Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Rural economies tanking across the nation ... from Maine to Oregon, Kentucky to Wyoming

I've written about the situations in Wyoming and Kentucky here, both linked to lack of demand for and government regulation of coal production and burning.  But regulation and slowing of other extraction industry economies are also to blame in Oregon and Maine.  Of course, the Oregon situation has been very high profile for a few weeks now (read more here and here), and the New York Times ran this story about Maine a few days ago.  But I want to revisit in more detail what is being reported in these latter two locations because there is new information, new angles being covered.   

First, regarding the less captivating and less controversial situation in Maine, reported by Jess Bidgood in the NYT, the dateline is Cary Plantation in Aroostook County, population 69,447.   Bidgood quotes Diane Cassidy, a former nursing assistant who is leading the effort to dissolve the local government.    
What do you do, what does the town do, when they can’t pay their bills? Do we go bankrupt? Do we lose our homes?  There was no answer, other than deorganization.
Bidgood continues:
Ms. Cassidy is leading an effort to dissolve the local government here and join the Unorganized Territory, a vast swath of forest and townships in north, central and eastern Maine run by a partnership between the state and the counties. Last month, residents here voted 64 to 0 to continue the process. 
At a time of rising municipal costs, local governments around the country are looking for ways to rein in tax bills, pursuing privatization, the consolidation of services, mergers and even bankruptcy.
For more on local government bankruptcy and the challenges facing municipalities, read the work of Michelle Wilde Anderson.  Here's more from Bidgood's story:
But in northern Maine, as operating costs increased, the economy stagnated and the population aged and dwindled, a handful of struggling towns have pursued the unusual process of eliminating local government entirely. 
Bidgood quotes University of Maine professor of political science, Mark Brewer:
Just the price tag to keep their local governments up and running is more or less untenable.  It’s the final step in this long, drawn-out process which really starts with population decline.
Meanwhile, in the West, the struggle is to constrain local government power, although the local government in Harney County are not stepping forward to fill a void the Bundys would like to see created.  Indeed, the current elected officials in Harney County seem to be quite opposed to the Bundys and their tactics.

I have already written a great deal about the Bundy militia takeover of the wildlife refuge in eastern Oregon, but a few pieces worthy of note have been published since my last post.  Like the reports about Maine, Wyoming, and Kentucky, important messages about these rural economies emerge.  Here's the latest from the New York Times, by Kirk Johnson, which I think provides incisive views of what's behind events in Harney County.  The headline says so much, "Rural Oregon's Lost Prosperity Gives Standoff a Distressed Backdrop":
Times were once very good out here on the high desert of east-central Oregon, and a place like Burns — remote and obscure until a group of armed protesters took over a nearby federal wildlife sanctuary this month — was full of civic pride and bustle. In their heyday, Harney County and its largest town, Burns, were economically important in a way that now seems unthinkable in the rural West.
There is so much to Johnson's story, which really does justice to the decades-long (downward) trajectory (or should I say "spiral"?) of the rural west.  After describing how metro centric and urbanormative (my words, not his) even Oregon has become (half of the state's jobs are in the three counties in and around Portland), Johnson closes with this quote from a 73-year-old who formerly worked in Burns's sawmills:
People in western Oregon don’t even know where Burns is.
And that is lent further perspective by this quote from state representative Cliff Bentz, a Republican whose district includes Harney County:
People feel powerless.  ... As the rural areas grow more and more poor and urban areas grow more and more wealthy, there’s a shift in power.
Johnson does a fabulous job of providing heaps of economic context, including how rural poverty has changed from its early associations with Appalachia and the South, when the face of poverty was often children and elderly.  Now, many of those living in rural poverty are working age, and the jobs are just not there for them, leaving entire families in poverty.

And this, shocking and nonsensical as it is for urban folks, is what is behind the State of Jefferson movement, as well as the move behind succession of counties in northern Colorado.  Read more here and here.

But don't forget the economic angle.  Here's a quote from Ammon Bundy last week:
Government controls the land and resources ... [which] has put people in duress and put them in poverty.
(For a good rebuttal of this point, see this New Yorker piece).

Again, lest we assume this all boils down to local-federal tension, don't forget the state--let alone the tension within so-called local levels of government.  Johnson writes:  
Some residents and local officials say they believe the history and relationship between the people and the government is being distorted by the protesters, and that cooperation across lines has worked well, to the benefit of the community. For instance, an arrangement with private landowners to protect a threatened bird species, the sage grouse — and to prevent even more restrictive government protections — was a model of how cooperation can work, they said.
An earlier NYT story echoes this tension among locals.  Read more here ("Fervor in Oregon Compound Fear Outside It") and here.  Johnson also quotes Steven E. Grasty, Harney County judge, who is chair of the county commissioners:  
Those are things that Mr. Bundy doesn’t know about or care about it.  ... We can keep building on those things if he would get out of the way.
And this perspective, as much as anything, gives me hope for Harney County and the rest of the rural west.  Pragmatism and a stance of collaboration--not to mention a little empathy--are critical starting points to resolving not only the standoff, but ensuring some future for the ranchers.  

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