The saga of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation continues, and will for some time. Last week I heard an interview program, Think Out Loud, on Oregon Public Broadcasting; the interviewer Dave Miller went back to Harney County to talk with residents about how they’re feeling and what they’re thinking now. Several, if not many, were concerned about the economy. An underlying theme of the occupation was a perception that federal land management interferes with the ability of local residents, mostly ranchers, to improve their personal economic condition.
I have visited Harney County many times, including backpacking in the Steens Mountain area and birding at Malheur. I’ve stayed at the field station a couple times and also at the Frenchglen Hotel. My husband and I tend to be independent travelers, studying maps, following the “blue highways” to find interesting landscapes and out of the way attractions. Right now, I’m writing this essay from Summer Lake Hot Springs located about six miles north of Paisley, Oregon in Lake County, another vast, sparsely populated county due west of Harney,
As a native Oregonian, I’ve pretty much combed the state; it’s a rare location that I haven’t visited. High on my list of favorite places is Harney County, which has natural beauty that is mind-boggling for people from more populated parts of this country and the world. We have taken European friends to Harney County and they have been stunned by its raw, relatively empty beauty. They are thrilled by the mountains, the vast plains, the remote and undeveloped hot springs, and most of all by encountering September cattle drives with herds driven by real cowboys on horseback. Without us as guides, however, our friends would never have ventured so far from the Willamette Valley and would have had no idea where to spend the night or what equipment to bring.
In this respect, Harney County is sitting on an eco-tourism gold mine. In our pressurized world, there are many people who want to “get off the grid” for a while and will pay a lot to experience it in relative comfort. However, the Harney County folks who spoke last week were not focused on tourism but on familiar economic development ideas: internet-based employment such as call centers or extractive natural resource industries like ranching, logging, and mining.
The problem with nudging places like Harney County or Pacific County toward more tourism is there’s also a downside, as Long Beach discovered last year over the Fourth of July weekend and Rick Steves discussed with an expert on travel to Cuba, also on OPB last week. By the time I tuned in, Steves and his guest were discussing the consequences of hordes of tourists descending on the island and destroying the laid-back charm of many of Cuba’s small cities. Cruise ships in particular have a negative impact due to the sheer number of visitors who come all at once, straining an already delicate tourism infrastructure. Many Cubans will have increased income, but part of the culture will be diluted through a series of subtle changes, which will culminate in a wave of homogenization. Unfortunately many people who visit “exotic” or out-of-the-way places expect the common attributes of their home culture, whether it be air conditioning or seven varieties of brie in the local small-scale grocery store.
I continue to live on the Northwest coast because I love the varied opportunities to connect with nature and appreciate the slower pace and wonderful air quality, but there are towns I tend to avoid during tourist season because tourists often bring the less attractive habits of their urban home places: less patience, a sense of entitlement (even on the sidewalk where urban dogs on expandable leashes can ensnare the unwary) and worst of all, an attitude of “slumming,” leaving our beaches littered and sometimes our accommodations trashed.
All of us who live in places of great beauty have this dilemma: How much do we want to share it with “outsiders” who could enhance our economic well-being, but how can we keep our local culture intact — part of what attracted visitors in the first place? In Bali, Indonesia, 30 years ago, we received a little pamphlet, “How to be a Villager.” In Harney County, comparable advice would be “Nod and say hello,” “Wave to every rig you pass on remote, gravel roads.” Engaging in those behaviors always helped us feel like a small part of the community for a short time.
Victoria Stoppiello is a freelance writer living on the Northwest coast; you can reach her at email@example.com.