McKenzie River, How to Build Back Better

In Part Three of the series, we look at how the people of McKenzie River are rebuilding, and what difficulties may lie in their way. 

The Holiday Farm Fire ignited and burnt through over 173,000 acres of forested land in the McKenzie River Valley in September 2020. Portions of the small, quintessential towns along the river — including Blue River, Vida, Finn Rock, and Nimrod — were destroyed literally overnight, and over 400 homes were burnt to the ground. As the affected areas are still just beginning to pick up the pieces and rebuild, there are numerous organizations accepting donations to help assist families and communities regrow. One of these organizations is the McKenzie Community Development Corporation. But not everyone in the McKenzie Valley agrees with the projects the MCDC is spearheading.  

Build Back Better 

The MCDC was established well before the Holiday Farm Fire, President Jeff Dehne says. “After the fire, we supported people with resources, and were on the ground coordinating other organizations to focus assistance and find out what people need.”  

On the group’s fire response website, there are links to multiple initiatives led or collaborated by the MCDC, including information, events, and meetings focused on housing construction, environmental clean-up and protection, and utility restoration. Seen on the organizations housing resource webpage, the slogan “build back better” does not just extend to private family home reconstruction, but also to opportunity for economic growth for the McKenzie Valley in the future.  

The MCDC’s original website, which highlights the group’s goals pre-Holiday Farm Fire, showcases year-round tourism as one of their main initiatives. Citing the areas’ need for sustainable economic sources following the downturn of the timber industry, the CDC worked with local committees to attract businesses and newcomers to the valley in hopes of increasing job opportunities.  

This seems to be where differences in opinion have been formed – the MCDC believes tourism could be a key factor in growing the economic opportunities of the valley. Some locals disagree.  

Defining Better 

Jennifer Zirkle, a Blue River native who lived in the area for 43 years and lost her family home in the fire, believes the area does not need tourism to build back better. “The community is very strong, we work very well together,” she said during a phone conversation with The Advocate. “It will always be a tourist attraction because of the natural beauty, but now that’s gone, so we want to make it better,” Zirkle explained, referring to the once lush evergreen forests, now burnt, and the opportunity to now rebuild the community differently. She would like to see the area regrow back into its original family-friendly and community-based focus, she said, rather than being an attraction site for temporary visitors, adding “we don’t want to see it become Sisters.”  

When asked what the organization had to say to locals who may not want to see tourists flock to the area, MCDC Development Coordinator Jamee Savidge said,“This valley wouldn’t exist without tourism. It’s an important aspect of the valley’s recovery.”  

Additionally, when asked about the MCDC’s spending of donation money on projects that do not directly benefit impacted families of the recovering towns — such as rebuilding of the Blue River Park and addition of art installations to the area, Savidge pointed out that the MCDC is a 503c non-profit organization (or 501(c)(3) in IRS-terms). This means that many private donations are earmarked by the donor for use towards specific projects, and the MCDC cannot redirect that money towards other initiatives. 

“We have been able to reallocate some funds for tourism projects to recovery funds,” said the groups’ Director of CommunicationsAlice Bonasio, but details or statistics were not provided.  

While the MCDC and some locals of the McKenzie Valley may be at odds about how the area is able to recover and grow economically in the future, there is the overall commonality of devotion and love for the valley that will undoubtedly lead to the communities ability to rebuild.  

Read Part One and Part Two of this series. 

By: Lauren Zatkos