Thursday, April 3, 2008

Clash of cultures in the "rural" West?

A story in today's New York Times reports that rising silver prices are bringing a resurgence of mining to parts of the rural West. You have to love this headline, "In High Prices, Moribund Mines Find Silver Bullet." It is an interesting turn of events, not least because it puts mining interests, which have a long history in his part of the Idaho panhandle, into conflict with those retiring or building second homes there. There's a great deal of rich language in journalist William Yardley's story, including his lede: "The strangest thing happened here in the Silver Valley as it began the transformation from historic mining camp to yet another Western confection of ski slopes and condos for newcomers with money. The real estate market slowed, and the price of silver soared." While I am hardly a fan of mining, I am a fan of "traditional" rural places and, as my students well know, not so keen on rural gentrification. (Ok, it is a bit more nuanced than that. I can enjoy Telluride and Jackson Hole as much as anyone, but don't make the mistake of telling me they are "rural.")

Wallace, dateline for the story, sounds delightful. Yardley describes it as a "tiny triangle of 890 people and dozens of historic red brick buildings, all wedged between steep evergreen slopes and Interstate 90." Ok, the part about the interstate doesn't sound so delightful. In any event, the story continues:
Local officials say the revival of mining, however counterintuitive the idea may seem to the second-home aesthetic, is critical if the area is to remain affordable to a population whose families have lived her for generations.

* * *

The average pay for mining jobs in Shoshone County in 2006 was about $57,000, more than double the average of all other jobs ... And while the current total of 700 mining jobs is a small fraction of the 4,000 that the county had in the early 1980s, still it is 200 more than at this time last year.
Yardley reports that, for now, the increase in mining isn't creating conflict "with those nutruing a new Silver Valley." Well, maybe not, but then there's this quote from miner Greg Riley, "This is the Silver Valley, not the Tourism Valley. "

And you have to love this closing quote from the very cosmopolitan sounding Jacques Lemieux, a real estate agent in nearby Kellogg, where condo prices have fallen from $585K to $395K. Acknowledging that the developers got a bit ahead of themselves there, he nodded toward Wallace and said: "Wallace is the damnedest town . . . Wallace never gave up the mining dream."

Now those are the rural Americans I know and love -- tenacious and hard working.

Be sure to check out all the wonderful photos that accompany this story at the link above.

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