WITH FUR TRADERS paddling their canoes to the sound of bagpipes, George Simpson made his maritime trip over streams, rivers and lakes across continental North America along the Northwest passage in a record seven weeks, saying simply that he was in a hurry to get to the most important places on the West Coast - the ports in Oregon.
A lot has changed in the 145 years since Mr. Simpson loaded cargo canoes on Hudson Bay and set off for what was the West Coast's biggest settlement - a thriving community across the Columbia River from the present site of the port of Portland.Today, most West Coast cargo moves in containers, not canoes, with 20 times as many containers passing through California as through the Oregon ports. Puget Sound has become the West Coast's second-largest shipping center. Yet in other respects, the importance of the Oregon ports has not faded, particularly in moving the agricultural and lumber industries the Hudson Bay Co. founded.
In 1985, for example, the Pacific Maritime Association found that 21.2 percent of the West Coast's tonnage passes through Columbia River and Oregon coastal ports. That compares with only 15.9 percent of the West Coast's tonnage for ports in northern California. The Oregon ports' market share - their percentage of the West Coast's total tonnage - is just one percentage point below the 22.2 percent for the Puget Sound ports.
So when consultants with Booz-Allen & Hamilton of New York release the final version of a $148,000 review of Oregon ports, their recommendations will be of more than passing interest. They are expected to suggest the creation of a state maritime commission to provide greater support for Oregon's 23 ports. They also are expected to advise the state that it could spend $20 million to repair docks and bail out ports in financial trouble, or spend $80 million to upgrade ports, or spend $250 million to build a superport at the mouth of the Columbia River.
OVER THE YEARS, smart money in state government has generally bet on the success of ports. The state of California, for example, has granted its ports incalculable amounts of support in the form of trusts of waterfront property worth hundreds of millions of dollars. In contrast, some ports elsewhere have had to buy their own land, and some compete side-by-side with private piers. To offset that, the state of Washington allows its port districts a chunk of the county's property taxes. That assures Seattle's port a tax base in the neighborhood of $25 million a year.
Now Oregon must decide to what extent the state should help finance its ports - particularly the deepwater ports at Portland, Astoria, Newport and Coos Bay. The state already helps the ports by authorizing tax district financing, providing rights to submerged lands and making low-interest loans and awards from lottery profits.
Yet the issue of greater financial support for the ports is a thorny one, because volumes of farm and wood products have dropped in the last few years. At the same time, any thought of developing container docks in Oregon plays against the reality that competition in marketing Pacific Northwest container terminals is so fierce that some facilities are reported to be pricing at break-even or money-losing rates.
OREGON NOT ONLY MUST DECIDE how much financial backing to provide to the ports; it also must determine how to distribute that backing. The state must find a way to channel money to projects that are financially successful, that generate jobs and that don't discriminate in favor of one port at the expense of another. This last point is particularly important. It's easy to understand why the port of Portland, Oregon's largest port, would not want to see inequitable state financial support of less efficient competitors. The port of Portland has lost money during several of the last few years, and diverting hard-won cargo and revenues away from it would hardly be productive.
We believe that Oregon, must look well beyond the Band-Aid approach of a simple bailout of financially troubled ports. The state must provide the ports with the tools - both financial and managerial - to make a future for themselves. The state can help the ports become fully competitive again, with less dependence on the vagaries of single-industry economies.
The principles of conservation - wise use of resources - that are so familiar to foresters can as aptly be applied to public ports. Oregon learned long ago that logged-off land must be replanted to become productive again. In the same way, the ports must be financially replanted and allowed to grow. Other states that have nurtured their ports in this way count the numbers of jobs created in the thousands and the economic benefits in the tens of millions of dollars.
Just as George Simpson's fur traders bore the expenses and endured the hazards to reap the benefits of trade at the Oregon ports, the state must now make an investment in Oregon's future.