The year 2020 was full of twists and turns, and with each one, Oregonians have come out stronger together — thanks to the spirit of resilience that binds us all. Even in the midst of the global pandemic and an unprecedented wildfire season, individuals, businesses and organizations rallied together across urban and rural communities of the state for the betterment of their fellow Oregonians.
There’s a name for it, in fact: It’s called “The Oregon Way,” and it harkens back to the decision-making approach used by great Oregon politicians — namely, former governors Tom McCall and Bob Straub, former Sen. Mark Hatfield and Sen. Ron Wyden — who span both sides of the aisle. Sen. Wyden explained it like this in 2009: “The Oregon Way is more about taking good ideas wherever they come from, rather than one party or one philosophy.”
As the state and nation strive toward a renewed era of unity, kindness and inclusiveness, here are some of the individuals and organizations that have worked to rebuild, lift each other up, and ensure Oregonians and visitors to Oregon can enjoy the state’s natural treasures for generations to come.
Saving an Iconic Landmark in the Willamette Valley
River east of Eugene, firefighters worked around the clock to quell the flames. McKenzie Fire & Rescue Capt. David Sherwood was part of the team sent to protect the Goodpasture Bridge, the historic covered bridge featuring gothic architecture that dates back to 1938. “It’s iconic, not only as a feature of the McKenzie [River Valley] but also in my life,” Sherwood says. Having worked for the fire agency for 18 years, he passes the bridge every day and takes his children every year to see the structure decorated in holiday lights. Sherwood credits saving the bridge to a bit of luck and some quick thinking from the 14 fire agencies around the state that didn’t hesitate to work together. “It was a team effort,” he says. “There are a lot of professional people around here who know what to do, and who can work together to get a task done.” Originally from the Midwest, Sherwood reflects that he’s noticed Oregonians have an independent nature but are quick to step up when a need presents itself. “People are really built to serve their communities,” he says. “When things like this happen, we’re more than prepared to work together on a common cause, and I think that does speak to people in this state.”
Helping Wine Country in Southern Oregon
Oregon’s winemakers have long been noted for their collaboration, and the incredible response after the 2020 wildfires was no exception. Gina Bianco had just become executive director of Rogue Valley Vintners — a nonprofit effort to promote the world-class Southern Oregon wine region to visitors — when the Almeda Fire broke out in Ashland. The fire destroyed thousands of homes and one winery in the nearby community of Talent. As a former public health consultant, Bianco drew on her experience of bringing people together. She spent the next few days checking on winemakers and distributing face coverings for winery and vineyard workers, since it was harvest time and the grapes needed to be picked. She took the lead in helping area winemakers come together to provide support to those who lost everything in the fires, many of whom were winery staff or vineyard workers. Two dozen local wineries rallied together for a fundraiser called Rogue Valley Wine Country Cares, which raised more than $56,000 in less than four weeks for relief to help wildfire-affected families. “This year really turned folks upside-down — from COVID-19 to wildfires,” Bianco says. “Organizations may be competitive in everyday business, but when it comes to a situation where they need to help each other, they are right there.”
Passing on the Columbia River Gorge’s Wildfire Lessons
Coordination is not really glamorous, says Burt Edwards, communications director for the nonprofit Friends of the Columbia Gorge. “But it’s really helped people think about the Gorge much more holistically.” In the three-plus years since the Eagle Creek Fire burned 50,000 acres of trails and other popular recreation sites in the Columbia River Gorge, Edwards has continued working with a large number of the individuals, businesses and organizations that banded together after the fire for an effort they branded “Show the Gorge Some Love.” Many of those people had already worked together, but this was a more focused effort — one that has lasted far beyond the initial fire event. Specifically, the groups raised funds for emergency responders and channeled scores of volunteers eager to plant trees into a longer-term effort. When several iconic trails reopened to the public, it was thanks to the 6,000-plus volunteer hours by those who pitched in. Ecologists say the population of pikas and other wildlife are thriving as the forest floor sees a rebirth. During Oregon’s 2020 wildfires, Friends of the Columbia Gorge worked with land trusts statewide to help develop similar strategies moving forward. Three years later, the Gorge is still benefiting from those relationships. “The fire underscored the stakes,” Edwards says, “and the opportunities.”
Lifting Up Indigenous Tribes in Central Oregon
Born and raised on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation of Oregon, Jefferson Greene heard his elders speaking the native language, Ichishkíin Sínwit, with other elders. But he says the language wasn’t passed down to the children or grandchildren. Now with children of his own, Greene has become fluent in his native tongue and made it his mission to revitalize the language before it goes dormant. He founded the nonprofit Columbia River Institute for Indigenous Development for this purpose. “We’re down to our last 20 people who can understand it,” Greene says. “There are only 12 fluent speakers of the language. All are over 65 except two of us. COVID-19 took eight of our speakers.” During the pandemic, closed businesses meant waves of unemployment for Oregon’s Indigenous community, fewer visitors and a halt to the traditions that knit the community together. Add to that a water crisis in Warm Springs and damage from the wildfires that swept through the region. Greene knows, however, that his tribe is resilient. He painted a mural in Warm Springs titled “Shúkwat” that reflects the community’s spirit through a variety of symbols: an eagle, a horse, a light and more. “It’s about growth, learning and the journey forward,” he says.
Sharing the Love of Eastern Oregon
With more people seeking fresh air and wide-open spaces, outdoor recreation in Eastern Oregon has had a banner year. “Rather than taking the kids to Disneyland, all these people were coming out and learning how to do these things,” says Dan Sizer, owner of Go Wild American Adventures in Baker City. “I heard our clientele reiterate to me: ‘I would have never come out to Eastern Oregon if COVID hadn’t hit.’” While visitors were discovering the allure of this less-crowded part of the state, demand for outdoor gear, recreation sites and experienced guides also skyrocketed. Though Sizer’s small company had a rough few months, he quickly shifted to offering private guided backpacking excursions, as well as adding options for whittling, fly-fishing and survival-skill lessons during these multiday trips with safety protocols in mind. The best part of this new landscape, Sizer says, is that a new group of visitors has experienced Eastern Oregon and learned respect for the natural world. “Everyone who comes out here loves it; they feel like they’ve made this discovery,” he says. “Now all these people are going to be not just using the forest, understanding it and appreciating it, but also helping conserve it.”
Showing Resiliency and Community on the Coast
More than 20 years ago, Kristen Roslund and her husband opened the Overleaf Lodge & Spa in Yachats, a property perched on a bluff that offers guests astounding views of the ocean in a relaxed atmosphere. The name is one that came to symbolize turning over a new leaf in life. Never was that mantra put to the test more than in 2020, when all of Oregon’s lodging properties were forced to adapt to the statewide stay-at-home orders in spring 2020 and then the increased safety protocols to follow. Roslund was forced to let go of 60 employees, a task she says was one of the hardest things she’s ever had to do. She lessened the pain by holding a food drive for those laid off and sent them home with lots of essential supplies. Overleaf has a long history of community support, including hosting a barbecue for trail-preservation volunteers and inviting guests to help make blankets to support My Sister’s Place, a local domestic violence intervention program. Meanwhile, staff members have become nimble to navigate the new normal. “Our staff was doing double shifts; the gardener was making beds. Everybody pitched in,” she says. “When your body aches so badly and you get so tired, you have to push yourself, you have to be resilient … I suppose it’s that pioneering spirit.”
Forging Partnerships in Portland’s Restaurant Industry
For 61 years, Amalfi’s Restaurant has served pizzas, linguini, meatballs and other old-school Italian fare to Portlanders in its intimate dining room in Northeast Portland. These days it’s become an expanded outdoor all-weather patio and market for grab-and-go family meals, as this food-famous city has had to adapt to new COVID-19 dining protocols. It was everything they could do to keep the lights on during the ever-changing landscape of regulations. “We’re complete chameleons,” says Kiauna Floyd, who purchased the business from her stepfather in 2006 and is the first person of color to own Amalfi’s in three generations. “The whole hospitality industry has had to make so many transitions.” While some Portland restaurants have struggled to navigate the pandemic, others have adapted to offer more outdoor seating, or switched to takeout to serve visitors who are hungrier than ever to support local businesses. With two school-age children at home, Floyd still found time to be among more than 100 Portland restaurants to partner with Frontline Foods during the spring 2020 closures to box up thousands of meals for local emergency workers. Floyd knows the stakes are high for all small-business owners: “For those of us still fighting tooth and nail to keep the doors open, we’re doing everything we can to think outside the box and expand margins whenever we can.”