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Grant struggles with highest unemployment

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Sunday, March 01, 2009
rural2.jpg Eastern counties  are long on  scenery and short on jobs.

GRANT COUNTY Oregon’s rural counties are being hit hard by unemployment, and the biggest spike is in Grant County, a sparsely populated eastern county reliant on timber and ranching. The job base is feeling the double whammy of the construction collapse on top of the historically declining wood-products industry. In December, Grant’s unemployment rate was 15.9%, the highest in the state; the state average was 9%. One year ago, the county had 10% unemployment.

“This downturn is comparable to the early ’80s when the timber markets busted,” says Grant County Judge Mark Webb. “But now, we’ve not been doing good for a long time. Companies aren’t as healthy and able to weather the challenge. We’re weaker now.” At the core are area mills that are either shutting down or reducing shifts.

That recessions hit rural areas hardest isn’t unexpected, and Oregon’s rural timber-reliant counties have struggled for decades to find new businesses and industries to replace timber. But in a county like Grant, with 60% of the land federally owned and with most of that timber and grazing, Webb says a healthy forest plan that allows more logging while also addressing environmental concerns is key.

A new coalition of Oregon business, environmental, labor and community leaders agrees. The group recently joined forces to promote the economic and environmental benefits of enhanced federal funding to restore forest health in the state. In a Feb. 3 letter to Gov. Ted Kulongoski, and Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley and other members of the Oregon congressional delegation, the group urged legislators to press for stimulus funding dedicated to forest restoration and related rural development projects. “This dual investment will create good, family-wage jobs and restore the condition of our national forests,” the group said.

Grant County also faces infrastructure obstacles to diversifying its job bases. “The problem is we have no port or rail and we are not on an interstate,” says county economic development officer Sally Bartlett.

On the bright side, about half of the 2,400 people employed in Grant as of December worked in government, a sector that looks fairly steady at the moment. And Webb says the county’s road funds are in good shape.        ROBIN DOUSSARD

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