Dear President Obama:
Your recognition of the importance of rural America is appreciated, but it appears shallow thus far in your presidency. The announcement of the establishment of the White House Rural Council has lofty goals, but actions speak louder than words. At this point your administration’s actions have done little to relieve the economic woes of rural communities, especially in Oregon.
The executive order establishing the Council lists 25 agencies and other federal government entities that will participate under the leadership of the Secretary of Agriculture to “better coordinate Federal programs and maximize the impacts of Federal investment to promote economic prosperity and quality of life….” My question is, whose quality of life and economic prosperity? The only mention of economic opportunity in the order pertains to “…energy development, outdoor recreation, and other conservation related activities.”
Here in Oregon, we have lived with this utopian concept of economic development for more than twenty years. If you were to ask folks who actually live in rural communities throughout Oregon, you would be informed overwhelmingly that the results of this new conservation economy are dismal at best. In fact, statistics show that the poverty rate in rural Oregon has increased from 12% in 1979 to 17.2% today.
Your administration has touted the billions of dollars that have been spent on pet projects throughout the country like broadband and renewable energy. Why not allow communities to identify projects that will best fit their needs locally? Better yet, in these financially strained times, let’s consider removing bureaucratic roadblocks to prosperity and allow the free market to determine the viability of industries, instead of the federal government investing billions of dollars picking the economic winners and losers.
Ethanol is one of the best examples of the federal government picking winners and losers. Corn growers definitely have benefited from ethanol subsidies, but livestock growers have seen the costs of their feedstuffs skyrocket.
There are also great examples of how public-private partnerships can be successful without federal government funding and bureaucracy. Just look at Powell, Wyoming, which successfully created a community based broadband network without any of the $7.2 billion being offered by the federal government to subsidize broadband development.
A critical and often forgotten factor in stimulating America’s rural economy is removing the burdensome regulations placed on communities and businesses throughout the country. Your administration has introduced a litany of rules that only continue to increase the bureaucratic burden on businesses of all sizes and has offered little to no relief or flexibility to businesses trying to meet often over-reaching regulations.
Durkee, Oregon is just one rural community caught in the cross hairs of EPA regulations. The town’s largest employer, Ash Grove Cement (116 employees), is facing possible closure despite investing $20 million in retrofits to control airborne mercury emissions. EPA has proposed new airborne emission standards for mercury that are below the natural background levels and beyond levels which technology can economically address in this area. Without an exception to the proposed rule, the business will have to shut down, eliminating a significant number of full-time family wage jobs. There are numerous other examples of egregious, overly restrictive regulations forced upon rural communities by a multitude of federal agencies which greatly diminish market opportunities for businesses.
Last, but most important to Oregon and to the stabilization of our rural economy, 53 percent of our land is owned by the federal government. The federal government has shifted its land management philosophy from sustainable active management of renewable natural resources to a passive management regimen that has cost our communities thousands of full-time living wage jobs and greatly increased the vulnerability of our forests to disease, pest infestations and devastating wildfires. The negative impacts of federal management decisions (or the lack thereof) on our renewable resources have been destructive to both the environment and rural communities.
Whether it is the livestock industry struggling to meet the impossible demands of federal grazing leases, or lumber mills trying to source enough timber to make up for the lost volume no longer coming from the federal forests — all of Oregon has been impacted. In fact, 31 out of 36 counties in Oregon receive funds from the federal welfare program for counties known as the Rural Secure Schools Act. These funds are provided to counties in a dismal attempt to offset the economic impact on county government (not individuals or businesses) due to the lack of management and bureaucratic entanglement of federal lands in Oregon. Local governments, business and citizens alike would prefer to be self-sufficient, but that is unlikely to happen unless the federal government liquidates its land holdings or begins to actively manage its natural resource assets.
While facing this recession, there is no better time for the federal government to stop frivolously spending money choosing economic winners and losers and to begin looking at how it could remove regulatory burdens that would free citizens and businesses to rethink free market opportunities and invest in their own future.
Daniel Kemmis wrote in This Sovereign Land: “…[P]eople who live and work, raise their families and build their communities, on a particular landscape cannot be and will never be persuaded by any amount of purely legal reasoning that people who have no such dependence on or knowledge of those landscapes should have an equal say in their governance.” Rural communities like Burns or Enterprise, Oregon would welcome the opportunity to host a listening session and tour for the White House Rural Council to reveal opportunities which would allow them to control their own destiny and once again flourish.