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Why do we need the Rural West?

Essay by Hal Rothman

Western Economy – April 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

DAN DAGGET, the well-known authority on western livestock grazing and a seemingly mild-mannered guy, lost his cool and fairly screamed at me: “Why don’t all of you go back to the cities Back East you came from and give us back our West!”

I didn’t know what to say, and I’m not often speechless. I’m not from a city anyway, and I’m sure as heck not from anybody’s idea of Back East. My sin was to ask the intellectuals holding yet another conference espousing the pastoral northern Rockies as a model for the rest of us in the West “Why do we need the rural West?”

I always cringe when people from the rural West tell the rest of us how to live. There’s an arrogance to their pronouncements, a foolhardy pretension that they are real and that the 95% of us who live in western cities somehow don’t matter.

The truth is that they — not us — are the exception. Montana and Wyoming don’t lead and, at this stage, don’t have much to teach the rest of us. They’re the ones without a real city. Oh sure, Cheyenne, Bozeman, and Missoula might claim city status, but by the standards of Phoenix, Las Vegas, Albuquerque, or even Boise and Santa Fe, they’re just towns. They don’t have the sprawling freeways or the concentrations of retired people the rest of us do. They don’t have real airports. Plus they’re overwhelmingly white.

In Nevada, more than 1.5 million of the 1.8 million people in the state live in Washoe or Clark counties, home to Las Vegas, Carson City, and Reno. In Arizona, Phoenix and Tucson comprise more than 3 million of the state’s 4.5 million people and that doesn’t even include the corridor effect to Flagstaff and the autonomous Navajo reservation, one of the last places in the entire West with a large, diffuse, rural population.

The question the rural West can’t answer is: Why should the rest of us subsidize their condescending culture-and-custom arguments? The rural West sure doesn’t pay the bills — look at tax revenues in any state and you’ll see that clearly enough. It uses nearly all the water and generates nowhere near the revenue from it that cities do with a lot less. And its industries, ranching, agriculture, timber, mining and the like, are tossed on the scrap heap in our transfer-payment, federal, tourist-based regional economy.

The truth is hard, but clear. The rural West has become a playground, a colony the rest of us visit when we want to relax or indulge our fantasies. We camp, hike, swim, boat, bike, ski, hunt, fish, and ATV throughout the rural West, making our living and our lives in its increasingly stretched out and stunningly dense cities. We may dream of a home on the range, but that dream is usually just a way to cope with the traffic on a freeway headed to or from the office.

The importance of the old rural West has ended and it’s never coming back. The Microchip Revolution, which has made information transfer more important than the raw materials the West used to export and has turned experience and leisure into currency, is upon us. It’s a little early to declare an end to the natural resources-based world economy, but at least in the U.S., natural resource extraction is approaching anachronism.

Historically, this country’s advantage was always cheap land and cheap labor. Since World War II, land hasn’t been inexpensive, and while American labor remains the most valuable in the world, it’s also far more expensive than in many other countries. In this new world, trees have more value as scenery than as timber, and a mountain will likely generate more revenue from the skiers who whiz down it than from any animal grazing its slopes.

There’s a solution, and I’m only half-kidding: Go to the ranchers and farmers and tell them that we’ll give them their best year plus annual cost of living raises to match inflation, and in return they’ll give us their water. They can pretend to ranch and farm, to lay out center pivot irrigation systems that’ll spin around and around, but no water will come out. They can pitchfork invisible hay from the back of pick-ups to invisible animals, and they won’t even have to worry about inevitable fluctuation in crop and animal prices.

IN THE MEANTIME that roughly 80% of the water in every western state can go for job creation, jobs that pay taxes, that don’t require federal subsidies, that have futures for the ever-growing number of young and immigrant who flood the region. They’re the middle class of the future, the ones whose wages will fund the Social Security of today’s middle-aged workers. The sooner we propel them upward, region-wide, the better off we’ ll all be.

We’ll give up something, sure. But discarding a myth that has deceived us for a century may be the healthiest thing this region can do.

Hal Rothman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News He teaches history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and is the author of Devil’s Bargain: Tourism in the Twentieth-Century American West.