The forwarded emails and links sent Guy Tauer's way provide a never-ending supply of economic loose strings to pursue.

The forwarded emails and links sent Guy Tauer's way provide a never-ending supply of economic loose strings to pursue.

Such was the case when a recent Huffington Post story passed his way, proclaiming one in three U.S. counties is dying.

"Pretty strong" terminology conceded Tauer, a veteran regional economist for the state's Employment Department.

Nonetheless, he was intrigued enough by the website's examination of Census data to do a bit of research himself and post it on his department's website.

Although Tauer sifts through gigabytes of digital data daily, he was curious how Oregon's 36 counties would stack up when filtered through four specific measures: Total nonfarm payroll change, total population change, natural increase in population, and 18-to-34-year-old population change.

"You can hand pick and cherry pick particular sets of data to tell any story you want, but the four factors I picked to discuss deal with a county's vitality and long-term trends," said Tauer, who homed in on changes between 2002 and 2012.

"It wound up pretty much as I expected," Tauer said. "If you look at the (Oregon) Office of Economic Analysis, it follows out in similar trends. Metro areas are where you expect the fastest growth, while continued population decline is the order of the day for a few small rural counties."

Giving 36 points to the top-rated county in each metric, it wasn't surprising rural Eastern Oregon counties headed up on Tauer's "Critical Condition" list.

Grant, Wheeler, Harney and Baker counties easily distanced themselves from the rest of the pack.

Former O&C counties Douglas, Coos, Curry and Klamath also made the top, or more appropriately, bottom 10.

Jackson County was comparatively strong, finishing No. 12 behind the Willamette Valley and Columbia River economic kingpins, and Deschutes County.

"Overall, we didn't fare too badly," Tauer said of Jackson County. "There wasn't any one factor that was stronger than the others."

The 10 years covered in his study included the housing boom and Great Recession.

"You are going to have a few out-of-the-ordinary economic events during a 10-year period that are going to skew things one way or another," he said. "The housing boom may have helped our job growth in the later 2000s. If you were to look at a 30-year or five-year period, the results might have been different."

Jackson County's lowest performance level came in the natural population increase, adding births and subtracting deaths from the population figure.

"We're slightly more reliant on in-migration than other areas," he said. "Unlike Coos, Curry and Josephine counties, our natural increase is still positive though, with more people born here than dying."

While Jackson County is projected to match the statewide population growth of 44 percent through 2050, Josephine County is slated to lose steam and fall to 40 percent. That's far better, however, than the eastern counties: Grant County is expected to see a 21.7 percent decline, while Wheeler (-13.2 percent), Harney (-7.8 percent) and Wallowa (-7.5) also are expected to shrink.

"So many factors come into play," Tauer said. "While in the metropolitan areas there are more opportunities with our changing economy, there are fewer job opportunities in farming, fishing, agriculture, logging and the traditional prevalent industries in rural areas."

Once the economic snowball rolls into the metro areas, there isn't a whole lot of runoff left for the rural folks.

"It's a chicken and egg thing," Tauer conceded. "Once the population is growing one place, businesses tend to go where there are more customers, giving them a great opportunity to sell more goods and services. It's certainly a challenge to keep smaller rural areas from declining."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or Follow him on Twitter @GregMTBusiness.