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An Unexpected Political Toss-Up: Southwest Oregon


One of the country's most closely divided congressional districts this past election was not a swing state like Ohio or North Carolina. It was in Oregon. Voters in the 4th District - that's the southwest part of the state - chose Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump by just 554 votes. One reason for that razor thin margin - Trump's promise to help revitalize the state's timber industry. NPR's Geoff Bennett went there to see how that promise of restoring jobs in a fading industry is playing out.

GEOFF BENNETT, BYLINE: At Seneca Sawmill Company in Eugene, Ore., a team of lumbermen stand watch as wooden boards are spit out one by one onto a planing platform.

TODD PAYNE: We're taking rough lumber from the sawmill, bringing it over and putting smooth surface on all four sides and then grading that based on the lumber grading rules.

BENNETT: That's Todd Payne, Seneca CEO. He says his business is thriving. A now hiring sign even hangs out front. Seneca Sawmill has weathered the past few decades better than many of Oregon's other timber operations. The logging industry says it's struggled under the cumulative weight of a tough economy. Unfavorable trade deals, job-stealing automation and environmental regulations that have restricted the supply of timber from federal lands. Payne says more logging on federally owned public lands would help, but Doug Heiken with the conservation group Oregon Wild says they're more valuable when protected.

DOUG HEIKEN: These forests provide clean drinking water. They provide habitat for endangered species that were trying to recover. They provide great recreation opportunities for people that want to, you know, live, work and play here in Oregon.

BENNETT: In May 2016, then-Republican-presidential-candidate Donald Trump capitalized on the combustible mix of timber and politics during a campaign stop here in Eugene.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Timber jobs have been cut in half since 1990. We're going to bring them up, folks. We're going to do it really right. We're going to bring them up, OK?


PETER DEFAZIO: I predict a long time ago Trump was going to win 'cause I look at my district as a microcosm of America.

BENNETT: That's Congressman Pete DeFazio, who has watched mill after mill close over the three decades that he's represented this part of Southwest Oregon in the U.S. House. The downturn in the industry has affected the way people connected to it feel about their communities and themselves. That includes Valerie West (ph). She says she liked what she heard from Trump last spring and believes as president he can deliver.

VALERIE WEST: I really think he can, and I really think he will bring it back.

BENNETT: I met Valerie in the rural town of Roseburg on her way out of the Geter Done hair and nail salon on Main Street. Roseburg sits about an hour south of Eugene. The once-bustling town was known as the timber capital of the nation. These days, it's got a lot of trees and not a lot of people. Valerie says her husband used to work for a lumber mill in Roseburg before he was deployed to Iraq, where he was injured and disabled. Valerie now collects disability. Times were different, she says, when her husband had that timber job.

WEST: We were making pretty good money. We were able to buy a house and live comfortably.

BENNETT: That's part of what nearly delivered this once-solidly-Democratic district to Trump in November. DeFazio says Trump's targeted timber message was effective and shrewd at the time given the protracted push and pull over natural resources between conservationists and logging interests. Both sides, he says, are divided at the extremes.

DEFAZIO: I'm a strong environmentalist, but I've been called a timber beast by the enviros in my district because I'm not going to say, like they do, never, ever cut another tree and build houses out of hemp.

BENNETT: DeFazio, who was comfortably re-elected in November, says he's tried to strike a balance. For now, people here in timber country are waiting to see whether President Trump makes good on his campaign promises. If he does, this corner of a blue state may become a bellwether. Geoff Bennett, NPR News, Eugene, Ore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Geoff Bennett is a White House reporter for NPR. He previously covered Capitol Hill and national politics for NY1 News in New York City and more than a dozen other Time Warner-owned cable news stations across the country. Prior to that role, he was an editor with NPR's Weekend Edition. Geoff regularly guest hosts C-SPAN's Washington Journal — a live, three-hour news and public affairs program. He began his journalism career at ABC News in New York after graduating from Morehouse College.

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