If rocks were a crop, like blueberries, hops or cherries, you could pick them with the assurance they would grow back next year and you could pick them again. If they were hazelnuts, rocks would drop from the tree — pick themselves — and all you’d have to do was sweep them up.
But, but, but.
But the Willamette Valley’s rock crop — the sand, gravel and crushed rock called aggregate — was thousands of years in the making. And it’s spread amidst some of the world’s finest farmland. Scrape it out of the ground and usually you’re left with a pit that fills with water and grows wayward geese, not winegrapes.
But aggregate is literally at the foundation of Oregon’s homes, offices, manufacturing plants, bridges and roads. There is no development and growth without it. State law classifies rock, sand and gravel as a protected natural resource and says its extraction may be permitted even on land zoned Exclusive Farm Use.
But farmers, activists and land-use experts have warned for years that sand and gravel operations eat away at the valley’s best farmland. They make a cumulative, "Death By 1,000 Digs" type of argument: Great soil cannot be replaced. An expanding patchwork of gravel pits from Portland to Eugene breaks up the large blocks of land that foster successful agriculture.
All of that leaves farmers and gravel companies at a frowning stalemate. Not open conflict, not really. Each recognizes the other isn’t going away.
Compromise is the goal, but grousing is common. The 2013 Oregon Legislature passed a bill that was intended to protect the interests of both sides, but the state Department of Geology and Mineral Industries, DOGAMI, is only now writing the rules to implement it.
Meanwhile, the state continues to grow. The Portland metro area now has more than 2 million people who need places to live and work, and the means to get around. At the same time, rural Oregon’s economy clings to its widely varied and remarkable agriculture and landscapes.
Delta Sand & Gravel Co. of Eugene is one of those home-grown family businesses everyone likes to hear about. It’s been around 90 years, the Babb family still owns it, and the company motto is “Rock Solid.” It has evaded the national trend of local sand and gravel operations being snapped up by corporate heavyweights such as Knife River Corp., which operates in 14 other states besides Oregon, and Oldcastle Materials of Atlanta, which is a subsidiary of a multinational based in Ireland.
Delta sits upon a rich bed of gravel near the junction of the Willamette and McKenzie rivers. The Eugene-Springfield metro area, now 375,000 people, has grown up around the mining site, plainly visible from the busy Randy Pape Beltline highway.
Stan Pickett, Delta’s general manager, estimates the company produces an average of 500,000 to 600,000 tons of aggregate per year. He said the company has perhaps 12 to 15 years of mining left on its current 500-acre site, and is seeking a permit to open up an adjacent 100-acre site that it owns.
The land is zoned Exclusive Farm Use, but can be mined with approval from the City of Eugene and Lane County. Eugene turned the company down in 2005 but Delta is applying again. The company must show there is a need for sand and gravel, and that the resource is present in sufficient quantities.
Pickett anticipates the company will be able to prove both, but acknowledges opposition is likely. “It’s harder these days to find common ground,” he said. “A lot of people don’t understand how integral rock products are to their life.”
As part of the company’s expansion, Delta has pledged to extend a public bike trail. It’s also discussed using its settling ponds to help cool water from the local sewage treatment plant before it’s returned to the river.
“I think you just try to be a good neighbor and do the right thing,” Pickett said.
Bruce Chapin is silver haired, plain spoken and turns 70 in February. He grows hazelnuts and cherries in the Mission Bottom area near Keizer. His grandfather and father farmed there before him and his son and son-in-law are following him now. Nephews and a niece, his brothers’ children, are farming as well. “There’s really quite a herd of us out here,” Chapin said.
Chapin estimates the Willamette Valley is losing 200 to 400 acres of farmland per year to sand and gravel excavation. The pits left behind usually become wildlife habitat and irrigation ponds. In a rare instance near Corvallis, a company refilled a pit with rubble and replaced the topsoil that had been scraped aside during mining.
Chapin said agriculture loses crop land not only to mining, but also to wetlands mitigation, parks and housing developments, the latter when cities expand their urban growth boundaries.
“It’s a steady process that only goes one direction,” he said.
Chapin said the mining industry has optional places to get aggregate. It can blast quarry rock in the Cascades and Coast Range foothills, Columbia River Gorge or Central Oregon. In contrast, farmers are locked to the land. The Willamette Valley supports unique forms of agriculture enabled by excellent soil, good water and a mild climate.
“I can’t move my filbert operation to Central Oregon,” Chapin said.
Chapin also questions whether the state is monitoring mining operations to assure they are meeting depth standards intended to assure gravel pits go deeper, not wider.
The Oregon Farm Bureau considers Chapin its expert member when it comes to the impact of aggregate mining on farmland, because he has first-hand experience with three gravel pits.
One is on the family farm; his father allowed mining for aggregate that was used to widen Interstate 5 from Woodburn to Salem in the 1970s. But his father insisted the miners go deeper rather than expand the pit laterally, which would have taken more land out of production. That pit now is used for irrigation and as a family swimming hole. Fish washed in during a Willamette River flood.
Another pit is across Wheatland Road from Chapin’s homeplace. It extends into land he bought from a nursery, which bought it from an original owner who retained the mineral rights. A venerable Oregon company, Morse Bros. Inc., operated under that lease arrangement and built a rail line to haul aggregate to Portland. Knife River Corp., one of the nation’s largest construction material companies, bought out Morse Bros. and operates under the same arrangement. Chapin said he receives no payment from the mine’s operation, despite part of it being on his land. “None whatsoever. No rent, no nothing,” he said.
The third pit also borders his land and just opened this past summer. Windsor Rock Products Inc. held a mining permit for about 10 years before starting to dig, Chapin said. Hauling trucks now roll out at a steady pace.
Chapin said “a whole lot” of farmland has been through the mining permit process and remains undisturbed for now.
“Miners are good at long-term thinking,” he said.
Willamette Valley aggregate was tumbled, transported and deposited as the Willamette River and its tributaries meandered and washed away the rock, clay and silt left by dozens of Lake Missoula floods that coursed up the valley from the Columbia River from 12,000 to 15,000 years ago.
How much aggregate is available, how much should be dug and how much farmland gets scooped in the process are questions without ready answers.
The state Department of Geology and Mineral Industries estimates Oregon produces 48 million tons of aggregate per year. The state has more than 950 permitted mining sites, and about 5,000 historical mining sites.
Previous studies projected the Oregon Department of Transportation is using 4 million tons of aggregate per year. It takes about 85,000 tons of aggregate to build one mile of a four-lane highway. The typical six-room house requires about 90 tons of aggregate.
How much aggregate is in the Willamette River basin is unknown. One study estimated 16 billion to 48 billion tons lie within the river’s two-year floodplain. Extend that out to the area within a 100-year floodplain and there might be 25 billion to 77 billion tons of aggregate.
Nationally, the demand for aggregate is intense. The U.S. Geological Survey estimated in 2011 that repairing the nation’s roads, bridges, locks and other transportation infrastructure would require 1.1 billion to 2.3 billion tons of aggregate per year. The need represented a 35 to 75 percent increase over what was mined in 2006, according to USGS.
Between the rock and a farm place
Jim Johnson is the Oregon Department of Agriculture’s land use and water planning coordinator. For years he’s been the department’s unwavering voice on the need to protect prime farmland from urban sprawl and other forms of development.
Aggregate mining is a persistent concern of his. He argues that construction companies have options; they can barge, truck or train aggregate from quarries or pits not on prime farmland or even outside the valley. People dependent on dirt don’t have that choice.
The state Board of Agriculture approved a resolution in February 2020 that laid out its position on mining. The board opposes converting Class I, Class II, prime or unique soil, on land zoned for EFU, unless there are no reasonable alternative sources.
If mining is allowed on such farmland, the ag board said it supports a requirement to restore the sites to the same quality farmland that existed before mining began. That’s an important distinction. An abandoned gravel pit may fill with irrigation water — certainly a farm use — but it can’t grow crops.
The cumulative impact of continued mining on ag land is the main issue, Johnson said.
“Aggregate is a natural resource, too, one that we need, but there are alternatives of where to get it,” Johnson said.
The aggregate industry says relying on quarry mining will increase the cost of development. It’s not cheap to blast rock in Eastern or Central Oregon, crush it and ship it to urban centers.
The industry cooperates with regulators, recycles material and works hard to minimize its impact on farming, said Rich Angstrom, president of the Oregon Concrete & Aggregate Producers Association.
Conflict with other industries, land uses and people’s values is inevitable no matter where mining is done, he said.
“The conflict doesn’t go away, it just shifts to some other group,” Angstrom said. “We could find a great gravel deposit but have a fish issue or a frog issue.”
With farming, “The truce has held,” he said.