Southern Oregon Coast Mixing Nature, Tradition and Economics for a Sustainable Future

By Monica Fischer and Brent Lawrence

As European expansion moved ever westward, southwest Oregon was one of the last regions to be settled. However, the area’s abundant natural resources proved to be a very valuable commodity and served as an unavoidable enticement.

Almost all old-growth forests were logged in the late 1880s and early 1900s. The gold rush of the late 1800s caused increasing friction with indigenous peoples living in the area, which ultimately displaced them to the Siletz Confederated Tribes Reservation outside of Newport, Oregon, though some members of the local tribes still comprise 2% of the area’s population. It wasn’t until 1932 that the Patterson Bridge was constructed across the Rogue River in Gold Beach (as were many bridges along the Oregon Coast at that time) thus connecting the coastal communities to vehicular traffic in what we now call Highway 101. Salmon were taken to the point where commercial fishing was banned by 1935. Mining, forestry and fisheries depleted the natural resources of southwest Oregon in relative short order. By the 1980s, most of the larger lumber mills were shut down.

Over the past 25 years, the southern Oregon coast has transitioned from a traditional forestry and fisheries economy to one based on tourism, services, agriculture and some light manufacturing. The county boasts an abundance of cranberry and blueberry crops. Situated in the “Klamath Knot”, this unique ecoregion is considered a global center of biodiversity and has the highest conifer diversity in the world, with over 30 species of conifers alone, including the Brewer’s Spruce – the last conifer species discovered in North America in 1884. The rare Kalmiopsis flowering bush – discovered in 1930 – finds its home in the Siskiyou Mountains of eastern Curry County.

As with most of the state of Oregon, approximately 60% of the county is owned by the US federal government. The remaining 40% of lands are divided 26% in forestry, 9% in farming, 2% in residential and the remaining 3% in county, city, state and unimproved holdings. Under the guidelines of the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development (LCDC), the state has one of the most restrictive land-use policies in the nation. Runaway development observed in neighboring states prompted LCDC, “… to support all of our partners in creating and implementing comprehensive plans that reflect and balance the statewide planning goals, the vision of citizens, and the interests of local, state, federal and tribal governments.” Administration of LCDC guidelines occurs mostly with the Curry County officials located in Gold Beach.

Interestingly, in spite of a dip in the mid-1980s with the closure of the mills, the population has grown at an annual rate of 1.5% since 1970, beating the national average of 0.6%. At approximately 1600 square miles, Curry County is roughly the same size as the state of Rhode Island. With a population just over 21,000, it has 13 residents per square mile, less than half of the United State’s national average. It has one of the highest retiree populations in the USA. A unique collision and co-mingling of forces and splendors of nature have created a visual paradise of rock, waters, sand, forest, hillside, climate, greenery, and wildlife.  A rare place on earth, where beautiful wild & scenic rivers tumble down through steep canyons, and towering forests on their way to a rocky coastline with wide stretches of sandy beach, before pouring out into the mighty Pacific ocean.  Huddling around the mouths of the rivers are picturesque working ports, made of hillside homes, small waterfront cafe’s, vibrant art communities, and more parks per mile than anywhere in the USA.

In addition to the natural beauty and resources, the climate also attracts newcomers. Curry County sits at the same latitude as Chicago and Boston (42 deg N), yet it enjoys the title of “Oregon’s Banana Belt.” It’s not uncommon to find bananas and citrus growing outdoors in protected southerly exposed residences along the Pacific Ocean. Approximately 90% of all Easter Lilies are grown in Curry County, a testament to the mild conditions found at this location.

One of the more progressive areas the region, when it comes to sustainability and economic growth, is the small community of Port Orford. With a current population of just over 1,000 residents, Port Orford was the established in 1851, the first on the Oregon Coast.

In September 2008, the Port Orford Ocean Resource Team (POORT), with a mission to engage Port Orford fishers and other community members in developing and implementing a strategic plan and framework that ensures the long-term sustainability of the Port Orford reef ecosystem and social system dependent on it, proposed making the Redfish Rocks area south of Port Orford a marine reserve. The POORT also recommended a broader Marine Protection Area that would “encompass the state waters of the Port Orford Community Stewardship Area…” of some 30 miles in length along the southern Oregon coast. This 935-square-mile reserve is intended to protect “…terrestrial, freshwater, intertidal and ocean reserves…” which in turn would protect the fisheries viability of the Port Orford community.

With regard to the terrestrial portion of the proposal, the land would include intertidal areas running the length of the proposed reserve, which would be adjacent to the Humbug State Park (south of Port Orford), as well as intertidal areas running the length of the coast down to Nesika Beach (north of Gold Beach). Most of the areas are sparsely populated and would not encroach on population centers to any great degree.  The POORT further “….supports collaborative research and currently has several ongoing projects within, and adjacent to, the proposed Redfish Rock Site.”

Ocean Mountain Ranch – A Model for Sustainable Land Development

Located along a 1000’ ridgetop in the headwaters of the Port Orford Community Stewardship Area, Ocean Mountain Ranch (OMR) overlooks the entire proposed marine reserve and the largest remaining old growth forest on the southern coast in Humbug Mountain State Park. OMR is planned to be developed pursuant to a forest stewardship management plan which has been approved by the Oregon Department of Forestry and Northwest Certified Forestry under the high standards of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). OMR will provide for long-term yield of high-quality hardwood, softwood, and wildlife habitat and is planned to provide a model for exemplary organic forestry/grazing operation incorporating residential, agricultural, educational, recreational, and industrial activities. OMR is also serving as a pilot program and is expected to achieve certification as a SLDI-Certified Sustainable Project.

Working in conjunction with Sustainable Land Development International (SLDI), OMR has put together a plan to meet the community’s environmental, social, and economic needs while adhering to Oregon LCDC guidelines and Curry County zoning regulations. Working within the structures outlined by the various government agencies, OMR plans to seek approval from Curry County officials for a consolidated application containing a mixture of permitted and conditional forestry-grazing zoning uses to provide an exemplary demonstration project which will:

  • Promote and educate landowners about sustainable forestry practices
  • Provide a forestry consulting resource to woodland owners
  • Link local wood producers to emerging markets
  • Facilitate community-based forestry projects
  • Explore woody biomass utilization opportunities
  • Promote and assist in fire fuels reduction efforts
  • Assist landowners in exploring opportunities in ecosystem services (carbon credits, conservation easements, etc).

 It is OMR’s wish to work in tandem with the Port Orford Community Stewardship Area in its quest to establish and protect the proposed marine reserve, and it is the ongoing quest of SLDI and OMR to continue to foster collaborative work that will promote communal, ecological and economical sustainability as the primary principles of a “people, planet and profit” land development philosophy. As SLDI and OMR are embracing cutting-edge programs to foster a renewed stewardship of the land, the spirit is in keeping with the independent elements found in this unique county by the sea.

Republished from May, 2009 issue of Sustainable Land Development Today magazine.

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