The following stories were written as part of a reporting class at the University of Oregon. They have been revised based on the instructor’s feedback.

 

 Saving the Amazon

Standing under a canopy of Oregon White Oaks and Douglas Firs, Deborah Noble looks out over her property with tears in her eyes.

In her sanctuary of old growth forest, rays from the rising sun warm tree sap to mix with the smell of pine in the air. Dense brush shields against noise from the road below and is replaced by the soft rush of the Amazon Creek Headwaters. In spring, the creek is joined by a choir of songbirds who call to mates waiting in nests with their young. Flittering above her, a family of chestnut-backed chickadees fill her silence. She takes a moment to breathe in, then out, and presses forward through the woods that she and her husband, Peter, saved from residential development.

For many Eugene locals, the headwaters of the Amazon Creek serve as a popular respite from the bustling city life of Oregon’s biggest college town, but to the Nobles, they mean much more.

The land on which Deborah stands is recognized by the city of Eugene as the Be Noble Foundation, which was established by the Nobles in 2015 in honor of their son, Erin, who died in a private plane crash near Veneta’s annual Oregon Country Fair.

A beloved member of the community and graduate of South Eugene High School, Erin spent the first of his 27 years exploring the trails that extend for miles behind his family’s home. Before his death, Erin had been committed to assisting in protection efforts for the headwaters that fostered his young passion for the outdoors.

Undoubtedly, Erin’s preservation interests were influenced by his mother whose long-standing history of environmental activism is known throughout the community. For 18 years, Deborah sat on the board of the Southeast Neighborhood Council, where she fought for the protection of natural spaces in the South Hills. She organized her neighbors, leading campaigns and fundraisers, in an attempt to prevent landowners, Martin and Leslie Beverly, from building their proposed 47-lot housing development.

Deborah was also an integral part of the 2001 effort to halt the construction of the West Eugene Parkway, a highway that would have gone through the West Eugene Wetlands, which is the largest wetland in the Willamette Valley.

Erin promised that after he returned from volunteering at the Oregon Country Fair, he would begin working with his mother on her preservation initiatives. When he didn’t get the chance to fulfill his promise, friends and neighbors stepped up to help.

When the community heard about Erin’s accident, they rallied behind the Nobles, petitioning for city money in the amount of $1.1 million to be set aside through the 2006 parks bond measure. The Lane Country Audubon Society contributed another $25,000, bringing the grand total donations to $1.13 million.

“I’m grateful for their support, of course, but nothing is like losing a child,” says Deborah.

While Erin’s mother longed for a peaceful moment to mourn, his father, Peter, felt compelled to action. It was Peter who set the Be Noble Foundation underway, taking on the brunt of the legal processes necessary to set up their nonprofit. Together, the Nobles navigated the uncharted territory of public land acquisition, selling their pensions to raise an additional $625,000 for the joint purchase with the city.

Due to the property owners’ foreclosure, Deborah and Peter were able to close on the 26-acre lot and preserve their son’s memory in the land that he loved. And in 2016, the city council accepted the Noble’s proposal, unanimously voting to rename the area the “Erin Noble Headwaters.”

Beginning at the edge of Eugene’s urban growth boundary, the headwaters of the Amazon Creek serve as the genesis for the city’s second largest waterway, which flows for 22 miles through the southeastern and western parts of the city before it is diverted into Fern Ridge reservoir and joins the Long Tom River. But despite its vital role in the biodiversity of many species of local flora and fauna, as well as being key to the region’s flood control, the creek is routinely faced with an onslaught of human-caused challenges that threaten its health.

Soon after the renaming of the headwaters, the Eugene Water and Electric Board reported that in one month volunteers, staff and the Lane County’s Sheriff’s work crew collected a combined total of 47 cubic yards of garbage from the creek – enough to fill five large dump trucks. In certain sections, like the one at the intersection of W 11th Ave and Randy Pape Beltline, evidence of transient campsites along the water can be seen from the overpass.

“We pull up a lot of needles,” said Lane County Sheriff Byron Trapp.

Cars on this busy overpass whiz by the creek, which is strewn with shopping carts, clothing articles and plastic containers.

“It’s shocking,” Deborah said, “and sad that people don’t understand.”

In addition to this waste, businesses and construction sites are continuously cited by the city for hazardous stormwater runoff that seeps into the soil and spreads down the length of the Amazon. In 2018, Hyland Construction was cited while building the new Roosevelt Middle School for allowing diesel and rust filled runoff to leak into the creek from their site. And in 2019, the second body in two years was found in the water near W. 11th Avenue and Oak Patch Road.

It is this stressed ecosystem that provides the necessary riparian corridor for the local wildlife that inhabits the wetlands further down the creek.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “Wetlands are some of the most productive ecosystems in the world and home to 43% of our nation’s endangered species.” Comparable to rain forests and coral reefs, wetlands provide thousands of species with the habitat and mating grounds they need to prosper. Despite this, wetlands, with their unsuitability for infrastructure, have become of key concern for scientists who say they are one of the fastest disappearing natural habitats on earth.

At the western end of the creek, before it meets the diversion channel at the end of the West Eugene Wetlands, the Eugene Park Stewards Volunteer Coordinator, Carrie Karl, demonstrated the best way to remove unwanted ash trees for a crowd of University of Oregon students. Members of the Alpha Sigma Phi Fraternity and the Kappa Delta Sorority had given up their Saturday to volunteer for a wetland restoration event in Meadowlark Prairie.

“Last year we had one volunteer. This year we have 40,” Karl said.

Karl was encouraged by the turnout and credited the increase in wetland interest to the efforts made to increase public awareness of endangered habitats.

“I benefit every day from nature and the community,” said volunteer Weston Stuckey, “giving back a small part of my time is the least I can do to ensure others get to enjoy these same wetlands in the future.”

To many who live in Eugene, Amazon Creek is a forgettable feature unworthy of people’s attention and efforts. In its most industrialized sections, businesses along its path turn their backs to it, and passersby discard their empty containers over its protective fencing. But the fact remains that the health of this urbanized creek depends on the good stewardship of its neighbors.

Back at the Be Noble Foundation, Peter bends over with the trash bags he’s brought from home, picks up a bottle, a cluster of cigarette buds and other various debris thrown onto his property. He places them in, filling one bag at a time.

“There’s not too much today,” he says.

 

Oregon’s HB 3063 is Dead but its Anti-Vax Movement is Growing

SALEM, Ore. – Standing on the steps of the Capital, Lavenda Memory stood in the rain amongst a crowd of about 100 people listening to activists congratulate them on their victory against Oregon’s proposed vaccine bill, HB 3063. As children played at their parents’ feet, the adults remained solemn as a prayer of thanks was initiated by the speaker at the podium.

Most of those in attendance were women of the Russian Old Believer community, who wore long floral skirts and traditional scarves around their heads. They had long opposed the bill, which would have removed their ability to opt out of vaccinating their children for religious reasons. But Memory, in her blue stiletto boots and bright red suit pants, had only recently joined the anti-vaccine community, claiming her own secular reasons.

With a new resurgence of what the World Health Organization calls “vaccine hesitancy” among parents, a growing number of Oregonians, like Memory, are defying the medical community’s recommended vaccine schedule for their children, opting instead to leave them vulnerable to preventable diseases such as the measles. Their aversion to vaccinations stem from various scientifically debunked myths about the safety and efficacy of the injections – of these the most notable is the erroneous claim that the MMR vaccine, which protects from measles, mumps and rubella, can cause autism.

Although the Center for Disease Control officially declared the measles virus as being eradicated from the United States in 2000, due largely in part to an effective national vaccination program, recent reports show that outbreaks are on the rise. In just one year, the national number of confirmed measles cases rose from 372 to 1,022 – the highest number recorded in twenty-seven years.

“And now please help me welcome former NFL star and medical freedom activist, Luke Smith,” the speaker announced. Memory smiled at her phone as she live streamed her fiancé taking the stage for her 260 thousand Instagram followers.

“This bill would have robbed parents of their constitutional right to make medical decisions for their children,” Smith began, “so thank you to everyone here, and everyone who couldn’t make it today, for standing up for our liberties.” He concluded his address by inviting his future wife to join him in leading the national anthem.

It was the smallest demonstration that the couple had attended since becoming involved with the anti-vaccine organization known as Oregonians for Medical Freedom three months ago.

“You should have seen it the last few weeks,” Memory said. “There were thousands of people here.”

In fact, the number of protestors during the bill’s progression through the House even surprised seasoned legislators. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a group of people … mount the kind of numbers, touches as far as email and Facebook and social media, every day, week after week,” said Rep. Denyc Boles, R-Salem.

As the movement gained traction on social media platforms, thanks to popular influencers like Memory, the couple found themselves traveling from Portland to Salem on various occasions to join other members of Oregonians for Medical Freedom in rallying against the bill that would have ended all nonmedical vaccine exemptions.

The organization’s volunteer media coordinator, Amber Sims, says she hopes their efforts will keep lawmakers from passing similar mandates in the future. “My family and I moved from California after their vaccine law passed there,” she said. “We’re hoping the same thing doesn’t happen in Oregon.”

Sims said that she suffered injuries from the booster shots she received as a young adult, although her physicians never confirmed that her symptoms were caused by the vaccines. At the time, Sims was a college water polo athlete. Shortly after her shots, she said she experienced shortness of breath, pain in her abdomen and developed allergies that she had never had. Her voice broke as she recalled the ordeal, “I would never put my children at risk of going through what I did.”

Currently, Oregon has the highest vaccine exemption rate in the country, with 7.6% of all kindergarten-aged children applying for a pass. Of these, only 0.1% of these exemptions are awarded for medical reasons.

The largest measles outbreaks in recent years took place in communities where vaccination rates were low and nonmedical exemption rates were high. One of the worst outbreaks occurred in Clark County, Washington, just 45 minutes away from where Memory and Smith live in Oregon with their three young daughters.

Most of the 71 confirmed cases in Washington occurred in unvaccinated children under the age of 10, and yet, Memory still will not consider vaccinating her children for fear of exposing them to symptoms like the ones that Sims described.

While the experience that Sims went through, and the fears Memory hold are real, most pediatricians maintain that the rates of adverse vaccine reaction symptoms are negligible.

Dr. Julie de Wette worked in Texas as a lead pediatrician at Austin Reginal Clinic for 33 years before retiring to Bend, Oregon. She said that the most common adverse vaccine reaction she had heard of was febrile seizure – a seizure associated with high body temperature but without any serious underlying health issue. In rare cases, about 29.5 per 100,000 according to the National Library of Medicine, the MMR vaccine can increase young children’s risk of febrile seizure. However, the same study found no correlation between the MMR vaccine and nonfebrile seizures.

Because the MMR vaccine introduces trace amounts of the measles virus into the bloodstream to spur the creation of antibodies, the body’s natural response is to raise its temperature to fight the perceived infection – thus the fever. In children, ages 0-6, the fever caused by the vaccine can cause mild jerking or convulsions, but these seizures have not been associated with any long-term or adverse consequences.

But many who turn away from their doctor’s recommendations, and conduct their own research, misinterpret the information like that of febrile seizures – believing that they have found proof that vaccines are dangerous.

Dr. de Wette attributes the current wave of misinformed parents to the faulty information they find on blogs and other nonscientific websites.

“The articles they’re reading aren’t peer-reviewed or have been pulled from the medical journals they were originally published in,” she said. “I was at this for a long time and I never saw a child who had had a severe reaction to any vaccine.”

As misinformation continues to spread across the internet, more and more Oregon parents are jumping onto the anti-vaccine bandwagon, concerning medical professionals and public policy makers.

Driving along Hwy 20 E towards Bend, Oregon, a black billboard with bold white letters reads, “THERE’S A VAX FOR THAT”. The region’s local hospital, St. Charles Health System, funded the campaign which aims to combat the increasing anti-vaccine sentiments in the area.

Rep. Cheri Helt, a Bend Republican and lead sponsor of HB 3063, faced significant backlash from her district for supporting the bill. In a statement posted to her Facebook, Helt expressed her frustration.

“This bill was about saving lives, protecting children and ensuring our shared immunity from dangerous and preventable diseases.” It’s disappointing that once again the loudest, most extreme voices in our politics prevailed and the sensible-center and thoughtful policy-making lost.”