Froma Harrop: Government keeps rural West going

Froma Harrop

Froma Harrop

The 187,000 acres on which sits the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge never belonged to the state of Oregon, much less the band of cowboy exhibitionists who’d taken it over. This and other federal lands were acquired through conquest over, purchases from or treaties with Mexico, Russia, Spain, England, France and Native Americans.

The federal government lets loggers, ranchers and other businesses make a subsidized living off public land, courtesy of the U.S. taxpayer. The fees ranchers pay for grazing on federal land are considerably below those charged by private landowners. The government loses money on nearly all timber sales on public land.

Now that we’ve gotten this off our chests, let’s sympathize with the hardworking people of the rural West, losing a beautiful way of life to harsh economic realities. The growing poverty in the sparsely populated high desert of south central Oregon is shared by communities far from the region’s booming cities.

The good folks of Harney County certainly did not deserve this invasion by outsiders. They are entitled to resent the closing of the refuge along with threats against neighbors working there. The disruption spread through the community.

It’s true that the federal government owns massive amounts of Western land. It’s true that tighter environmental restrictions have curtailed some economic activity on this property. And we must recognize that many local complaints about federal management of the land have merit.

But a federal retreat from the rural West would spell economic disaster. Thinking people throughout the West understand this. In Harney County, government paychecks account for 60 percent of earned income.

Consider this headline in The Missoulian newspaper: “Rural western Montana counties struggling mightily with loss of federal funds.” This happened during the 2014 budget wars, when Congress failed to renew the Secure Rural Schools Act and Community Self-Determination Act. Gone was $300 million in subsidies for roads, schools, government jobs and other programs.

Rural Westerners might ask themselves why so many of them buy into the “government is evil” philosophy. The conservatives they send to Washington have made common cause with Easterners eager to save their taxpayers some dollars.

Ronald Reagan famously said, “Government’s view of the economy could be summed up in a few short phrases.” One was “if it stops moving, subsidize it.”

You don’t have to be a small-government conservative to question the trainload of subsidies that keep many rural economies moving. If a shoe factory in Massachusetts can’t make a profit, it closes. Why are the rules so different for Western agricultural businesses?

It’s easy to blame environmentalists and ignore the biggest killer of logging jobs: automation and a large forested landmass called Canada.

Rural areas benefit from the federal Payment in Lieu of Taxes program — whereby Washington sends money to counties with large tracts of federal land that local governments can’t tax. (The fairest of subsidies, the funding was cut under sequestration.) Some suggest changing the program to direct more money toward the poorer communities.

A wildlife refuge is itself an economic asset. The federal government pays salaries and other costs of maintaining an amenity that also brings in tourists.

Do the state and local taxpayers care to bear these costs? Or would the plan be to let industry pay for the right to savage the land, except for the nicest vistas, which would be sold to billionaire “ranchers”?

An estimated 47 million bird watchers in America spend $40 billion a year on their passion. Having a federal wildlife refuge in your community seems not a bad deal at all.

As Reagan said, “Government does not solve problems; it subsidizes them.”

Email: fharrop@gmail.com

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