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Is the Rural West doomed to a servant economy?

Essay by Mary Margaret Chapman

Rural life – March 1996 – Colorado Central Magazine

I’m here to talk about grassroots community partnerships in the rural West, even though our image is supposed to be one of war and rebellion.

Gripped with the image of “War in the West,” in the last two decades alone we’ve had the Sagebrush Rebellion, and the energy wars, the War on the West, Newsweek’s “War within the West” (between newcomers and old-timers), Congress’s “war” on the West’s environment and the county supremacy movement’s “war” on the federal government, just featured in Time magazine.

But these wars, of course, are mostly wars of words. Fought by journalists, attorneys, academicians, and politicians. These wars bear little resemblance to the real struggle most rural Westerners engage in every day, or the work being done by all kinds of grass-roots community partnerships.

That struggle is not a struggle against people. And it is not against the environment. It’s a struggle to come to grips with powerful outside forces — economic, demographic, and political. It’s a struggle to hold on to real jobs and a real economy by diversifying, shedding subsidizations and being competitive. It is a struggle to hold on to a landscape of fields, livestock, crops, game, and streams by keeping lands working and productive. It’s a struggle to hold on to small towns and small-town values. And inevitably, because so much of the land in the rural West is federally owned, it’s a struggle to compensate for a failing federal system of public lands management and to have some control over the destiny of these lands we inhabit.

As these things slip our grip, we know from current experience what’s likely to replace them. Transfer-payment economies, some bordering on welfare economies. Fancy big homes, but no one at home. Fields of mini-malls.

The Grassroots West

This is an epic struggle the rural West is now involved in. It’s forging new alliances among Westerners who have often been at odds in the past. It is also forging new experiments in governance and civic dialogue. Throughout the rural West, from the high Sierra Nevadas to the Colorado Plateau, grassroots community groups are forming to better understand their relationship to the land they inhabit, and to shape and implement new strategies for managing lands and preserving communities. Some, such as the Malpai Borderland Group, call themselves the “radical middle.”

Made up of environmentalists, county commissioners, Main Street merchants, bankers, ranchers, loggers, guides, outfitters, and oftentimes the public lands managers themselves — you name it — these people are not about fighting, they’re about bringing people together. They aren’t about heavy-handed coercion; they’re about grassroots democracy. If they employ weapons, those weapons are education, collaboration, cooperation, ingenuity, and a sincere commitment to the place they live.

One last distinction: These grassroots groups generally look different than well-established and well-funded “movements” that get so much attention — the Wise Use movement, the Environmental Movement, the Property Rights Movement, the County Supremacy Movement. But more important than the difference in look, are the differences in philosophy and strategy. These are “place-based” groups that focus on specific local problems, and they are trying to solve their problems themselves, as communities, without worrying about the federal government. But, in many cases, they cannot, because 50 to 80 percent of their land base is owned and managed by the federal government.

Community Partnerships

When you’ve got everything to lose, try anything, might well be the collective motto of the public-lands groups (or “partnerships” as many are called). The net effect: They have become a “half-vast” (and some may concede a half-assed) laboratory of experiments in decentralization. But whatever it is they are doing, they all share some clear advantages:

Problems are phrased in a local context, and are real, tangible, and not all that abstract. Specific goals and objectives can be established. Problems can be solved.

Responsibility and accountability for decisions and implementation can be clearly identified. Slackers can be flogged.

The diversity of viewpoints at the table means a broader pool of knowledge is tapped than has been the norm in Western communities. Members of these groups have to be willing to listen and learn about the economy, the environment, and the culture. They must consider all three when addressing problems.

Because science is unhitched from the regulatory process, science can once again be a friend at the local level, helping solve on-the-ground problems instead of lawsuits.

The need for compromise is obvious, and therefore more palatable. This is because participants are expected to explain their own interests in relationship to the broader issue of the “place” they live. Nobody expects to get everything they want. Everybody hopes to get more than they would have had they not participated. And they hope that whatever they get will be more long-lasting.

The rural saying “a toothless dog chews careful” pretty much sums up their biggest disadvantage. Most of these groups have little, if any, official authority. They must find ways to go around or fix up the existing system.

Local Partnerships

Now for a description of a couple of these toothless dogs — the Delta/Montrose Public Lands Partnership and the San Juan Community/Public Lands Partnership.

These two partnerships now cover seven counties in west-central and southwestern Colorado. Instead of being organized to address the issues of a particular watershed, they’re organized to address the issues of the San Juan Forest, the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, and Gunnison Forest, and the Uncompahgre Division of the BLM. While they have worked on a variety of issues — from revamping local mills so they can process salvage lumber to exposing the ranching community to new ways of grazing and marketing beef, their big push is to prepare communities to be constructive and effective partners in decisions involving the public lands in our area.

To do that, they are taking a regional look at tourism — something urban America thinks is sweeter than cows munching and chainsaws buzzing. Well, that may (or may not) be the case in four-season resorts like Vail, Aspen, and Jackson Hole. But what’s squirting out the other end of these areas onto neighboring counties is another matter. Usually a sour matter. Take Garfield County, downwind from both Aspen and Vail. As recreation and tourism on public lands increase in those places, timbering, mining, and grazing are decreasing in Garfield. This is largely because of increasing land values, combined with greater opposition to traditional activities on public lands and changing markets. The net effect: Twenty-dollar-an-hour (or more) “at home” jobs in Garfield County have been traded for $10-an-hour (or less) jobs that Garfield’s residents must now travel 125 miles each day to fill. But it’s Garfield County that still houses these people, picks up the education bill for their children, and absorb

Or take Delta and Montrose counties, the place I hail from, wedged between Telluride, Crested Butte, and Aspen. There, employment is up, but so is the percentage of families living below the poverty line. The income that is really going up comes from transfer payments (Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, and welfare). According to Colorado’s state demographer, Jim Westkott, almost 50 percent of income in the Durango area now comes from transfer payments. In Montrose and Delta counties, which have retained economic diversity to date, transfer payments now make up 20 to 30 percent of local income. But for the state as a whole, only 8 to 9 percent of income comes from transfer payments.

So, for communities that border public lands, the question being asked is this: Is there an alternative to becoming a tourist mecca, a second-home haven, or a retirement community? Is there a place left in the West for a working middle class? Will we have time to build a healthy new diversified economy in the rural West — one that includes telecommuters, manufacturers, small businesses, artisans, ranchers, woodsmen, as well as tourists and retirees? Or are we doomed to “servant” economies because we happen to live next to public lands? That’s the real question not even being acknowledged, much lest addressed, by most of the public lands reforms being proposed today.

If it’s the latter — if communities have no recourse but to become tourist-dependent because the nation wants to use its public lands for tourism only — then maybe the equitable solution is to put all the public lands on the auction block. Once sold, we could use the proceeds to put an equal percentage of each state’s lands into public ownership — be it Ohio or Nevada, Alaska or Texas. Maybe that’s the equitable solution. (I would not support this, but in the context of privatization legislation being generated in Washington, it seems a legitimate, “equitable” solution.)

Questioning the Panacea of Tourism

The real economic question not being acknowledged, much less addressed, is this: In our national enthusiasm to privatize the public lands because, among other things, the free market is expected to favor tourism over other uses, are we merely trading off one set of federal subsidies for another? Do we know? If we are going to talk in terms of Western “subsidies” (a demeaning, oversimplified phrase I do not think is useful), does it make more sense to “subsidize” to keep people working (through below-cost grazing fees, for example), or to subsidize through welfare? Why haven’t the economists at this conference — PERC, Cato, Thoreau Institute — even touched on this issue?

The real environmental question not being acknowledged, much less addressed, by the new coalition of environmentalist/born-again economists, is this: Is the environment going to be better off if we privatize the public lands? For example, if we privatize grazing rights and forget about base-property requirements, what happens to the migration routes, riparian habitats, and winter feeding stations for big game that the base ranches have been providing? Or put in the language of this conference — what happens to all the “subsidies” the public-lands ranchers have been providing to the public at large.

Economists now remind us that affluence and environmental preservation go hand-in-hand, and reassure the nation that tourism and recreation will win over in a market environment. Does it make sense to you that people making $6-$8 an hour are going to be better stewards of the land than those making a middle-class wage?

Instead of running these kinds of risks and moving whole-hog into privatizing public lands, I suggest we look to some common-sense public-policy prescriptions emerging from the work of these grassroots groups:

Try things on a small scale; let’s find out what works first.

New efforts need to include intelligent and whole-hearted input and cooperation from those who live on the land. Of particular concern is the cooperation of private landowners if riparian areas, big-game ranges, migration routes, and other ecologically important areas on lands are to be protected.

If we are going to continue to rely on federal agencies in their current form, then decentralized decision-making and authority within public-lands agencies must occur so that public-land managers can actually make and implement decisions.

Local economies must be able to continue to use the resources of the public lands for more than tourism.

Positive incentives for good land management must be adopted, including clear rules and mechanisms for securing tenure.

A wishbone is no substitute for a backbone. The West must begin to take greater financial responsibility and look for more cost-effective and flexible methods of achieving natural-resource goals.

Dealing with the rural West can still be a lot like dealing with a herd of mules. When it’s time to move to new pasture, you don’t just fling open one gate, crack the whip, and count on forcing us all through. We’re either too stubborn, too suspicious — or maybe too smart — for that to work. Instead, try cracking as many gates as you can find, and watch us bust through the ones that suit us best.

Mary Margaret Chapman is a former utility rate analyst who now lives in Delta. This speech was delivered last fall at the Natural Resources Law Conference in Boulder, and it was first published in the Valley Chronicle of Paonia.