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Discussion of Case Study Themes

At a Glance
Although the United States is undergoing a post-industrial transformation, it continues to have a strong agricultural sector and continues to emphasize maintenance of a strong manufacturing center. Population density in the Midwest is much higher than in the Western Mountains. This difference is related to the type of economy pursued in each region. International trade and investment are transforming the economic geographies of both the Midwest and the Western Mountains. Transportation networks are very important to both regions, as seen in the development of dams to create navigable rivers in Oregon and the proximity of manufacturing plants to major highways in the Midwest. Technological innovations are helping both automobile manufacturers and those employed in the agricultural sector improve their yield and productivity. The problems of both preserving salmon runs and producing higher quality automobiles are being addressed by the adoption of new ways of thinking, the diffusion of new ideas, and by cooperation with diverse cultural groups.

Case Study 1 -- Oregon: The Fight for Water

Rain Shadow Creates a Regional Transition Zone
Water resource management issues in Oregon are framed by the state's location astride a regional transition zone from the West Coast to the Western Mountains.

As moist maritime air moves inland from the Pacific Ocean, the Cascade Range thrusts the air upward, causing it to cool. This increases the relative humidity of the air, forming clouds and altitude-induced precipitation known as orographic (mountain) rainfall. The result is a heavily vegetated, moist environment on the Cascade's windward, or exposed, side, which faces the winds flowing across it. As air descends on the protected, or leeward, side of the Cascades, it warms, and the relative humidity decreases. The resulting rain shadow effect creates a semi-arid environment in eastern Oregon.

Transformation of the Marginal Interior
No region on earth has been shaped by human technology the way North America has. This transformation is reflected on the western landscape of the U.S. by dams and water projects. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has built over seven hundred dams. One such water project is located on the Umatilla River in eastern Oregon. Now, as water flows down the Umatilla, instead of continuing along its original course, a government-subsidized dam diverts water via canals to dozens of farms. As seen in the satellite photos in the video, hundreds of fields are now irrigated in circular patterns near the junction of the Umatilla and the larger Columbia River.

Water Fuels an Economy at Home and Abroad
For much of the 20th century, the U.S. government played a major role in harnessing water resources for land owners in the Western Mountains in an effort to support a productive agricultural economy. Today, eastern Oregon farmer Chet Pryor depends on center-pivot irrigation to grow carrots, wheat, alfalfa, and potatoes -- not only for the domestic market but for export as well. With the benefits of a government subsidized water supply, Pryor and his fellow farmers in Umatilla Valley produce almost $100 million of agricultural crops a year. Oregon's agricultural exports are a bright spot not only in the state's but also in the nation's balance of trade.

Farmers in eastern Oregon use water not only for irrigation, but for transportation. Most of the French fry potato harvest and other crops produced along the Umatilla begin their journey to market on barges that travel west on the Columbia toward the Pacific. In the French fry example, thirty percent of the local harvest then continues across the ocean to the western Pacific Rim. One reason barges can navigate the once rocky and fast-moving Columbia is the presence of multipurpose dams. From its headwaters in British Columbia to its mouth at the Pacific Ocean, the Columbia is tamed by fourteen dams that now raise the water level to navigable depths for most of its course.

Water resource management projects -- to meet irrigation needs, provide inexpensive energy through hydroelectric power generation, increase river navigability, and regulate flood waters -- have changed the nature of the Columbia River in order to fuel the agricultural and urban sectors of the state.

Deserts and Dams -- But at What Cost?
Efforts to develop Oregon's economy through water management projects have severely affected the life cycle of salmon as they migrate from river to ocean and back again. They have also wreaked havoc on those native communities once dependent on abundant salmon harvests.

Before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was charged with increasing the navigability of the Columbia River early in the 20th Century, millions of salmon entered the river each year, traveling upstream and spawning in tributaries like the Umatilla. Traditionally, native tribes depended on fish for their survival. Now that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation regulates this tributary, the Umatilla has been diverted for irrigation and the low flow of the river can support neither thriving salmon runs nor the native culture based on the once abundant harvest of the salmon.

Because water is scarce in this region, the Bureau of Reclamation initially intended that the water from their developments go only to a limited number of farmers. But some of the farmers who were authorized as irrigation districts conserved their free allocations of this valuable commodity and sold it at a profit to other Umatilla Valley farmers like Chet Pryor.

Desperate to save their salmon, some Native Americans are threatening legal action based on long-standing treaty rights with the federal government. They want to stop such "water spreading" and preserve this resource for their needs. Yet not all Native American tribes are sure they want to shut off the water supply to farmers like Pryor. The farmers in this area have accomplished just what the government, through the Bureau of Reclamation, intended -- they have made the desert bloom. Reducing the supply of irrigation water now would hurt not only the farmers, but the whole region.

Salmon and the Windward Side of the Columbia Watershed
For millions of years, salmon laid their eggs in small rivers and tributaries like the Umatilla. The young smolts were then washed down the unrestricted Columbia to mature in the Pacific. Years later, the adult salmon returned upstream to spawn in their birthplace. Enormous multipurpose dams on the Columbia now impede both legs of the salmon's journey. Those salmon that survive the trip downstream over the dams can now return upstream only with the help of fish ladders-steps of running water built to bypass the dams.

Taking into account the impact of other human interference on salmon tributary spawning grounds, such as low in-stream flow due to irrigation diversion projects, biologists point to these dams on the main stem of the Columbia as the main cause of dramatically declining fish counts. Both biologists and engineers have proposed solutions, but most are expensive and would mean less water for vital economic activities ranging from transportation to inexpensive hydroelectric power generation.

Most of the electricity in the region is generated by Columbia River dams in the Western Mountains. But transmission lines extend across the regional transition zone to consumers on the West Coast, where the state's population and political power are concentrated. Residents in both regions thus benefit from water policies pursued in the dry interior. Not only do the dams provide cheap electricity, but many West Coast jobs are tied to the trading and shipping of agricultural products and lumber that are sent by barge downstream from eastern Oregon.

As the population along Oregon's coast has increased, residents have become more protective of the environment in which salmon once symbolized both wilderness and prosperity. Faced with declining catches, ocean-going commercial fishermen have joined West Coast environmentalists and leeward Indian tribes across this regional transition zone in calling for solutions to the conflict between the management of scarce water resources and salmon preservation.

Case Study 2 -- U.S. Midwest: Spatial Innovations

Economic Geography in the Midwest: Diffusion of Innovation
In this second case study, James Rubenstein of Miami University of Ohio presents an analysis of the changing economic geography of the United States. Economic geographers like Rubenstein are interested in the reasons for the location, concentration, and distribution of economic activity. Through the identification of land-use and landscape patterns that reflect selected types of economic activity, geographers can explain why particular places grow or decline over time and make predictions about the future.

The questions that drive Rubenstein's research are threefold: he is interested in where major manufacturers locate, the relative location of new suppliers of parts for these large operations, and the diffusion of Japanese production techniques in the U.S. automobile manufacturing industry.

The principle of diffusion can be described as the geographical spread of an idea from a given point over an increasingly wider area (see Program 4 for another example of diffusion). Geographers study the spreading of an idea or innovation from its source outward across the landscape at varying scales: local, national, and international. In the case of the U.S. automobile industry, research often focuses on the factors that promote and impede the adoption of the Toyota Production System, or lean production method, a highly efficient production method that has revolutionized the automobile assembly process.

Lean Production -- Supplies Delivered Just in Time
Lean production combines teamwork, bottom-up engineering, worker involvement, just-in-time delivery, and the philosophy of continuous improvement, all to great advantage. One aspect of lean production is particularly spatial in nature: just-in-time delivery.

Just-in-time is an inventory control system based on the idea that instead of maintaining large inventories, each workstation on an assembly line keeps only a few hours supply of parts on hand at any given time. Very small lots are ordered by workers as parts are used. Once an installer finishes with one container of parts, a new one drops into place, and the worker pulls and processes its kanban, that is, its inventory ticket. The kanban is sent to nearby parts suppliers where parts are packaged and delivered to the factory for installation within about eight hours. No paperwork, no middle managers, and most importantly, no space-consuming idle inventory.

Just-in-time manufacturing is reshaping the factory floor and is, on a much larger scale, also changing the geography of parts supply networks. The old mass production process more easily accommodated parts shipped from around the world -- an engine from Germany, a transmission from Japan, bumpers from Korea -- as an integrated individual car was produced. But just-in-time puts a premium on proximity and quality control Parts suppliers in the Midwest have settled along two major highways, now known as the "kanban highways," near the assembly plants they serve. The new geography of parts supply, along with the rest of the lean production system, have been grafted onto the North American landscape by Japanese transplants.

Distance and Accessibility -- Transportation Networks
Why did Japanese automakers set up production in the Midwest? The answer is distance and accessibility. The major automakers of Japan have virtually eliminated the greatest portion of their shipping costs by setting up shop in the midst of their market. The centrality of the Midwest, not only to a large consumer base but also to existing parts manufacturers and suppliers, was a key element in the transmigration of this industry.

The placement of these new factories was linked to transportation networks already existing in the U.S. infrastructure. When choosing factory sites, the Japanese considered the spatial proximity of existing parts manufacturers to new factory sites and to defined highway systems. This increased the efficiency of parts ordering while, simultaneously, the just-in-time production method decreased the need for large inventory storage and error reprocess areas within production plants.

Globalization in the Midwest
The influx of Japanese automobile manufacturers into the U.S. Midwest represents the spatial dimensions of an open-door economic policy that has allowed foreign investors to open and maintain factories and businesses in the U.S. The cost associated with bringing finished products to consumers was a major factor in the decision to locate Japanese plants at sites within five hundred miles of the majority of the U.S. population. Not only have Japanese car makers reaped benefits from their U.S.-based ventures, these ventures have also boosted local economies through increasing employment opportunities in the Midwest.

The U.S. automobile industry has benefited from the globalization of Japanese automobile manufacturing. Cooperation between the Japanese and the Americans has allowed for the transfer of key Japanese production techniques to U.S. industries. While the transfer of ideas appears to be in one direction, it is actually reciprocal when one considers the history of the automobile production process. Japanese insights represent an updating of production techniques pioneered earlier in the century, the so-called Ford Model, as well as quality control concepts originally conceived in the U.S. some forty years later.

Today the diffusion of new ideas continues as new trends in auto manufacturing are integrated. Lean production and just-in-time techniques are further refined as auto manufacturers search to increase their profits in a competitive market.

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