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Home arrow Opinion arrow Columns

Mascot morass: The role of offended by proxy


I’m inclined to dismiss the debate over sports teams’ Native American mascots as a trivial matter except for this:

The issue raises apparent contradictions, as well as questions about the context of words, that fascinate me.

I write “trivial” not to insult anybody.

My point, rather, is that if as a society we’re truly worried about Native Americans then we ought to focus on something other than the logo painted on football helmets and embroidered on the backs of cheerleaders’ sweaters.

The academic progress of kids who grow up on reservations, for instance.

Or the persistent problem of alcoholism among some tribes.

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‘Eco-terrorism’ or ‘protest’, fires are dangerous

It’s a good thing fires never kill people.

Oh, wait — they do?

Even, sometimes, blazes that weren’t set by cretins bent on murder?

I’m feigning ignorance about the lethality of fires to illustrate what seems to me the absurdity of an argument proffered in print by a couple of professors from Linfield College. They imply, among other things in an op-ed published Saturday in The Oregonian, that people who burn ski resorts and torch SUVs have much more in common with Martin Luther King Jr. than with Timothy McVeigh.

The op-ed was written by David Sumner, an associate professor of English at the McMinnville college, and Lisa Weidman, an assistant professor of mass communication.

Their subject is Rebecca Rubin, a member of a group that caused $40 million in property damage in several incidents from 1996 to 2001, including the 1998 attempt to destroy a Colorado ski area.

Rubin, who fled to her native Canada after the crimes but later returned to the U.S., recently pleaded guilty to several charges. She has not been sentenced.

The professors acknowledge that Rubin is a criminal who deserves to be punished.

(Which is no great concession, considering she admitted as much herself, in court.)

But these educators devote most of their words to arguing that Rubin, and some of her fellow fire bugs, are getting a raw deal in two ways:

• They are routinely branded by prosecutors and the media as “eco-terrorists.”

• Some of these criminals have been given longer prison terms under the “terrorism enhancement” provision in the federal Patriot Act.

The professors contend that Rubin is a saboteur, but not a terrorist, because her crimes didn’t harm anybody and because they were committed “in defense of the natural world,” but not intended to hurt people.

I don’t doubt the latter is true.

But it doesn’t matter.

Rubin and her confederates knew, as any lucid adult knows, that when fires get started people will show up to try to put them out.

Sometimes those people get hurt.

Or killed.

Indeed, a couple of firefighters were injured while extinguishing a fire that Rubin’s group started.

The flames don’t care that your goal was to protect lynx from a ski lodge or to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from gas-guzzlers.

Flames are as apolitical as a hurricane or a tornado.

They just burn, whatever and whoever happens to be within combustible range.

The notion, as the professors put it, that people such as Rubin are less culpable than actual terrorists because they’re “philosophically opposed to hurting or injuring other living things” is the sort of flimsy, “but I didn’t mean to” excuse most commonly employed by boys who bust one of their mom’s antique crystal goblets during an impromptu game of catch in the backyard.

Once you’ve lit the match you’ve potentially endangered others’ lives, and your philosophy, your intent, become worthless drivel.

It’s not as if Rubin and her pals waited around to make sure nobody got close enough to scorch an eyebrow. They scurried away, as criminals are wont to do.

The one minor aspect about which I might agree, in one sense, with the professors is on the question of whether or not Rubin ought to be punished more severely because the word “terrorism” is attached to her crimes.

The difference is that they believe some arsonists deserve lesser punishment.

But I think all arsonists should be treated just as harshly as Rubin and her friends have been, whether the goal is to destroy a fleet of Hummers or to collect a big insurance check.

The truly appalling part of the professors’ argument, though, is their attempt to cast Rubin as a First Amendment warrior whose actions, though technically criminal, were prompted by noble causes.

The gist of their case is that America, by treating “eco-terrorists” as a special sort of criminal, infringes on our freedoms.

“Rubin should be punished for her property crimes, but to call what she did terrorism is to misuse the word,” the professors wrote. “And to misuse the word is to threaten our First Amendment rights.”

Notwithstanding that the professors are on shaky semantic ground with regard to the word terrorism, they leap from that questionable claim to one that seems to me preposterous.

“The cost,” they wrote, “is to our freedom to protest the actions of other people that we feel are wrong. Where does that leave Henry David Thoreau, Martin Luther King and the long American tradition of civil disobedience?”

The professors also refer to “Libertarian activist Ron Arnold,” who came up with the word “eco-terrorist” in 1983. 

“If Arnold had his way,” they wrote, “sitting in at a lunch counter or blocking a factory gate would not be merely illegal, but would be terrorism.”

The obvious response here is “so what?”

Arnold has not had his way, nor is he ever likely to. He’s irrelevant.

If Rubin and her friends had merely blocked a factory gate — or in their case, say, chained themselves to heavy equipment at the ski resort site — they probably wouldn’t be in prison, and they certainly wouldn’t have been prosecuted as terrorists.

But they didn’t block things they don’t like.

They burned them.

The difference between these two tactics seems not to be a significant one for the two professors.

But then I didn’t detect much in the way of clarity or consistency elsewhere in their op-ed, either.

The professors start by arguing that Rubin is guilty of sabotage but not of terrorism.

Yet in later paragraphs the professors replace, as if by magic, “sabotage” with “protest,” as though these are synonymous in the context of Rubin’s crimes.

Then the authors stray even further down this path by implying that “vandalism” and “arson” are forms of protest — but again, neither act constitutes terrorism so long as the arsonists and vandals are “careful not to injury or kill anyone.”

In the case of fires this can be more a matter of good luck than of careful planning.

Which brings me back to Thoreau and King, who seem to have been brought in, against their will, from some wholly different discussion.

King’s career has been researched in exhaustive detail yet I don’t recall that he ever employed fires — even carefully ignited ones — to forward his righteous cause.

He marched from Selma to Montgomery, but he didn’t torch either place, nor any town between.

(Although a certain hood-wearing group that didn’t think much of Mr. King certainly didn’t hesitate to break out the lighter fluid to try to make its point.)

King did, however, possess the courage to stage his protests in the illuminated public square, to defy the unjust and to accept, with dignity, the punishment that came with his defiance.

He didn’t slink around under cover of night, lugging cans full of nasty, polluting petroleum products.

As for Thoreau, I’m sure he sparked quite a few blazes in his time.

But he can hardly be blamed for that. I imagine it got pretty cold, living in a cabin in Massachusetts before central heating.

Jayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald. 

 

The birch returns for its autumnal curtain call


The season of the weeping birch tree has come round again and our city basks in its unique beauty.

I don’t own a birch myself but am partial to the species.

Most deciduous varieties please our eyes when they take on their temporary autumn dress, of course.

In New England an entire tourist industry is built on the ephemeral show.

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Would you trust these people with anything?


Somebody has to sign off on all those checks the federal government writes, but why does it have to be Congress?

The Founding Fathers might have botched that one.

Although in their defense, none of those august men ever had to deal with John Boehner.

Or Harry Reid.

Or any other modern politician for whom the words “principle” and “posturing,” which have little in common except containing nine letters and starting with “p,” have become so corrupted as to be nearly synonymous.

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Milestones are time to reflect on mistakes

This has been, and will continue to be, quite a year for 50-year celebrations.

There’s probably a term for these, something more pleasing to the ear than “half-centennial,” but I do not know it and am too lazy to look it up.

(Which, in the era of Google, is immensely lazy indeed.)

The year 1963 was, among much else, a crucial one in the civil rights movement. Most famously, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. held much of the nation spellbound with his “I have a dream” speech on Aug. 28 in Washington, D.C.

On Feb. 11 in London, a four-man beat group recorded its first long-play album, all in a single day. These clever lads called themselves The Beatles. They had some success later.

And of course the best-known event of the entire year, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on Nov. 22.

The publicity for the anniversary of that tragedy will be considerable.

This torrent of reminiscing has reminded me of another milestone, one which arrives in 2014.

That year — and specifically, July 28 — marks one century since the First World War began.

This, of course, puts the event beyond the living memory of almost everyone who’s around today.

(And even those rare methuselahs would have been just kids, and thus unlikely to have been following geopolitical events with any great enthusiasm.)

Yet a compelling case can be made — indeed, many historians have made it — that the First World War was the most significant event of the 20th century.

Many of the defining characteristics of that century — chief among them the nuclear age and the Cold War — are today linked more closely with the Second World War.

But their origins date to the earlier conflict.

Beyond the obvious chronological connection — you can’t have a second world war without a first — the historical record shows that the two wars are in effect one long fight, two bloody stanzas separated by a 21-year intermission during which no grievances were settled, and another major one was sown and bore its deadly fruit.

It is no coincidence, certainly, that the cast of characters was much the same in the two wars, the major differences being that Italy switched sides in the Second World War and Japan joined the Axis (what were known as the Central Powers in the First World War).

Even casual students of history understand that Adolf Hitler — the architect, as it were, of the Second World War — was in effect a prisoner of the First.

Not only did he fight in the 1914-18 war, but the whole of his monomaniacal life after the armistice was driven by his hatred for the punitive terms imposed on Germany by the Versailles Treaty of 1919.

The sequence of monumental events which happened during, or soon after, the First World War seem to us, at such a distance of time, as inevitable, neatly laid out as they are in the chapters of our history books.

Yet we can’t know whether the Russian revolution, the seed of the Cold War, would have happened in 1917, or indeed at all, had that country not suffered through the calamity of the Eastern Front during the previous three years.

And, as mentioned, it is hard to imagine that, without the First World War, a minor artist from Austria would have been able, by sheer force of his charisma and psychosis, to unleash the greatest military conflict in the world’s history.

I’m sure the First World War centennial will get into the news.

But I doubt it will garner anything like the attention given to, say, King’s landmark speech.

This would hardly come as a surprise; a century is an awfully long time. 

And in some ways the First World War seems even older than it actually is. There were a lot more horses than trucks, the soldiers carried rifles that had more in common with a musket than an M-16, and the airplanes were about as technologically advanced, by today’s terms, as a push lawnmower.

Perhaps most important, America’s role in the First World War, though significant, came late in the conflict, after France, Germany, Britain and Russia had squandered much of an entire male generation.

America’s experience in the Second World War was rich in iconic events and place names. “Pearl Harbor” and “D-Day” and “Iwo Jima” continue to resonate down through the decades.

By contrast, “Belleau Wood” and “The Meuse-Argonne” seem as foreign as, well, France itself.

Perhaps it’s just as well.

I don’t see that we need to use the Somme or Verdun to remind ourselves of how inhumane humans can be. Sadly, we can use more recent disasters to illustrate the point.

Still and all, 100 years after the guns of August blasted away the notion of war as a gentlemanly pursuit, we might do well to pause briefly to acknowledge that some mistakes carry greater consequences than we could ever conceive at the time.

Jayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald. 

 

The sad sight of a once-thriving enterprise

By Jayson Jacoby

Baker City Herald Editor

I often walk past the defunct Ellingson Lumber Co. sawmill, and the scene never fails to provoke a twinge of sadness.

I don’t go out of my way for these doses of maudlin.

It’s just that I live directly across 15th Street from the fence that marks the western boundary of the millsite. To avoid the place I’d have to reconfigure most of my normal routes, which strikes me as an unnecessary, albeit aerobically beneficial, hassle.

Last Sunday morning I walked along Broadway, on the north side of the property, and even the fading yellow of the rabbitbrush, a sort of farewell to summer’s palette, failed to enrich the somber scene.

If anything, the blooms accentuated the sense that something is missing here, that a site which once teemed with activity, where good salaries were earned and useful products were made, is being taken over gradually by the shrubs of the desert.

Lamenting the loss of a mill is a common refrain these days, of course, and it’s an emotion more often than not informed by the partisan politics pitting the timber industry against the environmentalists.

Yet I rarely consider that debate when I look at the barren buildings on the Ellingson parcel.

I don’t pine for a bygone era when stacks of ponderosa logs loomed over Auburn Avenue, some with butts almost as wide as the street itself.

That prosperous period could not have continued in perpetuity, at least not at the pace which marked much of the half century after the end of World War II.

In a region where a pine needs a century or more to attain such girth, there just weren’t enough trees to satisfy every saw.

Still and all, I can’t help but wonder whether this transition needed to be as abrupt it was.

I ponder whether some minor tweaking of national forest logging policy might have made it possible for this industry, which had been a mainstay of Baker County’s economy for better than a century, to survive, albeit in diminished form.

I remember interviewing Rob and Pete Ellingson after they closed the mill in 1996.

They talked about multiple factors, including government-subsidized lumber from Canada that depressed prices for U.S.-produced boards.

But the most pressing problem, they said, was that they could no longer rely on the three nearby national forests to supply enough trees to augment the logs coming from the company’s own comparatively modest acreage.

The volume of timber cut on the national forests has risen a bit from its nadir in the mid 1990s, but the numbers remain trifling compared with those of previous decades.

Oregon’s congressional delegation has tried several times to craft a compromise that would get log trucks rolling in more significant numbers, but nothing has come of it.

Perhaps nothing ever will.

Or at least not until the hundreds of thousands of acres of young forests in the region have matured, and the public lands once again are best measured in billions of board-feet. 

The term “sustainable forestry” has been around for decades and although its creator was no doubt well-intentioned, his work, it seems to me, was for naught.

Our definitions of “sustainable” vary so widely as to render the term useless.

I used to believe that one apt description was that a small town which has a lot of productive forests nearby could sustain at least one sawmill, and in turn all the ancillary businesses which support it.

Moreover, I believed this could happen without our denuding those forests of the other qualities — wildlife habitat, sources of pure water, recreation — which we as a society prize.

It was not to be so in Baker City.

The city, of course, endured the loss of the mill.

I don’t mean to suggest the city’s future was ever in jeopardy. Baker City is a substantial place, and has been so for longer than most of Oregon’s cities. This is not Valsetz, nor any other town defined primarily, if not wholly, by lumbering.

Yet as the paint peels from the buildings which once housed the singing saws, as the wind blows without spreading the fresh scent of pine, I see, in my mind, the people who made careers here, the families which depended on this place, the homes and the cars and the Christmas presents which, in a sense, got their start here.

My eyes just see rabbitbrush, its luster gone again for another year. 

Jayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald. 

 

School starts, and two more milestones pass

I watched over the course of the Labor Day weekend as two of my children embarked on the great adventure of education, one nearing the journey’s end and the other quite close to its beginning.

This juxtaposition left me a trifle dazed, jerked from one side by old memories, and from the other by a fresh glimpse of the future.

Although it’s also possible that driving 800 miles in a couple days, half that distance amassed in a cumbersome moving truck which didn’t so much go around corners as ooze through the apexes, contributed to my dizziness.

I started the holiday weekend by driving that truck, bearing my older son Alexander’s belongings, to his new apartment in Albany.

Alexander, who’s almost 19, starts his sophomore year at Oregon State University later this month. He’s majoring in nuclear engineering, a subject which seems to me as foreign as Swahili.

I struggle to engineer something as simple as a birdhouse. I have no business tinkering with the nucleus of anything.

A couple days later I watched my younger daughter, Olivia, who’s 6, assemble her pencils and papers and paste sticks for her first day in first grade.

That morning my wife, Lisa, took a photo of Olivia striding across the field on the west side of Brooklyn School. She looked impossibly small, a lone figure in that grassy expanse, too small to be going off by herself.

Lisa’s photograph reminded me of another September morning, more than a decade earlier.

The setting was the same.

But on that day the dimunitive pupil walking toward the big brick school was Alexander. 

I remember that I drove around the block, to make one more pass down Washington, and I caught sight of him there on the asphalt of the playground. I sensed his timidity and my stomach clenched (or maybe it was my heart), in the way it does when you wonder whether your child is scared, or unhappy.

I endured the same twinge on Olivia’s first day, but my trepidation lasted only until she burst into the kitchen that afternoon, nearly hysterical with tales of the wonders of Mrs. Mays’ classroom.

Alexander, of course, is a different matter.

He is 350 miles away.

I worry about mundane matters such as whether he’s getting enough to eat; or at least I did until one evening when Olivia called his cellphone and, after a brief conversation, she told me he was cooking bacon.

So that’s all right, then, if he has bacon.

The disorientation of my tumultuous weekend has dissipated, replaced by the sort of dull ache that marks milestones, after which nothing can ever be quite the same.

This is a queer sensation, never terribly painful and sometimes even pleasant. I am gratified to watch the little boy who’s now a young man who’s got a couple inches on me, no longer taking hesitant steps past the swings and the monkey bars but exploring the mysteries of the atom.

I will no doubt feel the same happiness when Olivia goes off on her own quest, whatever and wherever that might be.

Yet when they go, these children who we set loose on the noble quest for knowledge, they take some part of themselves which we, their parents, can never retrieve.

We mourn these losses.

And we remember the distant days, when they also walked away, so tiny and so delicate, but they always, at the end of the day, walked back to us.

. . .

One nice thing about buying a used book — besides saving some bucks, usually — is that occasionally you find hidden between the old pages some curious artifact.

A while back I came across such a thing inside a volume of essays by the late E.B. White.

As a brief aside, White, to the extent that he is known today, is so largely due to his trio of novels, “Stuart Little,” “Charlotte’s Web” and “The Trumpet of the Swan.”

These are described, almost invariably, as “children’s novels” but although this is not an inapt term I think it an unfair one. The three books have been beloved by generations of young readers, to be sure, but it seems to me a pity that White’s reputation is afflicted with the asterisk of triviality which inevitably attaches to fiction read primarily by children.

I too became acquainted with White through “Stuart Little.” But for me his richest legacy derives from his nonfiction essays, the form of which he is, I believe, the undisputed master.

I have yet to read a writer who matches the rhythm which, more than any other trait, identifies White’s work. Rhythm, of course, is more typically associated with music, but the word applies to writing, too, in the sense that the words make sounds in our heads as we read them silently to ourselves. White was a prose man, by and large, but his essays have the pleasing quality of the finest poetry, or of a beautiful melody.

It is quite an accomplishment, I think, to render a single sentence or paragraph that conveys even a bit of White’s magic.

He wrote hundreds of thousands of them.

But back to this book.

As I flipped from one page to another toward the back, a receipt slipped out and fluttered to the floor. The slip of paper must have been used as a bookmark.

It bore the heading “Willamette U. Bookstore” and the date of Jan. 21, 1983.

The location suggests the book didn’t get out much — I bought the thing in a bookstore in downtown Salem, just a few blocks from the Willamette campus.

I immediately wondered how long this receipt had been lodged between pages, whether it had been stuck there like a forgotten secret for the whole three decades.

I wondered too whether the buyer was a student, and if so whether the purchase was a required one, for a class, or was acquired for recreational reading.

And, finally, I wondered what I was doing on that day. I was 12. That was a Friday so probably I was at school in Stayton, about 15 miles east of Salem.

I’ll never get answers to my questions, of course.

But about one thing I’m pretty sure: The anonymous 1983 buyer got a bargain.

Although the six items on the receipt aren’t identified, the prices range from 69 cents to $3.

The list price on the book is $5.95.

I paid $6. 

Jayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald. 

 

Football vs. academia is a contrived contest


Given that Oregon’s economy isn’t exactly blistering in its pace, you’d think a $68 million construction project in Eugene — all private money — would be a cause for celebration.

Unless you’re James Earl, emeritus professor from the University of Oregon.

To say that Earl dislikes the new football office at the U of O is akin to saying Rush Limbaugh has had a couple of minor disagreements with President Obama.

To Earl, the massive structure that Nike founder and Oregon alumnus Phil Knight and his wife, Penny, paid for is, among other distasteful things, “hugely depressing” and “absurd.”

You could almost believe the Knights built a gargantuan pit in which to burn books.

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America’s reputation doesn’t depend on Syria


I was listening to Secretary of State John Kerry the other day as he explained why the U.S. is obliged to bomb Syria, and he seemed awfully sure of himself.

Confidence is valuable in a fighting soldier, to be sure — as valuable, sometimes, as a good rifle.

But when those who send others to fight wax rhapsodic about the moral imperatives of the coming battle, well, my instinctive skepticism deepens.

(See: Sir Douglas Haig’s diary entries before the Battle of the Somme.)

Kerry is certain, for instance, that Syrian president Bashar Assad is responsible for a chemical weapons attack on his citizens on Aug. 21.

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Oh, summer: Or, the car sun visor as calendar

A car’s sun visor, it turns out, makes for a pretty effective facsimile of a calendar.

I had a week’s vacation recently and so was afforded the great luxury, but for an occasional early-rising child, to tack on an extra hour or so of sleep each day.

And so it came as a surprise — not a shock, exactly, but in the ballpark — when I awoke on the Monday of my return in a bedroom that seemed to me as dark as a mine tunnel.

I thought at first that I had awakened a couple of hours early, a sort of overreaction to my reacquaintance with the working world.

But as I squinted at the clock radio, trying to bring its red numbers into a brief, blurry focus (I have the approximate eyesight, without my glasses or contact lenses, of a cataractic bat), I saw that it was 5:20 a.m.

Right on time, in other words.

(Or, more aptly, wrong on time. I’m not one of those people who literally jumps from bed, eager to attack the new day as though it’s an advancing soldier with bayonet fixed. My habits are more akin to those of a sloth. I emerge from the covers always slowly, always with great reluctance and, not infrequently, with outright dread.)

The reality, though, of how far summer had waned during my time off seemed especially acute a bit later, as I turned my car from 15th Street onto Auburn and headed east.

My left hand, acting in the rote way of a habit long-ingrained, reached for the visor that keeps the rising sun from temporarily blinding me and jeopardizing my fellow travelers on Auburn, including squirrels in the barrow pit and ducks crossing to get to Settlers Slough. (I don’t know why chickens cross the road, but the slough is why ducks, most generally, cross Auburn.)

At that moment I realized that the only light was coming not from 93 million miles away, but rather from my own headlights, which are considerably closer, though less bright.

(Our Buick, though a dozen years old, has several nifty features, including headlights that turn on, and off, automatically.)

There was a silvery glow on the eastern horizon, just enough to reveal the silhouettes of the Wallowas’ high peaks, but it was clear that the sun would not cleave the hills for another half an hour or so.

My hand dropped back to the steering wheel and I went on my way.

I relish this time of year because my favorite season, autumn, has begun to insinuate itself.

And its ascendancy is revealed in ways other than the lingering gloom of morning.

That Monday — actually it was this Monday, Aug. 26 — brought an autumnal chill as well. I briefly considered retrieving my light jacket from the bedpost but decided to leave it be, in deference to the forecast for a high of 86.

A couple days earlier I went for a hike on Black Mountain, just to the south of Phillips Reservoir. Although the day rode the border between warm and hot the air was also quite hazy, infused with smoke from the massive wildfire near Yosemite National Park, and it reminded me powerfully of late summers on the eastern fringe of the Willamette Valley where I grew up.

Farmers raised an awful lot of grass seed in those parts — indeed, they still do.

What they don’t do much of these days is burn the stubble fields after the harvest.

Back in the 1970s and ’80s, though, seed-growers torched thousands of acres of fields each summer, creating a miasma that, on most days, turned my street into a scene fitting for shooting a documentary about Jack the Ripper.

(Except for the absence of cobblestones. And Cockney accents. And serial murderers.)

Notwithstanding the damage this pall must have done to my lungs (I had only a passing understanding of the respiratory system anyway) I enjoyed those murky days because they foretold, as reliably as the acquisition of a couple new pairs of Tuffskin jeans from Sears, the coming of the school year and the bracing days of fall.

As I stood beside Black Mountain’s cairn-topped summit I detected the old tang of distant combustion on the air and felt refreshed, as you do when a pleasant memory of childhood comes suddenly clear.

I don’t begrudge summer.

This year’s version, although more than a trifle dry and dusty, was rather a pleasant one, a bit warmer than usual but quite nicer than the torrid season Boise residents endured, where just a handful of days since the solstice haven’t reached the 90-degree mark.

But the smoke, and the slight chill before dawn, promised better times, hinted at those crystalline days at the edge of winter when the tamaracks gleam and the dusk comes early and cold and the light from a familiar window, seen at a distance in the gloaming, can bring water to the eyes.

Jayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald. 

 
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