Given the ongoing occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, and recent articles in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal about the broader topic of federal lands, our office just wanted to provide a bit of historical economic data on Harney County. Furthermore, Representative Cliff Bentz sits on the House Revenue Committee and regularly engages us in discussing trends in Eastern Oregon, by both informing us of his district and by asking some tough questions.
While big geographically, Harney County is sparsely populated. Employment has been essentially flat for the past forty years, fluctuating around 2,500 jobs. This trend differs considerably from the statewide economy and even the nation. Relative to the late 1970s — just before the state went into the severe early 80s recession and timber industry restructuring — the number of jobs today in Harney County is 10 percent below back then. Clearly, that is a really long time with essentially no growth.
While much of the recent focus is on farming and grazing, one big issue facing Oregon, particularly the southern and eastern parts of the state, is the decline of the timber industry. It started with the early 80s recession and accelerated following the environmental restrictions put in place a decade later. (See here for more on the industry’s history.)
In a state that has lost nearly two-thirds of its direct wood products employment since the late 1970s, Harney County’s losses have actually been significantly larger. From 1978 to 2014, Harney County lost 99 percent of its wood product jobs, with just 6 reported logging jobs remaining today. That takes the industry’s share from more than 3 out of every 10 jobs back in the late 1970s to zero percent today.
Now, many argue that the harvest levels and number of jobs in the industry back in the 1970s were not sustainable, due to over logging and the like. Furthermore, even before discussing the environmental impacts or the restrictions, the automation and mechanization in the logging process and in the mills, by itself, would and has resulted in a large employment decline. Yet, most of our good local data begins in the 1970s and it does show the full extent of the decline.
Lastly, the defining feature of the Timber Belt is the influx of migrants to a region that has suffered an economic hit as severe as seen in places like the Rust Belt, the Corn Belt or among the old textile towns across the South. Harney County specifically has seen population losses since its peak in 1979 or 1980, making it an outlier in Oregon. However its two neighboring counties on either side have seen better numbers, with employment and population gains in both Lake and Malheur counties. Overall, the region has certainly increased, even if Harney has seen the worst trends among the group.
The overall stagnation of rural economies is not unique to Oregon, and the decline of manufacturing and farm jobs is a nationwide trend. For more on Rural Oregon, see our office’s recent report. Also see our regional economic overview from a year ago and the Employment Department’s regional page.