Relocations: Bridging the political divide in a small town

Herbert Rothschild
February 17, 2022

‘Everyone has some portion of the truth and no one has all of it’

By Herbert Rothschild

On February 3, the town of Butte Falls officially became owner of 430 acres of surrounding forest land that contain the falls. Weyerhaeuser Company transferred deed to the property for $1.1 million, paid for by two grants the town secured, one from the U.S. Forest Service, the other from the state legislature. (More on the history of the acquisition and the town’s plans to use it as a recreation area can be found in the February 14 Mail Tribune.)

The town’s key player in the work that took almost three years is its mayor, Linda Spencer. This column is about Butte Falls and my friend Linda, whom I came to know because we are both members of South Mountain Friends Meeting, the Quaker congregation in Ashland. It’s about how Linda and her adopted town transcended the differences that are threatening to tear apart our country and collaborated for the common good.

You won’t find Butte Falls unless you intend to go there. It’s 15 miles off Highway 62 on the way to nowhere. But the 445 people who call its original 55 acres home are deeply attached to it. They love the remoteness and feel a part of the forest that surrounds them.

Before those 55 acres were incorporated, Butte Falls was a thriving Medco company town. When Medco sold its timber holdings, it gave the town the acreage, and the residents incorporated in 1911. The timberland around Butte Falls changed hands several times over the years and was last owned by Weyerhaeuser. The forest belt prevented economic development and residential growth. The decline in logging has further eroded the town’s prosperity.  

Currently, a sizable majority of its residents are at or below the poverty line. Many are retired lumber workers. A few commute to jobs in White City and Medford, but it’s a long roundtrip. Only 13% have college degrees. Last school year, more that 95% of the 225 students in its K-12 charter school qualified for free or reduced-price lunches. The school’s five-year completion rate from ninth through 12th grades was 61%, compared to 87% statewide. Still, it’s home.

Butte Falls became Linda’s home in 2009, when she retired from her job with the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C. Before that, she had done environmental work for the United Nations, mainly in Nairobi, Kenya. But she was tired of large cities, large bureaucracies, and working on large-scale theoretical and unreal projects. She wanted to garden, hike and camp, but most of all to deal with real people in real community. Her family was based in southern Oregon, so she looked for a place in Jackson County to retire and discovered Butte Falls. 

Like most of America’s small rural towns, Butte Falls is pro-Trump. Linda is not. She’s highly educated (she earned a doctorate from Kent State University) and cosmopolitan and, like all Quakers, she believes in radical equality and nonviolence.

So, Butte Falls and Linda are an odd fit, but she didn’t move there to be an outsider. She joined the Active Club, which puts on such events as the Fourth of July and Christmas celebrations. She joined Friends of the Library and the sole book club in town. She attended town council meetings, sitting at the back. After some three years, a seat on the council became vacant and she volunteered for it. She soon became council president. Not long after, the incumbent mayor decided not to seek re-election and no one else wanted the position. Knowing that as council president she would be de facto mayor, Linda stepped into the role. 

“I’ve lived in different cultures,” she told me. “I know about being quiet and listening to understand what’s important to the people I’m among. I knew I would have to respect different viewpoints and I knew I would have to learn how to be in relationship in a small community. In Butte Falls what’s most important is a commitment to relationships. It took some learning on my part.”     

Not that adjustment wasn’t a two-way street. People in the town had to understand or at least tolerate Linda’s viewpoint. Five years ago, after much discernment, she erected a peace pole in her front yard and hung peace flags from her front porch. “I felt I needed to state my truth and to have the confidence it would be respected as my truth, even if it’s not embraced.” Witnessing to one’s truth is different than imposing it on others. Quakers believe that everyone has some portion of the truth and no one has all of it. That belief makes for dialogue, not argument. “The peace pole created useful dialogue.”

Linda wanted to put at the service of her community the skills she learned in years of government and international work — managerial competence, knowledge of negotiation, understanding of governmental agencies. The townspeople embraced her leadership. In turn, they provided a vision for where the town wanted to go and the understanding of how the forest could help them get there. Together they listened to each other and worked together to find ways forward. There were frustrations, Linda concedes, but mutual good will has resulted in a more promising future for Butte Falls. As for Linda’s take on her experience, “It’s been good for me. I’ve grown.”

Email Ashland.news board member and columnist Herbert Rothschild at herbertrothschild6839@gmail.com.

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Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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