Keynote talk at our Annual Meeting. Friends of French Prairie.

by Master

Russ Hoeflich, the new Executive Director of 1000 Friends of Oregon, was the Keynote speaker at our Annual Meeting last week.  He has spent his first few months with 1000 Friends traveling the State, speaking to people (members and non-members alike), as well as opening dialogue with elected representatives: all to get a fix on where 1000 Friends is as he assumes the helm, and to try and assess the current state of Oregon’s land use system and its laws that were designed to protect farm and forest lands.

The observations and comments he made were telling, and bear sharing with all of our members and supporters–even though this may come off more as an essay than an email..

  1. The Pattern.  Going back to his time fighting Measure 37 at the Nature Conservancy and reinforced in his past six months at 1000 Friends, is the observation that we Oregonians are at an all time low regarding our awareness and understanding of the land use system.
    1. The net of the risk is the maxim “what is not valued can be easily traded away.”
    2. In a recent meeting with Senate President Peter Courtney he was astonished that even Sen. Courtney was not only talking about the broken land use system, but also talking about the need for a bill to fix it in order to address all the “problems” it causes in Eastern Oregon.
    3. Russ’ response to Sen. Courtney was that the land use system isn’t broken – rather it is not supported or funded by the Legislature (as originally intended), specifically underfunding Regional Solution Committees so it creates apparent winners and losers, East vs. West divide, urban vs. rural conflict, etc.  The response to fill that vacuum is the need for land use advocacy on a local level to make the case.  Without this critical local work, it will be hard to overcome, for example, Eastern Oregon’s demand for smaller lots on ag land and the ability of Counties to opt in or out of State land use laws.
  2. Population Growth. The influx of people to Oregon is a critical driver that is compounding the problem in two ways.
    1. First, the obvious pressures created for more housing and for affordable housing with increasing population – and the easy case that makes for developers to claim they need more land outside the State’s UGBs. This, in spite of the fact (according to Metro) that from 1998 to 2017, 89% of the newly permitted housing was inside the original 1979 UGB, and per a Portland State Univ. study, 93% of newly permitted housing between 1998 and 2014 was built inside 1979 UGB. Why? Farm and forest land outside the UBG is cheaper and subject to less zoning and code conditions.
    2. The second and hidden problem is ignorance, and starts with an illustration: according to ODOT, each day of the year 255 new residents turn in out-of-state license plates to receive Oregon plates (that’s about 78,000 per year), and they also have to take a driver’s license test which for most requires some study of Oregon traffic laws.  This fact of continued growth begs another question which asks what it means to be an Oregonian?  Do Oregonians need to subscribe to a different set of values, or can anyone move in no questions asked?
  3. Education. The population growth problem leads us to a simple question: if a driver’s test is required to drive on Oregon highways, why is no such study or test is required to become a citizen of Oregon?
    1. Why do new residents not have to learn about the history of Oregon’s land use laws, the historic role of agriculture and the major economic role of agriculture – without which protecting farm and forest land just isn’t really an important subject to new residents.
    2. This knowledge vacuum enables the NIMBY (not in my back yard) attitude and certainly does not result in citizens passionate about their State and its land use laws—like back in the day of Gov. Tom McCall.  How is it, if Oregon is as great as we all say it is, that the equivalent of passing a test for a driver’s license or passing the civics test to receive a passport, isn’t required to become a citizen of this State?

These three problems underlie the facts and concerns we tend to focus on.  Here are some of Russ’s examples:

  • After this summer we can’t escape the reality of forest fires and the need to do something about the ways forests are managed (or not) and that takes money which can be achieved with carbon sequestration laws if appropriated by the Legislature.  Are those laws and that funding going to be forthcoming and how will it be spent?
  • As population grows, we need more land in ag to grow food to feed people.  If we’re constantly losing prime farm land, the long term problem is obvious.  That’s where land use laws and components like Urban Growth Boundaries come in, and they need to work at the local level as well as be part of the big picture.  The land use system was founded to include funding going to Regional Solutions Committees across the State who would understand local problems and invest in them for the local benefit.  Over the last twenty years that funding has been reduced by 75%. No wonder parts of the State feels like the land use laws work against them.
  • In the next twenty years, two thirds of our farms and ranches will undergo a generational change of ownership. Ensuring preservation of farm land in the face of that reality could be facilitated with Permanent Working Easements, but that takes money too, and will the Legislature fund such things.

It’s complicated and much of it is inter-related, but Russ still contends he’s an optimist and that he gets out of bed each morning with a spring in his step because he cares about Oregon and thinks we can prevail!

What struck me as his core principles given all of the above are:

  • We need more land in farm production
  • We need to be wise stewards of the land
  • We need to do good land management

Which brings us back to the education question: how do we instill these values and principles in the majority of Oregonians, especially the next generation, and yes also our elected representative, so that those lofty principles don’t get politically traded away?  What is the state of history and civics education in our schools?  Unless we collect, organize and teach a shared body of information how can we expect there to be a certain and shared  vision of Oregon society and values.

A quote from President Truman’s Commission on Higher Education for American Democracy (1946) speaks to this challenge:

“A society whose members lack a body of common knowledge is a society without a fundamental culture.”

If you agree with these points, then share this email with your friends and family.  We need more people educated on the issue if we’re going to advance the agenda.

Source:  Friends of French Prairie.  10.20.17

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