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Loservilles and Ghost Dance

Republican Presidential candidate, Donald Trump, likes to suggest there are “winners” like him and “losers” like most everyone else. And if you want to be on the winning team, you should vote for Trump. Trump has suggested that he is willing to state the truth, and is not inhibited by political correctness. But one truth he is unwilling to acknowledge is that most of his supporters across the West are “losers.”

Surveys have shown that most Trump supporters are older, white, with a high school education or less. These people have suffered a disproportionate decline in their economic prospects and their communities during the past few decades. And they are angry, disillusioned, and ready to blame just about everyone else for their predicament.

At least in the West, many of these people live in the smaller rural communities scattered across the vast spaces of America’s outback. You know them—Challis Idaho, Burns, Oregon, Republic, Washington, Libby, Montana, Price, Utah, Rifle, Colorado, Reserve, New Mexico, and many more that could be named. These towns have not enjoyed the prosperity that western urban areas have experienced.

Playing off of Trump’s analogy of losers and winners, a friend of mine–with no qualms about political correctness–calls these small towns Loservilles.” Of course, not everyone in these rural towns are Trump supporters; nor are all small towns are declining in propriety or vitality.

Nevertheless, for at least a century the rural West has been losing its best, brightest, ambitious and most creative people to urban centers. This brain drain has affected the community values and ability to react effectively to changing economic and cultural issues. These “Loservilles” are filled with the people who didn’t leave.

Though they tend to be pockets of poverty in an otherwise booming west, what they really suffer from is not only economic poverty, but a poverty of imagination.
In the past, you didn’t need to be particularly ambitious, creative or bright to raise a family in these communities. There were jobs in mills, mining, logging, oil and gas drilling, and ranching. However, global economics have taken away most of those jobs.

People in these communities blame environmentalists, the federal government, Muslims, Mexicans, atheists, China, and a host of other people for their situation, when the situation is at least to some extent self-created.

Ghost Dance Resurrected 

Disillusioned and uncertain about their future, many of these people are vulnerable to anyone who has simple answers to complex issues.

Whether it is the Bundy family, “Constitutional Sheriffs”, Oath Keepers, American Lands Council, and others, who are reinterpreting the law to suggest that the federal government has no jurisdiction over public lands, this message has found a willing audience in many rural parts of the West who feel they have little control over their destinies.

This enthusiastic acceptance of the “take back federal lands” and other erroneous messages, reminds me of a modern day Ghost Dance. The Ghost Dance was advanced by the Paiute Indian, Wovoka in 1890s. According to Wovoka, if you did the right moves, and sang the right song, the white people would disappear and the bison would return. To the spiritually defeated, and disenfranchised tribes relegated to reservations, the idea of returning to the old ways was an attractive concept. The Ghost Dance spread across the West, but tragically came to an end at Wounded Knee, South Dakota.

In a similar manner, many in these rural communities are vulnerable to the ideas parlayed by the modern day Ghost Dancers.

Many in rural communities want to believe if they could get the federal government out of the way, their communities would thrive once more. They believe if only they could log, mine, drill more, they would be “winners” again.

However, what they don’t understand is that global economics have changed, and even if the federal government wasn’t around to interfere with their desire to ramp up resource exploitation, the old jobs are not coming back.

The irony for these places is most jobs are now with government. The dreaded hated government. For instance, in Harney County where the recent standoff at Malheur Wildlife Refuge occurred with anti-government thugs, 59% of the income in Burns, Oregon, (where community sympathy is strong for getting the government off our backs”), comes from government jobs. Increasingly these rural communities are wards of the state—and dependent on taxpayers from elsewhere.

Harney County, where Burns is located, has only 7,000 residents. Given that many are children, you have a very small tax base. Does anyone seriously believe that Harney County taxpayers could, on their own, fund the construction and maintenance of highways, medical clinics, campgrounds, fire-fighting, and all the other expenses that are borne by taxpayers from outside of the county?

A Rearview Mirror of Economy 

The future for many of these rural communities like Burns, Challis, Prineville, Escalante, and other similarly situated towns is dependent on fostering and protecting their natural environment.

Study after study has demonstrated that counties with protected lands like wilderness and parks have a more robust economy and more importantly, a more diverse population than those communities that are lacking in such amenities. Not only do these communities attract more “footloose” businesses and retirees, protecting the landscape enhances the attitudes of the communities as well. That is where the economics is today.

I do not want to imply that economics is the only yardstick to use for valuing a community, nor am I ignoring that the fact that population growth and expanding recreational use has its own set of environmental problems. Nevertheless, in many of these communities, economic opportunity is the goal of community leaders, but they often fail to comprehend that looking in the rear view mirror isn’t going to provide the jobs and future they desire.

Loserville or Winnerville?

Imagine, what Burns, Oregon (where the Malheur Wildlife Refuge take over occurred) could be if instead of promoting ranching and longing for the “good old days” when logging was a big employer in the community, they instead promoted the area as a great place to live because the proximity to Steens Mountain Conservation Area, the beautiful Wild and Scenic rivers that are near-by, and the wildlife watching at Malheur Wildlife Refuge. Instead of opposing wolf restoration, imagine how the tenor of the town would change if they actively promoted wolf restoration and advocated wildernesses designation for the many roadless lands nearby? The community could boast that it was the center of wildlands in Oregon. And that moniker would resonate with many people who can afford to live anyplace as well as businesses looking for a high quality of life for their employees.

If these communities wanted to be “Winnervilles” instead of “Loservilles”, they need to recognize that what is truly valuable in today’s world are the remaining wildlands and wildlife in the West. They cannot economically complete with natural resource exploitation in other parts of the world, and jobs in logging, milling, and so forth can easily be exported to Third World countries where labor is cheaper and/or be replaced by automatism here.

What you can’t move abroad are the scenic landscapes of the West, the free-flowing rivers, the wildlife, and the sense of open space. These intangibles increasingly have both economic and spiritual value to an urbanized population. They are attractive to the creative society. To be a winner in today’s economy means looking forward with imagination, celebrating new ideas and innovation, not casting a longing eye backwards in the rear view mirror to restore unsustainable industries.

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George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. He serves on the board of the Western Watersheds Project.

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