Urbanites Must End War with Rural Resource Areas: Land-use policies can't overlook generations of workers.
(The Business Journal, December 16, 1996)
By Richard Carson
This year, we have relived the horror stories of Ruby Ridge, Waco, the Montana Freemen and Oklahoma City. The bombing of the Olympics in Atlanta and the arrest of a suspect in the Unabomber case make us ask once again: Why is this happening? Why in America? There is a simple answer. The fact is, we are reaping a bitter harvest of our own creation. We cannot fix the blame on a bunch of survivalist paranoids who live in Montana and believe the IRS and ATF are out to get them. It is a much simpler story than that. It is the story of the systematic destruction of a way of life that was carried out with the best of intentions.
A conflict in the West
Before militias, there was the Wise Use movement. It began as a coalition of property rights groups who battled against the increased government environmental and land-use regulation of rural resource lands.
These regulations have had a major impact on the timber and rangeland economies in the rural areas of the American West. The Wise Use movement consisted of people who were the forerunners to the Freemen. Much of the rhetoric is the same. And for a long time it remained just that -- rhetoric.
These were people who worked in the resource economy. They were productive and content being middle-income, family-wage earners. Then their world changed. Logging in government-owned forests and grazing livestock on government-owned rangeland became a bad thing to do. It endangered the very existence of certain animal species. Then this regulatory ban began to spread to privately owned lands. For wherever a species was barely clinging to life, the government regulations followed.
The Wise Use movement failed to stem the tide of regulations or reverse the public opinion of urban America. In the end, the majority of voters live in the urban areas and call the shots. A few people who were unhappy with the growing impotence and failure of the Wise Use political movement decided there was only one course of action left. That was when a political and philosophical stance became a violent and murderous backlash!
And what of us--the urban dwellers who support land-use planning and the protection of endangered species? Do we carry any moral burden for the rising tide of death and destruction? I believe that in terms of the bombing of American cities and the terrorizing of citizens, the answer is an absolute "no." What led these maniacs to commit such barbarous acts is on their heads alone. They have no rational, legal or biblical reason to murder their fellow Americans. They are criminals.
But when you objectively look at the decline of the rural resource economies, then I believe we must admit that we have directly and indirectly, justly or unjustly, participated in its demise. The rural resource areas of the West suffered great economic declines in the early 1980s. The environmental movement seemed to follow on the heels of this economic downturn and made things worse. It is not a matter of saying that what happened was right or wrong; we must recognize that it did happen. To the people who lived in these rural areas, it was no better than kicking them when they were down. And these people will never forget it! The 99.9 percent of these folks are peace loving and respectable members of society who will never make a pipe bomb-- but many of them will hate our guts until the day they die.
We who live in the urban areas like to vacation and drive through these rural areas. We believe that all of these rural folk could have jobs if they would only embrace new trends like eco-tourism. We don't seem to care that these are families with three to four generations of people working in the forests or on the open range. We don't care that their family incomes will be cut by more 50 percent or that their children will end up cleaning rooms in a motel or waiting tables in a seasonal service economy. How would we feel if metropolitan area family-wage jobs were eliminated tomorrow and we had to work at McDonalds? Would we be angry?
The land-use, water resource and environmental laws have systematically destroyed these people's family and social structures, as well as their economic well being. It is an experiment in social engineering done for the best of reasons--to protect the environment and the other animal species who share this earth with us.
Certainly it is kinder than Stalin's forced collectivism of rural farms in postwar Russia. He simply liquidated the kulaks in their fields. In the Pacific Northwest, we simply destroyed much of what was left of the rural economy. The mantra has been "A person's job is nothing compared to the elimination of a species." This might sound fine to someone working at Intel, Nordstrom or Starbucks. However, in the rural resource areas, it is a death chant.
One of the great truisms of both the environment and the economy--as postulated by Charles Darwin and Adam Smith -- is "adapt or perish." However, both Darwin and Smith believed these systems functioned best without human intervention. Once human beings intervene with environmental or economic engineering, all bets are off. In the rural resource areas, we interfered with both at the same time.
How to end the killing?
It is a terrible thing to behold--this growing holy war that we make on ourselves. It has been 150 years since Americans have killed each other with such a moral vengeance. We have talked self-righteously about the appalling stupidity of the Jews and the Arabs, the Irish Protestants and Catholics, and the native tribes of Rwanda.
But now the rest of the world looks at us and shakes their heads. They say the Americans have gone quite mad. And they are right.
John F. Kennedy once said that "those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable." And it is at this juncture that I personally worry the most. Have we not given the lunatics and bombers the justification to attack society?
We all want the killing to stop, but what is the answer? I think it is time to make a peaceful revolution possible. I believe in land-use planning, in protecting endangered species and in the need to maintain clean air and water. I also believe that these needs have a social price to pay.
Daniel Kemmis, the philosopher-mayor of Missoula, Montana, writes that "something is profoundly wrong with the way we make public decisions" and believes "the common ground is there...but our prevailing way of doing things blocks us from realizing it." I agree. The first step is to understand the true costs of implementing such far-reaching environmental policies. The second step is to invest--on a dollar for dollar basis-- in these areas. I am talking about a massive investment that could easily overshadow the savings and loan bailout.
We must end the denial and admit we have been at war with the people of America's rural resource areas. Only then can we undertake the reconstruction of a way of life we have all idealized.
Richard Carson is the community development director for the city of Oregon City and managing editor of the Oregon Planners' Journal.