How one retired veterinarian made a big bet on sustainability and tourism in Eastern Oregon.
In 2006 retired veterinarian Dr. Scott Campbell had made enough money to retire, having helped create, run and sell the veterinary chain Banfield Pet Hospitals.
Campbell and his wife retired to Burns, where his grandparents were ranchers and his father had been the town doctor. Campbell purchased a large ranch that had been defunct for several years with the goal of renovating it into a functional ranch.
Located off Highway 395, 65 miles between John Day and Burns, the Silvies Valley Ranch comprises 40,000 acres of brushland, wetland and forest, less than 2,000 of which is developed.
He also built a vacation cabin with his wife on a separate property that was completely off the grid. A matter of necessity, he says.
“The eastern part of Oregon is electrified through co-ops that they built in the Sixties. They got built out in the Seventies and then they stopped running new lines,” says Campbell. “There were very few homes at that time that were completely off the grid. We used solar power whenever we could.”
Campbell says the resort is more than a pet project. He views his resort as a way to create a tourist industry in Eastern Oregon, a region he says is suffering economically.
According to the US Census Bureau, average income of a Harney County resident is $25,871, and unemployment in the county is 8.5%, nearly double the state average, according to the State of Oregon Employment Department.
“When I was growing up, lumber was three-quarters of the local economy. Now that part of the economy has gone away,” says Campbell, who hopes his project will serve as a catalyst for more tourism in the region.
“We are looking to add another industry out here. We want to prove a tourism industry can thrive in this part of the state.”
Silvies Valley Ranch is not the only Eastern Oregon ranch to open its doors to tourism, but most ranchers lack the resources to do the same as Campbell.
Campbell’s focus on sustainability could also be seen as something of a culture shock for the small Oregon town.
Affiliated voters in Harney County are about 70% Republican, according to the Oregon Secretary of State's Office, a group which has histrocially been opposed to green energy initiatives, though support for sustainability is much stronger among conservatives than it ever has been, according to a 2019 Gallup survey.
Campbell says most of the interest in his resort comes from people in Boise, whose tech sector has created plenty of upper middle-class tourists who care about sustainability. Boise is also much closer than Portland.
“Environmentalism is important to those people,” says Campbell. “It’s important to me. You want to leave the planet a little better than you found it.”
Campbell says environmental sustainability is as much a fiscal priority as it is an ethical one. Even though the technology might be more expensive upfront, he says the self-sustaining nature of solar power makes it a profitable investment.
He was so impressed by the potential of solar energy he set up wiring for more panels than he had the money for, in the hopes that the cost of panels would decrease as time went by.
“When we started using solar panels they were very expensive, but over the last few years they’ve become more affordable,” he says.
In 2017 the lower cost of green energy, combined with a desire to bring jobs and money to the region, led him to embark on a new venture: transforming his ranch into a tourist resort that, upon completion, will be 100% off the grid and close to 100% sustainable – minus a few tanks of propane as a backup power source.
Visitors at the resort will be able to play golf on one of four golf courses while riding the links with solar-powered carts, sleep in vacation cabins powered by lithium batteries, explore the natural beauty of the grounds, and of course, visit the goats and cattle living on the ranch.
The resort has also dedicated resources to rebuilding the environmental strength of the area, including building beaver dams and restoring riparian zones.
The sustainable golf courses have already been completed, and have won international renown, appearing in both national and international golf publications.
Sixty people are already interested in purchasing one of the vacation homes. The target audience is wealthy; the homes are priced around $800,000.
Campbell plans to build eight to 10 new vacation homes per year, based on demand.
For now, there is a long waiting list to rent his first two units when they do eventually come online.
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