Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

A New and Better Economic Future

Suggested Citation: Kerr, Andy. 2000. Oregon Desert Guide: 70 Hikes. Seattle: The Mountaineers Books. pp. 85-88.

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Everyone is for change in general, but they're scared of it in particular

Bill Clinton 

Most local sentiment in the West has always fought conservation, from Yellowstone National Park in 1872 through the Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument in 1996. It is because people fear change.

During consideration of the Oregon Wilderness Act of 1984, the chambers of commerce in Union (La Grande) and Douglas (Roseburg) Counties voiced strong opposition to the legislation. Today, both market themselves as "wilderness" counties.

The choice facing Oregon Desert communities is not one of continuing with the status quo, but whether to embrace and make change work or to begrudge inevitable change at every step.

Accurate information is the foundation for good choices. It must be understood that:

1. The past is not sustainable in the future.

2. While socially significant, grazing is not economically significant.

3. The economy of the Oregon Desert has changed and will continue to change.

4. If locals choose to, they can move toward a better economic future.

5. Change is always a bitch.

Livestock grazing on the public lands is not ecologically sustainable (see "Domestic Livestock: Scourge of the West" earlier). Nor is it economically sustainable (see "Ending Public Land Grazing Fair and Square" later). Public land ranchers will continue to lose money and fail, irrespective of pressures from conservation organizations.

Statewide, the contribution of livestock grazing to the economy is insignificant. This is the case locally as well, especially for public land livestock grazing. If all the grazing on the 7.2 million acres addressed in the Oregon Desert Conservation Act were to end immediately, it would amount to perhaps one hundred full-time jobs lost to owners, operators, and ranch hands. (Grazing would continue on private lands, where most of the forage is.) This is a small number of jobs even in the sparsely settled Oregon Desert.

Unless it is your job. The consequences are little different whether you lose your job through an act of Congress or through inevitable market changes. Society has a moral obligation to help those in transition, even though the overall number is politically insignificant. It doesn't matter whether this change is due to the globalization of the economy, changing market preferences for goods and services, or government policies (interest rates, zoning, or grazing reductions).

The Oregon Desert Conservation Act would provide for (a) economic development aid for affected counties and (b) economic transition assistance to affected workers in the livestock industry.

Conservationists also support decoupling federal revenues to counties from resource extraction. Instead federal payments to counties should be based on a fair payment in lieu of the property taxes that would be paid if the federal land were private land.

Local government income that now comes from a portion of the revenues generated by exploitive and unsustainable activities on public lands should be switched to new and more stable sources. Most jurisdictions in the desert, for example, don't yet have a lodging room tax, and the few that do tax at a fraction of what most cities charge. A room tax is a politician's perfect tax: their voters don't pay for it.

Livestock grazing, while economically insignificant, is socially significant in the Oregon Desert. Far more people play cowboy (all hat and truck—no cows and calves), than are cowboys. They view themselves as part of cattle culture, though not economically dependent upon it.

The economy of the Oregon Desert has changed, however, and will continue to change. Espresso sales are up; barbed wire sales are down. The largest employer is still government, which will not likely change. Communities are transitioning from agriculture (including public land grazing) to modified service-based economies (and that doesn't mean everyone is flipping burgers or cleaning toilets). The largest economic activity is transfer payments (Social Security payments, retirement payments, nonlocal government salaries, and so forth), and it continues to grow. Few small towns of the desert are actually dying (unless you consider change death). Diversification brings uncertainty, while refusing to change brings certain death.

Though we live in a global economy, local citizens can choose their future. Will the local-economic-booster mentality lead communities to simply seek the next boom (with its inevitable bust)? Yes, if history is any guide.

Will communities change? Yes. Will they like it or, at least, be the better for it? It depends.

It is hard for most public land grazing permittees to change. A few have converted, and more will, to bed-and-breakfast operations. Some will convert to horse and llama operations hauling tourists into the backcountry (still get to wear the hat and drive the truck). Some will reconfigure their grazing operations solely to private lands. Some will not change.

Some people would rather die than change. For example, there is more money in raising domesticated bison than in cattle, yet few ranchers have made the switch. It is not what their daddy did. Resistance to change is not limited to ranchers. Most restaurants don't change their cuisine without also changing owners.

If you talk with many of the Oregon Desert "old guard" generation who fear change the most, you'll find that many have siblings who have long since moved to the city for economic advancement. The same is true of their aunts and uncles and great-aunts and uncles. Socially—if not genetically—selected, those left are often the least inclined to accept change, especially now, when change is visiting rural areas at a pace never before experienced.

In the range of the northern spotted owl, ten thousand timber jobs were lost when the government reduced timber cutting. Because of the controversy, $1.2 billion is being spent on economic transition. Unfortunately, most of this money is sucked up by bureaucracy or benefits mill owners more than mill workers.

Losing one's job to federal grazing reductions is no different and deserves no less attention. This time, let's spend the $120,000 per dislocated worker differently One-third should go to range restoration projects (breaching cattle reservoirs, unchannelizing streams, fighting weeds, removing roads, and so on) that create temporary transition jobs; one-third should go to the affected county to spend as it—not the federal government—sees fit (mitigating transition effects or investing in the future); and one-third should go directly to the dislocated workers to spend as they see fit (coasting into retirement, paying off the place, going back to school, starting a new business, moving elsewhere, partying one's way through denial, and so on).

In the end, we must remember that this harsh land will never support very many people. History has shown us this time and again. We must also never forget that most of the Oregon Desert belongs to all Americans and shouldn't be exploited just to benefit a few locals or absentee corporations.

Those whom the land does support will exploit location more than resources. Burns is so unprone to earthquakes that it markets itself as the best place for data storage. Lakeview is specializing in tourism from hang-gliding. Done carefully, tourism and recreation hold more money and future for the Oregon Desert than does anything else.

The necessary shift in attitude is occurring, though not without stress. Increasingly, more are seeing the future in tourism or whatever, but certainly not in livestock and timber. An old guard, when it doesn't get its way as it used to, usually reacts by doing the same thing it always has, only louder and harder. This works for a while—as it intimidates those who would change—but in the end, such behavior is futile.

A friend was recently at the Safeway in Burns. By his outfit, he was marked as an outsider/westsider/touristibirder/conservationist (amazingly, many locals don't distinguish any difference). Two cowboys (also marked by their outfits) approached, and one said: "Spend your money and go home." At least they recognize where the money is coming from. As American writer Bernard Devoto noted in the mid-twentieth century: "The average local response in the West to the federal government: give us more money and leave us alone."

Economists have documented the "designation effect" of increased tourism on designation of wilderness and other special management areas. To the degree that livestock are removed from the public land, the hunting, fishing, and hiking will greatly improve and attract more visitors (which will create more outfitting and other jobs). All will infuse money into the local economy.

Successful communities will be those that drive forward by looking through the windshield and not in the rearview mirror.