The Legacy of Tom McCall: Oregon’s Revered Advocate for Population Stabilization

Published on June 26th, 2014

Can you imagine a contemporary American politician declaring, “Come visit, don’t stay,” about their state, in the interest of their state? Tom McCall, governor of Oregon from 1967-75, was the man who had the boldness to speak such politically dangerous words.

During a recent trip to Oregon I was impressed by the numerous public recognitions of the former governor, most notably an expansive waterfront park named after him in Portland. Oregonians seem to remember McCall with particularly high regard and fondness because he stands out as an exceptionally forthright and principled public figure.

Much of Oregon’s famed environmental reputation is the product of McCall’s efforts as a journalist and later governor. During his time in office he was known as a vocal advocate for his state and its people. He viewed Oregon as his “community” and felt a deep responsibility for preserving its natural qualities. When it came to questions of population growth, McCall was not shy about boldly stating his position. Most famously, he said about visitors:

I urge them to come and come many, many times to enjoy the beauty of Oregon. But I also ask them, for heaven’s sake, don’t move here to live.

McCall often faced opposition from business interests for his stance on growth. Despite the pushback, he made far-sighted decisions, which produced America’s first bottle bill, cleaned up the Willamette River, secured Oregon’s public ownership of all state beaches, and implemented the first statewide land-use planning system for urban centers.

Just as McCall warned about in his state some 40 years ago, more population growth will continue exacerbating environmental issues and quality of life losses across America. Even with the steady worsening population-related problems, the vast majority of public figures today are unwilling to acknowledge, let alone confront, the tough realities that come with ever increasing numbers. McCall emphasized livability, and actively called on people to question the value of growth.

In an age of conformist politicians, Oregonians appreciate Tom McCall’s pioneering statesmanship and population stabilization advocacy. The life and work of McCall shows that it is possible for a public figure to challenge prevailing notions about growth, development and society, while earning great affection and respect from the community.

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