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What holds Unity together
By MIKE FERGUSON
Of the Baker City Herald
UNITY The first thing that Unity rancher Harriet Crum wants visitors from "big" Baker City to know is how much she and her 129 neighbors depend upon the "big" city.
"The people in Unity shop in Baker, John Day and Ontario but mainly in Baker, where about 75 percent of our ranching dollars are spent," she said.
Main Street in Unity is a 35 mph stretch of Highway 26 lined with two restaurants, a convenience store, the U.S. Forest Service Unity Work Station and a few homes.
This southern Baker County town, the largest town in a region driven by ranching and mining, has had its share of successes in recent years. It also faces challenges, community leaders say.
Mayor Diane Bettin says residents are excited about the prospect of a proposed snowmobile path that would eventually allow snowmobilers ride to Unity from Morrow County.
There's talk of opening an RV park to cater to the added tourists, she said.
"We've got some plans," she said, "but we're going to need some grants to make our city more viable."
The city has applied for a grant to dig a third municipal well, she said.
"We've got projects in the works, but we need more water," she said.
Water also tops the list for ranchers beyond Unity's city limits.
A shadow of its former self after three straight years of drought, Unity Reservoir is about two-thirds full. But measured by percent full, it's the fullest storage facility in the county. The reservoir holds 25,200 acre-feet of water at capacity; it currently holds 16,629 acre-feet.
Jerry Franke, who manages the irrigation district, said he'd like to impound more water for the farmers and ranchers he serves.
"The North Fork (of the Burnt River) is dry by July, and by early August I've distributed all but 20 percent of the water provided by the South Fork," he said. "We've got a reservoir for storage, and we'd like to build two more small dams for storage, but there's a lot of political resistance."
Franke said the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation will host a meeting next month to determine if survey work can be completed that could lead to the building of the additional dams, Franke said.
"We need to save it now to use it then so we can all benefit. Half the water irrigators use ends up back in the river anyway."
The other major natural resource industry near Unity mining has changed substantially from the gold rush days that fueled construction of the 136-mile long Eldorado Ditch, which delivered water to a mine at Malheur City southeast of Unity. Today, one of the town's two restaurants carries the ditch's name.
East of Unity, Baker County's largest employer, Ash Grove Cement, mines limestone for cement and sugar beat processing.
But smaller operations still work Baker County claims for precious metals like gold.
Miner Jan Alexander said she'd recently answered a letter from an eighth grader who wanted to know the environmental effects of mining.
"I had to think long and hard about what's good and bad about mining," said Alexander, who when she worked for the U.S. Forest Service helped administer mining claims along the Burnt River.
"I never knew what problems miners faced until I (mined) myself. I had to tell this letter-writer that people can't just go in and take minerals. They have to post reclamation bonds and do other things after their operation."
Miners can still post claims to minerals on public lands, part of that resource industry's enduring legacy many people only associate with 19th Century gold rushes and therefore sometimes forget to factor in to modern day considerations.
For example, Franke recalled wanting to install a new gauging station along the Burnt River a few years ago. With both BLM and private interests adjacent to the proposed site, he sought permission to install the station from both groups.
But he forgot one.
"Two years later, a miner approached me and said, What are you doing with my claim? As soon as you started digging, (the gauging station) became my property.'"
It turned out OK, Franke said, because the miner "was gracious" and allowed the irrigation district to continue operating his stream gauge.
Once a school, now a town center
Unity is the only incorporated city in southern Baker County not located on Interstate 84. But there are other communities in the Burnt River Valley, like Hereford.
One of that community's civic assets is the Hereford Community Hall, the former Union School.
Hereford resident Bev Duby's father, Pat Trimble, was a member of Union High School's second graduating class in 1927. Duby herself, a longtime educator, was one of the school's eight graduates in 1959.
The school was closed in 1963; students ever since have attended school in Unity.
Restoring the old school and transforming it into a community hall was important to unincorporated Hereford, Duby said.
"We're a real innovative community, and we'll never say we're done," she said.
The residents of the Burnt River Valley still adhere to a strategic plan they developed in 1994, Duby said.
"People yearn to return to the historic roots of rural America," Duby said. "Giving people that kind of experience is still our goal, and it's still manageable."
Since 1996, the residents of the Burnt River Valley have given more than 10,000 hours in labor toward restoring the Hereford Community Center. They've created a facility that hosts everything from quilting clubs to wedding receptions.
Grant sources, including the Leo Adler Foundation and the Oregon Community Foundation, have also helped transform the former schoolhouse into a multi-purpose showcase.