The Chieftain headline last week boasted that Wallowa County's September unemployment rate of 5.1 percent was our lowest in two years. The article went on to say that we were at less than the statewide average for the third straight month, and had matched the national average for the second month running. More important than the jobless rate is the fact that there were 3,397 people employed in September.
This good news time is a great time to start thinking and talking about what's really happening in Wallowa County. For too long, our thinking has been trapped in the fall from the timber and government employment high experienced in the 1980s and early 1990s. We remember a time when three large mills with multiple shifts operated locally and the Forest Service had nearly 200 employees. In 1983, Wallowa County averaged 3570 workers employed for the year! By 1993, the total average employed was below 3300, and the jobless rate skyrocketed.
The school hit followed close on the jobs hit. Classrooms shrunk, teachers were laid off, and administrators and school boards wiggled and struggled to hold curriculum.
In the wake of this bad news, economic development, which had been in the lexicon from the time I arrived in 1971, became a religion. Development commissions and committees, industry recruitment, tourism, movie-making and school foundations became headlines. There was a kind of desperation about jobs recruiting - at one point discussion of a juvenile detention facility sparked community debate - and part of the gospel in this new religion was that jobs would save schools.
For most of the past 20 years we have pleaded poverty to the state, the feds, and anyone else who would listen. We've asked for, and received, breaks because of poverty and unemployment statistics. I know, because I've used them in writing grants.
I don't want to deny or diminish the measures employed to replace jobs and to keep the schools running. Economic development efforts have brought new businesses and made old businesses better. The grants that schools, non profits and government organizations have received are for the most part deserved and well used. Nevertheless, I think that it is time to rethink our own self definitions. Time to realize that there are more jobs here now than there were two years ago and thirty years ago (we averaged 2590 employed in 1973!). Most of all, to think about ourselves as a land of opportunity and challenge rather than one of deprivation.
For example, the primary reason for lower school enrollment is family size. The family with five or six children, once common here and across the land, is now rare. One-child and no-child families are common, and many of our new immigrants have had their families and are moving on to semi or full retirement. Think about the new families you know, the new businesses, government workers and professionals you come in contact with. How many children do they have?
Specialists in a special place
Now think again about the health and professional services available here that were not here 30 years ago. We have more dentists and doctors per capita than most of the country. And specialists that most rural areas can't even imagine: a resident surgeon, regularly visiting radiologist, orthopedist, podiatrist, and rumor has it an acupuncturist is on the way. There are counselors, massage therapists, engineers, and your choice of accountants and bookkeepers. Because we live in such a desirable place, neighbors include professional fishing, hunting and skiing guides, photographers, potters, musicians, cabinetmakers, writers, and "lone eagles" who work for Microsoft and other high and low tech firms headquartered elsewhere.
This does not mean that we do not have problems. I just think we should get over thinking of ourselves beset by development problems. Our schools are losing population, and we need to think about how many children of what ages are in their future. The gap between rich and poor, good jobs and minimum wage jobs, is huge and hurting. Too many of our jobs are seasonal. We lost a swimming pool and always need volunteer coaches and referees. The adult basketball, baseball, and volleyball programs that once thrived are now anemic. We need the recreation district we almost voted in a few years ago.
We have a new hospital in the works, and we'll need to make it work. We're caught in the same trap as most of the country with high priced drugs and unaffordable insurance rates. Let's turn some of our economic development advocacy towards health care and insurance reform advocacy.
Finally, we have to manage the old balances of people, occupations, life opportunities and life style that have made this place special. We have to make room for eagles, ospreys, and Nez Perce return, honor sacred ground, and honor logging, farming and the annual elk hunt, too.
Rich Wandschneider is the executive director of Fishtrap, Inc. He can be reached through the Web at www.fishtrap.org.