The last time anyone officially counted, there were about 400 people living in Naselle. About half of them, together with friends from surrounding communities, showed up last Wednesday in an astounding show of support for Naselle Youth Camp.

Facing the worst financial crisis in a generation, Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire and her appointees are understandably casting around for programs to cut. Naselle must have seemed like an easy one, but they weren't reckoning on the remarkable tenacity of small-town citizens faced with loss of their largest employer and biggest source of community vitality.

Only 14 miles from Astoria, Naselle's closure would have a noticeable impact on Clatsop County's economy, as well.

Although officials from Washington's Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration and the Department of Social and Human Services deserve credit for listening, there is no getting around an impression that they are going through the motions. Distancing themselves from an impersonal budget process, they pinned blame on across-the-board cuts and a consultant's advice.

Beyond the potential closure's devastating impacts on an isolated rural county, citizens speaking up last week made impressive points concerning the young lives saved by the youth camp. Transferring these human beings to a high-security facility more convenient for Olympia-based administrators puts short-term savings ahead of time-tested rehab strategies. Naselle's unique work-based program shows troubled teens a dramatically better way of life, one with deep connections to Washington's forests and rivers. It is transformative in ways agency heads can scarcely imagine.

To quote one rally speaker, it instills "dignity, self-respect, pride and personal responsibility in a genuine, tangible way."

It was good to hear from officials that Washington's population of youth inmates has decreased in recent years, one of the arguments for closing Naselle. But as Sheriff John Didion noted, eliminating this place for effective intervention will predictably result in more adult offenses and more expense for taxpayers and crime victims. And with the economy sliding into a deep pit, juvenile crime will climb again sure as winter brings storms. Eventually if not immediately, closing Naselle would be empty symbolism.

In better times, Puget Sound politicians talk about "One Washington" and the need to insure modest prosperity in every corner of the state. Abandoning this goal when times get tough would forever shatter trust in this goal. In Pacific County, shuttering the only state institution would help usher in a decade of depression.

Ultimately, it is up to the state Legislature to find another way. A smart, long-term commitment to an environment-based rehabilitation program makes sense for the kids, for Naselle, for Pacific County and for both Washington and Oregon.


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