Oregon has made gains in compact growth and forest stewardship over the past decade, but lags significantly in energy efficiency and economic security for its residents. That’s according to the first edition of the Cascadia Scorecard, a new gauge of regional progress released today by Seattle-based research center Sightline Institute (Northwest Environment Watch). Overall, the state—and the Northwest as a whole—has improved its record since 1990, according to the Scorecard, but its record is marred by failures. For example, Oregon residents still consume nearly as much energy as Texans; and poverty and unemployment rates have increased, even while national rates have declined.
“Celebrity scandal and stock prices make headlines,” says NEW research director, Clark Williams-Derry. “But to be more successful as a region, we need to pay attention to critical, slow-changing trends that more dramatically affect our future.” The report—Cascadia Scorecard: Seven Key Trends Shaping the Northwest—details how Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and British Columbia are doing and spotlights places that “score” best in each trend.
Selected during a three-year research process from a list of nearly 1,000 candidate indicators, the seven trends include health, economy, population, energy, sprawl, forests, and pollution. Highlights of the findings are:
- Eugene and Portland make gains in compact growth: In a study of the seven largest Northwest cities, the Scorecard shows that though cities have become slightly more compact over the last decade, sprawl still dominates the region. Of four midsize cities studied, Eugene ranks second in compact growth (with 12 percent of residents in compact communities in 2000), but has a much poorer record than Victoria, BC (34 percent). Greater Portland also made gains, with 25 percent of residents in compact communities, though its Washington suburb, Clark County, suffered more exurban sprawl. In one area, Seattle has fared better than Portland. In 2000 and 2001, Seattle located twice as many new housing permits in compact neighborhoods as the Oregon counties of Portland. But Vancouver, BC, is the region’s leader, with more than 60 percent of residents in compact neighborhoods in 2001. (See maps p. 41–48.)
- New gauge of forest stewardship maps 30 years of clearcutting: Using satellite maps from the NASA Landsat system, the Scorecard tracks 30 years of clearcuts in five “study areas”—including areas in the Central Cascades and southern Oregon—as a rough gauge of how well northwesterners are safeguarding their natural heritage. Each of the two areas in Oregon cut about 1.7 million acres from 1970 to 2001. Cutting in the US areas slowed in the early 1990s—largely because of the Northwest Forest Plan—but has accelerated since 2000 to roughly one acre every five minutes. (See maps p. 49–56.)
- Low “score” on energy efficiency: The typical northwesterner—and Oregon resident—uses nearly as much energy per person as a Texan and more than a Californian. Measuring use of highway fuels and nonindustrial electricity as a proxy for overall energy use, the Scorecard gives northwesterners low marks. Although the region has moderated per capita energy consumption by 4 percent since 1999, the decline hasn’t been enough to budge it off the high plateau where it has been stuck since the 1970s. The Scorecard cites as regional models Vancouver, BC, for its relatively low use of highway fuels, and Seattle for its electricity use.
- Northwest eighth in the world on lifespan: If the Northwest were a nation, it would rank eighth in the world on lifespan, the best single indicator of human health. A person born in 2001 can expect to live for 78.9 years, up from 47 years a century ago. British Columbians have the region’s longest lifespan at 80.7 years; Oregon residents live an average of 77.9 years. If lifespan gains continue apace, BC will reach Japan’s best-in-the-world mark of 81.3 years in 2006; the Northwest states will follow in 2023. Good community design and greater access to health care may contribute to BC’s longevity.
- Economic security slipping for average northwesterners: In a troubling trend, poverty, child poverty, and unemployment have increased since 1990, even while total economic output has risen—by more than 63 percent in the Northwest states. From 1990 to 2002, Oregon’s poverty rate crept up from 9.2 to 10.9 percent, while the national poverty rate dipped to its lowest level in decades.
- Historic lows in population trends: In good news, the region’s birthrates and teen birthrates have dropped to historic lows in the last decade, as the Northwest’s women increasingly choose to have small families, later in life. But the region still has a high percentage of unplanned births—over one-third of all births in Oregon.
- “Body burdens” of harmful toxics: The Cascadia Scorecard tracks concentrations of pollutants in northwesterners’ bodies by analyzing breast milk in Northwest mothers for levels of three worrisome substances: dioxins; PCBs (polychloryl biphenyls); and PBDEs (polybrominated diphenyl ethers), chemicals widely used as flame retardants. Preliminary results are available for Washington State; full results for this indicator will be released later this year.
The Scorecard also uses an innovative method to mark how far the region is from reaching a real-world goal for each indicator. The region is furthest from the goals set for energy and sprawl. For example, the Scorecard estimates that with steady progress, if northwesterners continue reducing energy use as they have been, it will still take 86 years to achieve Germany’s 2001 energy efficiency. And overall, the region’s largest cities are 60 years from a goal of reaching Vancouver, BC’s level of compact growth.
To move the Northwest closer to such goals, the report recommends systemic solutions that would influence millions of daily decisions across the region. These include tax shifting to favor energy efficiency and smart growth; comprehensive testing of toxic body burdens; and better monitoring of the region’s progress through projects like the Scorecard.
“Without measurement, we don’t know where we are or how we’re doing,” said Oregon’s Secretary of State, Bill Bradbury. “Sightline’s Cascadia Scorecard gives us powerful measures that reach many aspects of our lives.”
Sightline Institute (formerly Northwest Environment Watch) is a Seattle-based nonprofit research and communication center that covers the Pacific Northwest, also known as Cascadia, a region including British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and adjoining parts of Alaska, Montana, and California. The Cascadia Scorecard is available at http://scorecard.sightline.org.