What we Lost, What we Have and What we Could Have – Opinion: by Robert Hirning

In the last couple of decades, since the 2002 Biscuit Fire to be precise, much has been lost here in the Illinois Valley. The Biscuit Fire topped out at about half a million acres and subsequent, almost yearly mega-fires probably have increased that number many fold. But it is not just the trees and tomorrow’s timber that we have lost, it is the human cost that needs to be understood. Our beautiful little Valley is hurting and much has to be done to turn things around. However, we have many resources and the second part of this comment will discuss these extraordinary blessings. Finally, we need a vision of what we could have and how it might be attained.
First let us look at what we lost. In the last couple of decades three physicians have retired or left the Valley and have not been replaced. Similarly, three dentists and three banks have departed. Also in the last couple of decades we’ve lost two attorneys, two plant nurseries and there is nowhere in town to stay overnight anymore because the only two motels are shuttered. The DMV closed shop for good at the first of the year. The swimming pool and the Sno Park are gone. Fire Mountain Gems, the RadioShack, and Rough & Ready Lumber (the last sawmill in the county) are either shut down, burned down or moved out of town. This is tragic for our Valley and portents the loss of a vibrant mixed economy. Loss of vital services and the annual three-month menace of smoke and fire have pretty well totaled out the critically important tourism and retirement segment of our Valley’s commerce.
Since gold was discovered above Waldo in 1857 the Illinois Valley has seen waves of boom and bust, get-rich schemes where the loot quickly absconds and leaves only a great big mess. Gold mining, timber overcutting, copper mining and cannabis cartels have all left vast amounts of garbage and major scars upon the land with nothing but a huge cleanup problem for everyone who plans a future here. These are all short-lived and extractive enterprises where labor is exploited and tossed away when the resource runs out. Back in the late 1800s; Waldo was a thriving town of 5,000 and also included hundreds of mainly Chinese immigrants who were brought in to dig the flumes for hydraulic mining. It was the Josephine County seat and even had three doctors. Now, nothing is left, even the soil is gone, washed away in an attempt to get every last ounce of booty. Look at the catastrophic mess of plastic pipe and sheeting left by the “Cannabis Cartels” – same thing.
So what do we have left? Plenty! First of all, and most importantly, we have each other. This Valley has tremendous strength. The love and friendship which nurtured our common interest has grown in each passing year. The Valley has not broken down into warring factions (as our neighbors in Siskiyou and Shasta counties seem to have done) and people here genuinely believe in helping each other. Despite the division of political, religious and social backgrounds, most of us want to live here in harmony. Fortunately, folks care more about getting along than careening down the rabbit hole of red-blue politics. This community is uniquely poised and wonderfully positioned for working together to make things happen.
Although we lost a lot, we still have a lot. After over eight decades, our indomitable hometown newspaper, the I.V. News is still in print; even after Medford’s Tribune folded. Our local radio station KXCJ, going on the air in 2017 with nothing but a vision, has become a vital part of the community and a real source of joy for the 30 odd people who keep it humming along. Similarly, the Cave Junction Farmers’ Market has grown so rapidly that it twice needed to seek bigger venues to unfold every Friday afternoon. Another creative little touch to make something out of nothing has been the “can-slam” behind Chevron every Saturday. The IVCDO has come up with the “Cans for Kids” program, using hands-on volunteer participation to generate thousands of dollars every year for various nonprofits.
Our local fire department, the IVFD, is a crackerjack outfit, well-equipped and well-trained. Largely volunteer, dispatch is immediate as crews from any of five stations hit the road with sirens blazing. Many a fast-moving fire has been snuffed out through quick action before it can spread to adjacent woodlands. Thank you firefighters!
Taylor’s expansion right in the middle of town, Rogue Truck in Kerby, Great Cats down the highway and the Tree Houses in Takilma have all been powerful additions to the Valley’s commercial base. Right along the highway is an actual working family farm which has consistently brought us local produce, including cron, after every hard-working year. Got blueberries? Loren has them faithfully every summer, and they’re organic too. Not to be forgotten is the Kerbyville Museum, a little jewel to visit providing history and recognition of early pioneer life in the I.V.
The Illinois Valley is also rich in music and art. On any given weekend, it is hard to decide which venue to attend. Several Valley wineries in Selma, O’Brien and out on Holland Loop host excellent venues for art shows and music. Concerts in the Park, the Siskiyou Folk & Bluegrass Festival and Women’s Café continue to show off local talent year after year. The Valley is also so lucky to have the community choir. Under the direction of Kate Campbell the public is treated to exceptional (and free by donation) concerts a couple of times every year. Both the Senior Center and the Grange offer regular delicious breakfasts and special dinners from time to time. Sometimes entertainment will follow and the annual Quilt Show is a regular fall fixture.
We are surrounded by four National Wilderness areas, three raftable Wild & Scenic Rivers and, of course, the Oregon Caves National Monument which has been a solid tourist destination for decades. Highway 199 is virtually the only way to travel directly from Interstate 5 to the Northern California/Southern Oregon Pacific Coast and the Redwood Parks. Public transportation is now available again, after decades of absence, both locally to Grants Pass and east-west from the Coast to Klamath Falls.
So why have we lost so much and what can we do to develop our strengths and bring prosperity? No. 1: We must change the regime of annual smoke and fire trauma. Much has been said about the incompetent and corrupt Forest Service which must be relieved of the responsibility of dealing with wildfire. We had a Smokejumper Base from the 1940s to the 1980s and acres burned on the Siskiyou Forest were reduced by 90%. That is a fact. Our Illinois Valley Airport is a real asset with a 4800’ runway capable of landing medium-sized two engine airplanes as large as the DC 3 or Twin Otter. With a little expansion even larger fixed wing aircraft could safely land and take off. Envision, if you will, a wildfire fighting base with barracks, mess halls and highly trained crews of various professions all working together to put the fires out when they start. What a concept; it is exactly what we had prior to 1981 and it worked!
With a Wildfire Defense Base there would be a compounding effect as a new community of well-paid workers would expect and be willing to pay for increased services. One might ask, where will the funding come from to build back this base, again? The Defense Department (not the inept Forest Service) has an obligation to protect the citizens of the U.S. and stopping wildfires before they devastate communities and destroy the nation’s treasures seems to fit the bill. Remember the Smith River Complex fire that ravaged the Smith River Canyon? It alone cost the taxpayers a $110 million. An awful lot could be done with that money to set up a base with trained fighters that could literally jump on those lightning strikes before they became conflagrations. Think also of what the closure of 199 did to our local businesses that depend on that to- the-Coast traffic. Taylor’s and Great Cats lost 2/3 of their business for many months and probably many other tourist-oriented concerns in the Valley did too. Some days we had the worst air quality in the Nation; hardly a drawing point for rafters and backpackers (besides the fact that the forests and rivers were closed to the public).
The Illinois Valley could once again become a tourist Mecca. Without smoke and fire tourists might want to spend the night instead of choosing other routes and destinations. Restaurants could thrive again and lodging could be revived with a new motel complex. How about shuttle rides to the Caves? How about an EV charging station? Similarly the retirement component of our mixed economy is basic to bringing clean dollars directly into our Valley. Retirees need doctors, dentists and banks but with terrible air quality and the lack of services, they won’t give this community a second look.
Without the threat of wildfire and the hazardous air quality, without the negative reputation that has come to pass, we could thrive again. All of this is not going to come easily nor is anyone going to do it for us but the same “can-do” and “we’re all in it together” power that we have already demonstrated could make it happen.