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Sandwiched between the Salem-Keizer area and Portland-metro's southern reaches, the French Prairie region is a microcosm of Oregon's urban-rural divide

PMG PHOTO: PHIL HAWKINS - There is a sense among some rural dwellers that urban lawmakers decisions, such as support for cap and trade legislation, could cripple industries such as farming and logging.When Rep. Bill Post (R, Keizer) read a recent article in the Portland Tribune about Oregon's urban-rural divide, he became intrigued.

The article was written by the Oregon Capitol Bureau, a partnership between Pamplin Media Group, EO Media Group and Salem Reporter, and it delved into many of the various issues that separate residents in the Portland metro area and other larger cities in Oregon and those who live in the smaller, more far-flung locales around the state.

Statewide issues such as cap and trade, viewed by many farmers and timber workers as a threat to the economic health of their industries, have been heavily publicized.

Demographic data indicate that the percentage of Oregon's population living in rural areas has shrunk from 26 to 19 percent over the past four decades, which exacerbates concerns of ruralites wary of the decisions handed down by urban lawmakers.

The Capitol Bureau cited a House Republican press release issued in January asserting: "When legislation is designed for the Portland area it crushes communities from Bend to Ontario, to McMinnville and Grants Pass."

Post juxtaposed that issue within his own House District 25. He wouldn't have to look beyond that district to see the divide.PMG FILE PHOTO - House District 25 Rep. Bill Post.

"I'm sitting here looking at the district map, and you have this yellow at the south end, which is Keizer, and yellow up at the top (north), with is Newberg, and everything in between is white, which is farmland," Post mused. "My district is a microcosm of the larger version of the urban-rural divide."

Country roads aren't expressways

Post likes to ride his motorcycle through the rural regions of his district, and he said when fellow legislator Rep. Carl Wilson (R, Grants Pass) rode with him once, the southern Oregonian was impressed with the incredibly diverse agricultural array throughout the French Prairie region.

"When we were done riding, he told me 'Wow, they really do grow a bit of everything in your district,'" Post paraphrased.

The region described as Oregon's French Prairie is located in Marion County, east of the Willamette River and west of the Little Pudding River. It is represented in the house by HD 25 and HD 22, the district served by Rep. Teresa Alonso Leon (D, Woodburn).

It is also where you find the bulk of the county's agriculture production – the most productive agribusiness county in the state.

The Tribune article — Urban/rural divide puts lawmakers at loggerheads — cited federal data indicating that 81 percent of Oregon's revenue is generated by the metro areas. It also notes that: "Oregon Department of Transportation has budgeted $78.3 million from the state's transit payroll tax to road projects throughout the state.

"Seventy-four percent of that money is spent in the state's most urban areas, despite those hubs housing more than 80 percent of the state's population."

That could suggest that per-capita transportation funds tilt favorably toward rural areas, but Post would take issue with that.PMG PHOTO: PHIL HAWKINS - With slow-moving farm machinery, driveways and frequent entries and exits to and from farm fields, urban commuters who drive country farm roads as if they are highways has become a sore spot for many French Prairie denizens.

A heated topic in northern French Prairie area concerns the roads. While they are farm-serving conveyances, of late they have become major highways for urban dwellers, especially those traveling between Newberg or the Dundee Bypass to Interstate 5.

"The Newberg-Dundee Bypass is for urban folks," Post said. "It wasn't fully funded to do it right, so it's dumping all these urban folks into the farm area as they try to get up to Portland. And the people on the farms are furious."

Country roads such as McKay and Ehlen have become arteries, even though they are not designed as such.

"If the bypass were done as planned it would start in Dayton and end at Rex Hill, one long piece. Instead they did the middle section," Post said.

The issue prompted a press conference held earlier this harvest season at Pearmine Farms of Gervais, where ODOT, Marion County Sheriff's Office, Marion County Farm Bureau and local farmers pleaded with people to be considerate of the slow-moving vehicles on country roads.

ODOT spokesman Lou Torres affirmed the concerns.

Torres collected statewide data from 2013-17 that show 186 crashes involving farm equipment, causing 126 injuries and several fatalities.

"We've seen a pretty steady increase (in crashes) over that five-year period," Torres said. "I don't have the 2018 numbers, but I wouldn't be shocked if they continued that trend."

Pearmine co-owner Molly McCargar spoke about losing a neighbor and friend when a speeding vehicle hit the tractor he was traveling on.

"Too many people underestimate how dangerous it is when you don't slow down or try to pass a tractor recklessly, or even illegally over a double line or on a curve," said McCargar. "Unfortunately, this is something farmers are seeing more every year."

"I would say it's (road safety) the number one concern for the rural folks of north Marion County," Post added. "French Prairie Road, Ehlen, Arbor Grove — I ride my Harley out there and I drive my truck out there, and it's a mess. Those farmers are very kind and very patient, but it's wearing thin."

Ditches and drainage

While road safety is paramount, French Prairie residents shared concerns with a number of statewide rural denizens -- how much latitude to they have in overseeing drainage.

Post pointed to the legislation, HB 2437, which stands to ease the rules for clearing out irrigation ditches. The law would help farmers, but Post was concerned that a Portland-based special interest group could scuttle it.

"A second issue that also involves farmers and city folk, for lack of a better term, is what I call the ditch-cleaning bill," Post said, stressing that it received bipartisan attention and support. "There's a ditch at the end of every field in Oregon, and there is a limit to the amount of sediment farmers can clean out. This would increase what farmers can clean out to ensure the water flows better.PMG PHOTO: PHIL HAWKINS - There is a sense among some rural dwellers that urban lawmakers decisions, such as support for cap and trade legislation, could cripple industries such as farming and logging.

"One vocal group out of Portland is concerned with fish conservation, 'where will the fish go'" Post said, holding his fingers up with air quotes. "It's like they literally think this is removing fish habitat."

While there was some speculation that Gov. Kate Brown would veto that bill, ultimately, she signed it into law.

"I would just say 'thank you' to the Governor," Post conveyed in an email following the signing. "This was a very important bill. I'm glad she stayed the course!"

The Oregon Farm Bureau agreed.

Upon passage of the bill, OFB immediately issued a press release that stated: "Farmers and the environment both won today. More importantly, the Governor and all the involved stakeholders showed that the Oregon Way of solving problems together can still work."

PMG PHOTO: PHIL HAWKINS - There is a sense among some rural dwellers that urban lawmakers decisions, such as support for cap and trade legislation, could cripple industries such as farming and logging.


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