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Is large-scale industrialization the best there is?

Mike Connelly Columnist

Published February 9, 2005

The Cob power plant is a bad thing, and everyone knows it. And the Cob plant is a good thing, and everyone knows that, too. There is no decision that we mere mortals make that does not have some part that is good, and some part that is bad.

This is not some wishy-washy statement made by someone who doesn't want to offend one side or another on a controversial issue. It is a fact that has become obscured by all the bluster and rhetoric coming from people who have a whole lot at stake, and who have come to see their opponents as their enemies.

I have good friends who have made great sacrifices opposing the plant, and who will lose much of what they have worked for all their lives if it goes through.

I am from the Bonanza area, and I have lived next door to an industrial facility.

I have watched the eagles hunt in that little draw, now full of survey stakes, where a guy named Roscoe raised his dry-land rye. I assure you that the presence of the power plant will damage Langell Valley in ways that are real and deep.

On the other hand, I have good friends who have dedicated a substantial chunk of their lives in recent years to making the power plant happen, and who would suffer both personal and professional loss if it did not go through. The many needs of our communities are both real and pressing, and it seems certain that there will be more money floating around for local business, government and schools if the project proceeds as planned.

I should mention, while I'm at it, that I have no friends at all at Peoples Energy. I will be very honest and tell you that I don't give a hoot whether Peoples Energy is helped or harmed by how this situation ultimately gets worked out. In fact I'd go so far as to say that Peoples Energy could suffer a great deal of harm before it would start to bother me in the least.

Its job is to make money, not make our lives better here in the Klamath Basin. If our lives happen to get better as a result of the company's making money, then company officials don't have any problem with that. But we should keep in mind, as we have learned before, that if they stop making money they will not hesitate to take the good things away again.

To my mind, there are two critical questions we need to ask ourselves, with the Cob power plant or with any other economic development prospect:

First, what is the company's long-term commitment to this community? I'm not talking about the money here. The more important question is how directly do the company's Klamath Basin operations impact the real decision-makers within the company? In other words, if the plant is ugly and stinky, do the executives and shareholders have to see it and smell it? Our own homegrown company, Jeld-Wen, can serve as a standard in this respect. This is its owners' home, so they treat it right.

Second, does the operation contribute to the long-term self-sufficiency of Klamath Basin communities, or does it make us more dependent on outside capital, management and market fluctuations?

Does it help us keep our future in our own hands, or does it make it more likely that our future will end up as an agenda item at some distant meeting full of people who don't know us, our communities or our landscapes?

Something fundamental to learn

I'm not going to speculate here about how the Cob project would fare in light of these two questions. In part this is because I don't think I can expect to influence the outcome in any way. But it's also because I believe there is a more fundamental and important lesson we can learn from this whole situation.

Someone once told me that "If you don't figure out what you want, then you end up taking whatever you can get."

This person happened to be an international expert in strategic economic development, and he happened to be talking at the time about rural economies in the western United States.

This place where we live is one of the most astoundingly beautiful and productive landscapes on the planet. People travel across continents to see our farms and ranches and wild areas. And the food we grow is carried hot to tables all around the world. We are creative, we are energetic, we are talented, we are persistent, and we can make our future whatever we want it to be.

We should talk more openly and more often about what we want our future to be. We should decide what's most important to us, and say it out loud, over and over again, so that we can tell right away, before all the expense and heartache, if some out-of-town idea is really what's best for us.

I don't know, maybe large-scale industrial development is all this place is good for. Maybe this power plant will be the best thing for us and for future generations. But part of me can't help feeling like we're "taking whatever we can get." Part of me just feels like we can do so much better than that.

Mike Connelly, a former rancher, is a writer and director for a non-profit foundation in Klamath Falls.

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