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Vernonia stakes future on new school

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Articles - October 2011
Thursday, September 22, 2011


Blue Heron apartment residents were evacuated; Washington Grade School is in the background. School supplies and books were destroyed.
Photos: top by Jamie Jones, bottom by Scott Laird/Vernonia's Voice

The Roseburg-based Ford Family Foundation, which was founded by the Ford timber family, broke from its normal funding rules to signal its strong support for Vernonia and made a $1 million challenge grant. The town’s leadership had participated in the training program at the Ford Institute for Community Building and as the disaster was unfolding, those alums were rallying to pull the town together, says foundation president Norman Smith.

“We don’t build schools,” says Smith. “This case was entirely the exception. This is about building a new community around its intrinsic assets.”

And, as Hyde points out, those assets include the 1 million acres of private timber land in Columbia County, where in 2010, 123 million board feet of timber were harvested. “You can’t ignore that,” he says. “You can’t say timber is no longer an economic issue.”

In 2009, there was a national promise to build a green economy, and the color of money was green. There were opportunities for state and federal funding for projects that involved sustainable energy and other ideas and the Vernonia team pounced on them, tying the ideas in with the school, such as a biomass boiler that would be fed by local wood products and a focus on a natural resources curriculum. The Pinchot Institute, a national conservation group, got involved, helping develop biomass ideas and a pilot program linking the health of residents and forests. (See page 38.) The vision would further build on Vernonia’s historic and cultural connections to its forests.

Reconnecting Vernonia’s economy to its natural resources “was an idea waiting to happen, but it needed a place and a time,” says Hyde.

The place and time arrived with the destruction of its schools.


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