Pacific Northwest - Economy
In many ways, the economic structure of the North Pacific Coast is dominated by the production of staple products and by its isolation from major markets elsewhere in the country. The region has always contained a number of high-demand products, notably lumber and foodstuffs. However, movement costs reduced the ability of producers to get their products to market at reasonable cost. Consequently, market areas turned to other sources of supply that were nearer and less expensive, so that much of the North Pacific Coast's agricultural products are grown for the local market, not for export.
The broad Willamette Valley in Oregon is easily the largest agricultural area near the region's coast. The land has been cultivated for more than a century, and its farms are prosperous and well established. Much farmland is in forage crops, and many farmers still follow the practice of burning their fields in the fall--with the result that for a period of several weeks, large sections of the valley are covered by a layer of smoke.
Dairy products, also generated mostly for the local markets, are of greatest importance to the agriculture of the Willamette Valley; strawberries are perhaps the most important specialty crop. Other specialty crops also thrive in the valley's climate, including hops, grass for turf seed, cherries, and spearmint. Even grape production, supporting a local wine industry, has increased in recent years. The Puget Sound lowland in Washington is another important dairy area.
Again, specialty crops are also grown, with peas leading the pack. Quick frozen and then shipped to markets throughout America, this cool-weather crop is particularly well adapted to the local climate. The area east of the Cascades in Washington presents a different kind of agricultural landscape. Most of this area is semiarid, and grasses and desert shrubs replace the majestic evergreens of the coast and mountains.
Although called the Columbia Plateau, the area has little of the characteristic flatness one expects of a plateau. Much of the area consists of rolling hills. Elsewhere in central Washington, the landscape has been cut by steep-sided dry canyons called coulees. That section--properly called "the channeled scablands" because lava pockets dot the surface with scab-like knolls--is covered by a deep blanket of lava flows eroded by the floods from glacial melt during the Pleistocene ice retreat.
That portion of the Columbia Plateau along the Oregon-Washington border and across much of eastern Washington is a substantial farming area, easily the most important in the Pacific Northwest. The hilly country of east-central Washington, called the Palouse, averages between 35 and 65 centimeters of precipitation annually, somewhat more than other parts of the interior.
Wheat is the primary crop of the area, with both spring and winter varieties grown. Wheat is normally planted on a given field every other year; in alternate years, the land is plowed, but nothing is planted. This practice retards evapotranspiration and allows soil moisture to increase. The large wheat farms of the Palouse are heavily mechanized and highly productive. Most of the product is exported through Portland to Asia. Irrigation has played a major role in the area's agriculture in recent decades.
Two major irrigated areas have been developed. The water from a number of streams flowing eastward out of the Cascades is used to irrigate their relatively narrow valleys. The result is one of the country's most famous apple-producing areas. The Columbia River, at Grand Coulee northwest of Spokane, was dammed primarily to provide hydroelectric power. It also made available large amounts of irrigation water to south-central Washington. After these waters became available in the late 1950s, crop acreage in the area expanded considerably in response.
Major agricultural products include sugar beets, potatoes, alfalfa, and dry beans. Washington, California, and Oregon together provide more than half of all timber cut in the United States, and Washington vies for the lead (with the Deep South state of Georgia) in pulp and paper production. Although forestry was the first major industry in the North Pacific Coast, its rich forest did not become nationally important until well into the 20th century, when improved transportation facilities, coupled with the destructive overcutting of many eastern forests, opened the region's woods to lumbering.
Douglas fir (of prime importance as structural supports for houses and for flooring, doors, and plywood) is easily the major lumber tree of the region, although each section has its own mix of trees to harvest. In northern California, for example, redwoods remain locally important; the western red cedar is also widely cut in the area from Oregon northward. The large size of many of the trees plus the distances to market tends to encourage large-scale logging operations. One major U.S. lumber company, for example, owns some 690,000 hectares of land in Washington, making it the state's largest private landowner.
A substantial part of Washington and a majority of all land in Oregon and northern California is government owned. Private logging on government land plays a large role in overall production. Effective marketing has enabled lumber products of the region to penetrate all market areas of the country.
The plentiful precipitation and rugged topography of the North Pacific Coast provide a hydroelectric potential unmatched in the United States - 40 percent of the country's potential is contained in Oregon and Washington alone. The Columbia River, in particular, with a flow volume larger than that of the Mississippi River and a drop of nearly 300 meters during its 1,200-kilometer course from the U.S.-Canadian border to the sea, is a power developer's delight.
Begun in 1933 and still the region's largest, Grand Coulee Dam was the first dam constructed on the Columbia River. It was followed by no fewer than 10 dams downstream. British Columbia and the United States agreed to the construction in Canada of three additional dams that would store water during periods of heavy flow and then release the water when flow was low to guarantee consistent power generation. These developments have provided inexpensive electricity for the North Pacific Coast.
Inexpensive electrical power, in turn, has attracted manufacturers that are heavy power consumers; most notable is the aluminum-smelting industry. Forestry and fishing at one time formed the backbone of the region's economy. Large numbers of whaling vessels were attracted to the cold waters of the North Pacific during the late 18th century and first half of the 19th century. Heavy overharvesting has reduced the North Pacific's whale population to a small fraction of former levels.
Salmon contributed a major part of the foodstuffs of the coastal tribes before the arrival of Europeans, and remains the principal fish caught throughout the region. Salmon migrate upstream from the ocean to spawn in freshwater. Years ago, their spawning runs filled the rivers, and massive catches were easily available to people on the banks. The size of the salmon catch has declined greatly over the past five decades, and today it is less than half its former level. Most salmon are caught off the Alaska coast.
When the region's streams were dammed, access to many traditional spawning grounds was blocked, especially on the upper Columbia and its tributaries. Fish ladders--a series of gradual water-carrying steps that allow fish to jump from level to level and thus bypass a dam--have been constructed around some of the smaller dams, but they do not work on the larger ones. As a consequence, nearly all of the Snake River and its tributaries, plus all of the branches of the Columbia above Grand Coulee, are closed to salmon.
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