The West’s Rural Visionary
Take one isolated, High Desert town (John Day, Oregon), add an abused river, a dying timber industry, and a hotter, drier climate. Then mix in a local leader’s grand, out-of-the-box ideas about rural sustainability. What do you get?
by JULIET GRABLE
One day in October of 2021, a handful of city leaders in John Day, a small town in rural Oregon, gathered to watch a crane operator set a new bridge. Fashioned from a repurposed railroad car, the bridge spans the John Day River, just blocks from downtown.
Not much else was there that day, aside from some heavy equipment, a freshly poured sidewalk, and piles of concrete and crushed mining tailings. But to the small group that came to watch, the bridge forged connections both physical and symbolic. It was a small piece of a grand vision called the John Day Innovation Gateway—an uncommonly ambitious, multimillion dollar blueprint for a town of just 1,750 residents.
The plan, several years in the making, aimed to restore the river, revive the town’s riverfront, and rebuild the local economy. In doing so, town leaders hoped, the Innovation Gateway would propel John Day into the 21st century with a resilient infrastructure that anticipates the massive changes and challenges brought by climate disruption.
For John Day and many other communities in the western U.S., those challenges include hotter, dryer summers, more intense heatwaves, and dwindling snowpacks, so crucial for water supplies during dry months. These trends are already worsening. In fact, a recent study found that the West’s 22-year “megadrought” is making the region drier than it has been in the last 1,200 years.
The John Day’s forested slopes bear the scars of a catastrophic wildfire that destroyed dozens of homes in 2015. But when the sun breaks through the clouds, painting the landscape in soft sage, buff brown, and gold, it’s beguiling.
To prepare itself for this future, the city of John Day has acquired $26 million (and counting) for its various projects—a staggering amount for a town with just one traffic signal. A local newspaper article from 2019 listed no less than 23 projects in various stages, from sidewalk and trail upgrades to plans for a new riverfront hotel and conference center.
All of this activity has excited hope among many John Day residents. Others, however, have been alarmed at the scale of the changes afoot, and the way they’ve been handled. And, as projects have moved from the drawing board to groundbreaking, the protests are growing louder.
John Day sits at the intersection of two lonely state highways in Grant County, a region in northeast Oregon so sparsely populated (fewer than six residents per square mile) that it still qualifies as a frontier county. The town is arrayed along the John Day River valley, jammed up against the Strawberry Mountains to the south. The surrounding countryside is rugged and steep; its forested slopes bear the scars of a catastrophic wildfire that destroyed dozens of homes in 2015. But when the sun breaks through the clouds, painting the landscape in soft sage, buff brown, and gold, it’s beguiling. The things that make economic growth challenging in John Day—its remoteness, its small size—also contribute to a quality of life that many locals deeply cherish.
Like all of Oregon east of the Cascades, the John Day community leans conservative. Built on gold mining, ranching, and timber, John Day (named, like the river, after an early 19th-century hunter and trapper from Virginia) has seen its share of booms and busts over the years, and its citizens pride themselves in their ability to tough it out in a beautiful if unforgiving landscape. But prospects for John Day’s future have started to fade. As in countless corners of rural America, young people have fled, businesses have shuttered, and housing stock has deteriorated, with virtually nothing coming in to replace it.
City leaders have long understood their community’s challenges, and tried to surmount them. Nearly 20 years ago, in 2003, John Day updated its Comprehensive Land Use Plan, calling for upgrades to the community’s infrastructure, housing, and schools. Despite declining school enrollment, its authors projected steady growth, and a population that would top 2,225 by 2015.
The document included a Vision Statement from 1999, poignant in retrospect, which paints John Day’s future in rosy hues: a beautified downtown, a new industrial park and businesses, tidy homes, busy sawmills, and a thriving tourism sector. The statement ends on a triumphant note: “Based on all of these fantastic accomplishments, the rest of the State of Oregon now knows where John Day is!…John Day is respected statewide and many cities are trying to emulate their accomplishments.”
Between the mid-1990s and 2015, instead of increasing, John Day’s population declined—by about 15 percent. In the 2020 census, Grant County was the only one in the state to lose population. To make matters worse, in 2019 Portland State University released a report predicting that John Day’s population would continue to decline for the next 25 years.
The seeds of that decline were planted decades ago. Like much of the West, the region that was to become Grant County changed swiftly after gold was discovered, in the 1860s. The native population was pushed out, often violently. Sheep and cattle operations expanded, as did commercial timber harvesting, especially after World War II. In the 1970s, Oregon’s timber industry reached its apex; by the 1990s, tightened federal forest policies, along with increasing automation in sawmills, delivered a combination of blows to the Northwest’s timber industry. One by one, sawmills in Grant County shut down.
To Bob Parker, Director of Strategy and Technical Solutions for the Institute for Policy Research & Engagement at University of Oregon, the writing is on the wall for towns that have relied on industries that are primarily extractive (such as timber) or dependent on natural resources (such as farming). “Places like John Day really have to reinvent themselves,” he told me. “The reason for their existence is evaporating.”
John Day’s leaders also knew they needed to do something radical to alter their town’s downward trajectory. So, when their long-time city manager retired, in 2016, they started looking for a new leader—someone who could see their town’s potential with fresh eyes.
During Nick Green’s first interview for the city manager position, in April of 2016, the city’s wastewater treatment plant came up. The old facility was more than 65 years old and sprawled over 30 acres; its percolation ponds lay within the river’s floodplain, posing a public health risk during heavy rains; and the permit to operate the plant had expired. The city had plans for a new treatment plant, but Green saw the design as no more than an upgrade of the outdated facility.
“I said, you’re in a drought-prone High Desert community,” Green recalls. “Stop looking at this as a liability and start looking at it as an asset.” Green then proposed an ambitious alternative: a state-of-the-art operation that would treat and disinfect wastewater to a level that can be used for farming, industry, and landscaping. When asked for examples of potential uses, Green showed them pictures of hydroponic greenhouses.
From his first day in office, Green has treated John Day like a patient that is bleeding out, applying tourniquets to staunch the flow of population decline, and large transfusions of capital to reinvigorate an anemic economy.
“This is where I’d start,” he said. “Find thirsty industries that can turn reclaimed water into a value-added product.” He also suggested a design that would integrate the treatment plant into the community fabric rather than cordoning it off with barbed wire. Create parks and trails, he urged; showcase the hydroponic greenhouses; turn the riverfront into something people want to come to. Make the riverfront a place again.
As simple as it sounds, using a riverfront to rebuild a sense of community can be extremely effective. James and Deborah Fallows, during years of reporting for their book, “Our Towns: A 100,000 Mile Journey Into the Heart of America,” found that a riverwalk atmosphere is so magnetic that it’s even worth creating in towns with no rivers. John Day’s residents, however, had never seen their riverfront as a gathering place. “The whole north side of the river was used as a dumping ground for decades, whether by industry or the city,” says Aaron Lieuallen, project manager for the Innovation Gateway. “It was out of sight, out of mind.”
In many ways, Green was a surprising candidate for city manager of a small, remote town. Though he had married a John Day native 10 years before, he had spent his career in big cities, researching advanced technologies and managing multimillion-dollar budgets for firms that contracted with the U.S. Department of Defense. In mid-2014, he pivoted, returning to school to pursue a Master’s degree in Public Policy. Almost as soon as Green graduated, in spring of 2016, the city manager position came up in his wife’s hometown.
“I was convinced after his first interview,” John Day’s mayor, Ron Lundbom, told the local paper, “I saw a lot of potential.” The city council soon voted unanimously to appoint him, despite his minimal experience in local government.
From his first day in office, Green has treated John Day like a patient that is bleeding out, applying tourniquets to staunch the flow of population decline, and large transfusions of capital to reinvigorate an anemic economy. “We’ve been getting our butts kicked,” Green told me. “But it’s time to fight back.”
Early on, Green proved to be unusually savvy at landing federal and state grants. In many cases, he created layers of financing from a variety of sources, which could then be used as matching funds for other grants. “Most communities have some liquidity and the ability to create more,” Green says. “They just don’t know how to play the game.”
In the spring of 2018, Green’s office released the Innovation Gateway plan. The plan’s thrust, guided by a landscape architecture firm (Walker Macy of Portland, Oregon) emphasized giving John Day a real sense of place. Barely a year later, in early 2019, the city unveiled one of the Innovation Gateway’s first projects: three industrial-scale hydroponic greenhouses on the site of Oregon Pine, a defunct sawmill. Green saw the greenhouses as a way to build food security in a food desert, spur new agriculture ventures, and attract businesses to the waterfront.
By mid-2019, the greenhouses had begun producing, and the project’s Instagram page proudly advertised the bounty: plump scarlet tomatoes, perfectly formed cucumbers; frills of tender lettuce. Wholesalers were expected to make up the bulk of the city’s customers, but then COVID-19 hit, disrupting the community’s shopping and dining habits. So the city set up a website that allowed individuals and restaurants to pick up their produce directly.
Eventually, the greenhouses will be irrigated with recycled water from the new wastewater plant, scheduled to break ground sometime in 2022. That project will cost an estimated $13 million—half of the money Green has raised so far—but it should bolster the town’s resilience in a region increasingly plagued by drought. The wastewater operation is designed to reclaim 80 million gallons of sewage water to Class A standards every year. According to the city’s projections, that’s enough to sustain the greenhouses, irrigate city parks and a local golf course, wet the log decks at John Day’s one remaining lumber mill, and flush toilets in public restrooms. In winter, when demand for recycled water is low, the excess will be used to recharge the local aquifer.
A big, complex wastewater recycling project might seem an ambitious plan for a small town, but such enterprises may soon become the norm across the American West, given predictions for more frequent and severe droughts. California, already a leader in water recycling, plans to double the amount it reuses over the next few years, and the federal Infrastructure and Jobs Act, passed by Congress last November, includes $1 billion for water recycling projects in the western U.S.
Though certainly not pristine, the John Day River is federally designated as a Wild and Scenic River. Undammed along its 284 miles, the river hosts wild runs of steelhead and spring Chinook salmon, along with smallmouth bass, a fish greatly prized by anglers. Yet several reaches still bear the scars of a frenzy of gold mining that began in 1862, when a prospector found gold in Canyon Creek. Within a year, 6,000 people—including many Chinese immigrants—were working the Canyon Creek claim alone.
In 1899, prospectors turned to dredge-mining—a far more efficient but destructive practice. By 1939, five large dredges were operating in Grant County, more than in any other region in the state. In a single day, one machine could process up to 6,000 cubic yards of material, enough to fill 600 dump-trucks.
Across the West, the dredges turned river valleys upside down, stripping vegetation and destroying habitat for both fish and wildlife. Valuable silt washed downstream, where it was lost forever. What remained were small mountains of rocks, called tailings. The Army Corps of Engineers tried to remediate the damage once dredge mining ceased in the 1940s, but engineers had nothing to work with. So they just routed stretches of the John Day and Canyon Creek into canals. Today, parts of the John Day River are “channelized,” running through town mostly in a straight line.
In recent years, Grant County, like so much of the western U.S., has been whipsawed by a variety of natural disasters. In this part of the country, when it’s dry it’s really dry; and when it rains, it pours, causing rivers to flood. “Healthy rivers don’t do what we see ours do,” says Green, adding that after heavy storms, the river essentially functions like a water slide. “You’ve got a massive amount of water moving through that chute. When it crests, it goes everywhere.”
As but one example, a flood in April of 2019 caused Canyon Creek to “roar like a fire hose,” as the local newspaper described it. Only a flurry of sandbagging kept the creek from overflowing its banks. The flood still broke a city sewer line, undermining one of the town’s major roads and emergency routes.
“We’re looking for the new prospectors,” Green told me. “Those people who are willing to pioneer a new frontier, but one that harmonizes the best of land use and natural resources with conservation values.”
Two years later, Grant County, like most of the West, withered under a record-breaking dry spell. And according to predictions from the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute, Grant County can expect to see a lot worse: more frequent and severe heat waves, more frequent droughts (which reduce river flows), and an increased risk of wildfires.
Green realized that John Day could fight these trends locally, in part by restoring the John Day River to a healthier, more natural state. This will require “de-channelizing” the river—using machinery to sculpt new curves and meanders, softening the angle of the river’s banks, and planting native vegetation in the floodplain.
“The goal is to jump-start ecological processes,” says Gardner Johnston, a hydrologist with Inter-Fluve, a restoration firm with offices across the country. “Reconnecting the river with its floodplain will restore important interactions.” The work will create pools and riffles and a network of wetlands and side-channels that will serve as vital fish habitat during droughts. The wetlands also give water places to go during storms.
Green expects the permitting process for the river restoration to take a while, but he wants to start working on it now, even if more immediate projects are crying for attention. He’s found that working on interconnected problems, what he calls a “holistic” approach, has helped him use funding for one project to leverage support for others. Green also believes the scope and progressive nature of these efforts will distinguish John Day as a leader in conservation and innovative resilience planning—enough so that it will fulfill the city’s 20-year-old goal of putting John Day on the map.
As the vision takes shape, Green hopes to draw new residents and entrepreneurs to John Day, and thereby defy PSU’s predictions of the city’s continued population decline. “We’re looking for the new prospectors,” Green told me. “Those people who are willing to pioneer a new frontier, but one that harmonizes the best of land use and natural resources with conservation values.”
As construction equipment started showing up, signs of resistance began to appear. Three years ago, Green was doxxed (his personal information was presented to the Grant County court and made publicly available), and he has received ongoing threats in the form of phone calls and emails. “They typically run in the vein of ‘If you don’t stop doing X, we’ll run you out of the county, mark my words’,” Green said. Though he didn’t want to name names, Green told me the threats have come from multiple sources and that much of the pushback has been generated by a group called the Grant County Conservatives.
Most everyone in John Day I spoke with believe the opponents to Green’s initiatives constitute a very small minority. But they are the ones who show up to city council meetings, and their voices are amplified by an active social media presence. One anonymous poster, listed as the administrator of the Grant County Conservatives’ Facebook page, has used the fact that Green receives a percentage of some of the grants he gets for the city to accuse him of padding his salary. The same poster has repeatedly accused Green and the city council of “building monuments to themselves.” Other posts have criticized the greenhouses (“sewage tomatoes”), the new trail system (more “feel good, build government bigger infrastructure”) and the Innovation Gateway (“a gateway…to fiscal insolvency”). More generally, its members warn of a “liberal infection” that will destroy the community from within.
While none of this has been pleasant, what’s aggravated Green the most has been the many public records requests and appeals to various state and federal agencies—efforts which, in his view, are groundless, and aimed only at hindering progress. “The inquiries don’t go anywhere,” he told me. “But they slow us down and take a ton of staff time and public money to respond to.”
John Morris, a longtime resident of Grant County, has been especially vocal in criticizing the city’s plan to build a new aquatics center. (The site of the old pool is adjacent to a Chinese State Heritage site that’s considered the best-preserved example of the Chinese herbal apothecaries built in the West after the Civil War.) Although nearly half of the $6 million needed for the pool has been secured through grants and loans, John Day’s residents will soon be asked to vote on a bond measure to cover the rest. “I’m not against a swimming pool,” Morris wrote as part of a 15-page document chronicling his objections. “I’m against the price tag, the lack of citizen involvement, and the complicated, almost deviant way of doing business.”
When I explored these complaints with people who are active in local businesses and government, I heard a very different story, such as this one from Josh Walker, a contractor who is developing a new subdivision in John Day: Nick Green, he said, is “the only person in 40 years [who] has implemented any plan that looks to solve the problems we face now and in the future.”
Change in a community always draws some opposition, but there are ways around this dilemma. During the Fallowses’ reporting for “Our Towns,” they found that in the most successful small-town revival efforts, planners began by listening to people from all sectors of the community. This sent a message that change would come from the ground up, not from the top down. (To illustrate the point, Deb Fallows profiled Bucksport, Maine, which used a complex community-involvement process developed by an organization called Community Heart & Soul, to great effect.)
Green readily acknowledges that the city has fallen short on this front. “We represent ourselves well to external audiences but really poorly within town,” he told me. Instead of meeting notices arriving in people’s inboxes, the bulldozers just show up. These communication breakdowns tend to feed the suspicions of those eager to find conspiracies.
“There are people who don’t want change,” says Shannon Adair, a city council member who co-founded a local brewery. “I don’t understand it. We’re changing by declining. It’s a bigger risk, in my opinion, to do nothing than to try to turn the tide.”
Grant County can be fertile ground for that kind of thinking. Old wounds run deep here; rightly or wrongly, many locals blame federal regulations for John Day’s decline. This has encouraged distrust in government intervention—a devil they see hidden in federal and state funding. And because the Innovation Gateway’s various projects are so intertwined, some worry that Green is constructing a house of cards that’s destined to topple. How, they ask, will John Day fund the maintenance and operation of all these enterprises, especially if the town’s projected growth doesn’t happen?
Others fear that very growth. As Morris sees it, Green and the city council are “trying to make John Day the new Bend or Portland.” Bend in particular, being the nearest large city to John Day, is often held up as both a model and a warning. Viewed one way, Bend is an incredible success story—a High Desert timber town that transformed itself into a mecca for outdoor recreation and craft beer. Between 2010 and 2020, 40,000 people moved into Bend and the surrounding county, raising the population by nearly 20 percent. On the down side, traffic in Bend is often brutal, housing prices have skyrocketed (along with property taxes), and there’s a growing population of homeless people.
None of this worries Walker, the local contractor. “Bend is Bend because it has some things we don’t have,” he says. John Day—two hours from a major highway, far more isolated than Bend, and lacking a nearby ski mountain like Bend’s Mt. Bachelor, or Portland’s Mt. Hood—probably doesn’t have too much to worry about, at least for the moment. But the region already attracts anglers, hunters, and two-wheeled tourists, whose numbers may increase if Green’s vision continues taking shape.
All of these possibilities stoke fears that a tsunami of change is headed toward John Day. True or not, those fears baffle Shannon Adair, a John Day native who started a local craft brewery with her husband, and serves on the city council. “There are people who don’t want change,” she says. “I don’t understand it. We’re changing by declining. It’s a bigger risk, in my opinion, to do nothing than to try to turn the tide.”
During a city council meeting on January 24, Green made a surprising announcement. Citing a desire for a better work/life balance, he told the crowd he will resign as city manager in June of this year. During his announcement, made during a “State of the City” speech, Green scolded those who had been obstructing the city’s plans, and urged residents who had been sitting on the sidelines to get involved.
While Green will soon leave his post as city manager, he expects to stay involved in city projects, including the Innovation Gateway. There is talk of his aiding the city as a private consultant, or participating in Regional Rural Revitalization Strategies, a new intergovernmental agency that Green helped found, largely to address the region’s housing shortage.
The new agency will give three rural towns in Eastern Oregon (John Day, Burns, and Lakeview) the ability to pool resources and leverage additional funding which, several grant officers told me, is plenty available, and waiting for towns with good ideas. Wherever Green goes, he will have left his mark in John Day, and city leaders will be working with the projects he helped initiate for years to come.
As they do, it will be interesting to see if Green’s absence subdues John Day’s naysayers, who tend to oppose anything the city government wants to do. But the bigger challenge for city leaders will be figuring out how to persuade more residents—both the naysayers and the uninvolved—to help build John Day’s future. “When I think about what people want,” says Lieuallen, “they want to get back to the good old days—the days of mining and timber. What if we asked, what did the good old days feel like? What does it feel like when your town is thriving and you can shop downtown and stop somewhere for coffee? How do you return to some of those same feelings but maybe with different industries?”
I found these to be compelling questions, which perhaps should have been asked earlier. The city did make some efforts to involve the public during Green’s tenure. In the early stages of developing the Innovation Gateway plan, it created two citizen committees to offer opinions and technical assistance. Yet plenty of locals have clearly felt shut out of the process, and many others have not felt called to participate at all. Knowing this, the city has created a new position: a community development director, whose responsibilities will include communicating directly with John Day’s citizens.
In the meantime, new enterprises are already popping up. On the city’s newly revived riverfront, Shannon Adair, the city councilor, is expanding her brewery with a riverfront distillery and lodging. Others are starting to take advantage of ecological restoration’s economic potential. Some local ranchers, for example, have turned to regenerative agriculture—practices that can conserve water and rebuild soil health while also yielding abundant crops. [For more on this idea, see Craftsmanship Magazine’s inaugural issue, “Cultivating Craftsmanship,” or a 2020 film, narrated by Woody Harrelson, entitled “Kiss the Ground.”]
Elsewhere in Grant County, the timber industry turned to sustainable practices nearly a decade ago, in order to save the region’s one remaining lumber mill. Now, that mill is supplied with wood from stewardship projects, which prioritize forest health, create wildlife habitat, and mitigate wildfire risk. According to the US Forest Service, from 2015 through 2017 stewardship contracting supported more than 250 jobs in the region each year. The project has been so successful that Oregon’s two Democratic Senators have urged the U.S. Forest Service to award the Malheur National Forest with another 10-year contract.