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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7 responses

  1. UPDATE:
    Oregon’s forested communities: Congressmen offer bipartisan solution to fiscal crisis
    December 17, 2011

    By Greg Walden, Peter DeFazio and Kurt Schrader

    Oregon’s rural communities cannot afford another 20 years of gridlock in our federal forests. Without a new path forward, mills will continue to disappear, forest jobs will be outsourced, and counties will be pushed off the budgetary cliff.

    During a time when it’s particularly hard to find common ground in public policy, we think we have achieved a balanced forest health and jobs plan — in a uniquely Oregon way.

    As a bipartisan coalition, we have worked through our differences to forge a plan that would create thousands of new jobs in Oregon’s forested communities, ensure the health of federal forests for future generations, and provide long-term funding certainty for Oregon’s rural schools, roads, and law enforcement agencies…

    Our plan is a moderate approach. It will not appease those who insist on returning to the days of unsustainable logging and clear-cutting old growth on public lands.

    It will not win the support of those who are content with the status quo — administrative gridlock and endless legal appeals that have led to unhealthy forests, failing rural counties, and a deteriorating timber industry.

    And, like all legislation in Congress, our plan is still subject to the legislative process. While we believe the plan we have crafted is a reasonable compromise that serves the best interests of Oregon, we must work with the House Committee on Natural Resources and our colleagues in the greater U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate and the Obama administration.

    Fortunately, the most persuasive arguments are on our side. Our balanced, bipartisan plan would create thousands of jobs in our forests, mills and communities, stabilize rural communities, save taxpayers money, protect old growth and ensure the health of federal forests for future generations.

    It’s a solution that Oregonians deserve. We look forward to working with those who want to make this long-term vision a reality.


    All three authors are members of the U.S. House of Representatives from Oregon. Walden is a Republican from the 2nd District, in eastern Oregon; DeFazio is a Democrat from the 4th District, in southern Oregon; and Schrader is from the 5th District, in the Willamette Valley, Portland-area suburbs and the central coast.



    Sustainable Land Development Initiative
    December 17, 2011

    “Our balanced, bipartisan plan would create thousands of jobs in our forests, mills and communities, stabilize rural communities, save taxpayers money, protect old growth and ensure the health of federal forests for future generations.”

    After decades of talk about the need for sustainable development, we humans continue to have a poor track record when it comes to achieving sustainable results. How can we implement change while up against the overwhelming current of business as usual? It will take a new perspective, new approaches and different means of leadership…

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

  2. UPDATE:

    Public Radio International – Living On Earth
    In Oregon, a new marine reserve that should help scientists document fish travels
    Published 16 December, 2011
    Oregon’s about to open its first marine reseve, off the coast of
    Port Orford. Now, scientists are trying to use the area to study the
    life cycle and patterns of fish, to try and get a better sense of how
    they live their lives…

    OregonLive.comIn Curry County, Oregon’s financial dependence on federal forest policy brings ruin in sight

    Published: Monday, December 19, 2011

    …It’s the end of November. Curry County government may
    fold next summer. The federal faucet that poured $230 million a year
    into Oregon counties is shut off. The political stalemate in Washington
    stymies a restoration.

    Curry’s not alone, just the first. Coos,
    Josephine, Klamath and Lane counties — all deeply dependent on
    federally owned natural resource land — are bunched up to follow Curry
    off the cliff.

    The 24 people meeting at the fairgrounds are supposed to figure out a solution.

    The dissolution of an Oregon county hasn’t happened before. It may not be legally possible. Questions outnumber answers…

  3. UPDATE:

    Film Premiere Sold Out


    January 26, 2012

    Ocean Frontiers: The Dawn of a New Era in Ocean Stewardship will
    launch its national tour at a special event with Oregon Governor John
    Kitzhaber, First Lady Cylvia Hayes, and a number of coastal leaders in
    Port Orford, Oregon on February 11 at the Savoy Theatre. Port Orford is
    featured in the film as a place where a local community has mobilized to
    manage and conserve ocean resources for today and for generations to

    Green Fire Productions Executive Director and producer of Ocean Frontiers’ Karen Meyer stated, “We are excited to present the solution-oriented, bi-partisan stories of Ocean Frontiers
    to the American public. This documentary clearly conveys that people
    across the country want to work together to sustain their coastal and
    ocean economies that depend on a healthy ocean.”

    Ocean Frontiers
    takes us on an inspiring, 80-minute voyage to seaports and watersheds
    across the country—from the busy shipping lanes of Boston Harbor to the
    small fishing community of Port Orford, Oregon; from the coral reefs in
    the Florida Keys, to the nation’s premier seafood nursery in the
    Mississippi Delta and the cornfields of Iowa. Here we meet an
    intermingling of unlikely allies, of industrial shippers and whale
    biologists, pig farmers and wetland ecologists, sport and commercial
    fishermen and snorkelers, and many more, all of them embarking on a new
    course of cooperation.

    Cobb, Executive Director of the Port Orford Ocean Resource Team stated,
    “We are working hard to ensure our natural resource-based community
    will thrive into the future, and this is only possible with a healthy
    coastal environment that provides the jobs that support this community.
    We are proud to be featured in the film, and to co-host the world premiere of Ocean Frontiers together with twelve local organizations plus our elected local and state leaders.”

    Lady Cylvia Hayes said, “The new approaches to ocean management through
    the national ocean policy recognize and encourage state and regional
    ocean leadership – from the Gulf of Mexico to New England, from the
    Florida Keys to the West coast.” Hayes added, “Oregon is a leader in
    innovative approaches to ocean and coastal management. Oregon’s
    Territorial Sea Plan and the West Coast Governors Alliance on Ocean
    Health put us on the path to promote our natural resources industries in
    a way that is economically and environmentally sustainable.”

    Kitzhaber and First Lady Hayes will be joined by Port Orford Mayor Jim
    Auborn, Curry County Commissioner David Itzen, and Oregon State
    Representatives Wayne Krieger (R-Gold Beach) and Arnie Roblan (D-Coos
    Bay) to celebrate the official premiere of Ocean Frontiers.

    first two marine reserves began operating earlier this year, and they
    will provide important information about the economic and ecological
    effects of this new management tool. State Representative Wayne Krieger,
    a strong supporter of Port Orford’s groundbreaking ecosystem-based work
    was instrumental in securing the funds for the new Redfish Rocks
    science facility from the Oregon Legislature. He recently stated, “The
    benefit of the marine reserve will be in the science that will help us
    better manage our ocean resources.”

    Event Presented By:

    Orford Ocean Resource Team, City of Port Orford, South Coast Watersheds
    Council, Port Orford Sustainable Seafood, Redfish Rocks Community Team,
    Friends of Elk River, Cape Blanco Challenge, Elk River Land Trust, Port
    Orford Main Street Revitalization Association, Sustainable Land Development Initiative, Ocean Mountain Ranch, Surfrider Foundation & Green Fire Productions.

  4. UPDATE:

    NPR – August 23, 2012
    Our Changing Forests: An 88-Year Time Lapse
    by Andrew Prince –

    Intense forest
    fires have been raging across the western United States this summer. So
    far this year, nearly 43,000 wildfires have torched almost 7 million acres of land.

    As NPR Science correspondent Christopher Joyce and photographer David Gilkey report from Arizona and New Mexico this week, the forests of the American Southwest have become so overgrown that they’re essentially tinderboxes just waiting for a spark…

    Bitterroot is a managed forest — meaning that foresters periodically
    trim, cut and thin the land — and the photo series is meant to show how
    dynamic the forest is with management, says Michael Harrington,
    a research forester with the Missoula Fire Science Lab. Through the
    nine-image sets, we can see trees grow and thicken, the effects of
    selective logging and also how quickly the forest land rebounds…

  5. A Budding Model of a Truly Sustainable Community

    Stakeholders in the Port Orford Community Stewardship Area (POCSA) are beginning to take transformative action. Perhaps the most important part of their efforts lie with successfully engaging and educating not just the “industry pros,” but the public on the real meaning of the triple-bottom-line principles of “people, planet and profit”….

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