doing things.
The state's history has stories of triumph and tragedy, hope and perseverance, and taking risks. The Oregon System became a national model for improving government in the 20th century. Oregon has served as a great testing ground for federal projects which have provided a medley of benefits--electricity, navigation, irrigation, timber harvests, tourist facilities, and jobs. Oregon has led the nation in environmental legislation and commitment to working for quality of life for all of its citizens. For generations Oregonians have celebrated the special words in their state song: "Hail to thee, Land of Promise, My Oregon." Oregon's promise is strong and therein lies the state's future.