The rural West's pragmatic booster
by Samuel Western
Economist and demographer
Center for the Rocky Mountain West, Missoula, Mont.
Hair-raising presentations about dramatic shifts in Mountain West demography and economics.
"We can’t successfully adapt to change without a fuller understanding of it. Good people with good information make good decisions."
Larry Swanson’s office overlooking the Clark Fork River in Missoula suffers from a severe case of paper piling. No surface is spared, including the floor.
Swanson is a man with a mission: keeping the rural West alive. Why bother with excessive housekeeping?
An economist and demographer at the University of Montana’s Center for the Rocky Mountain West, Swanson creates easy-to-read demographic charts documenting the dramatic population shifts from rural areas to urban. Those shifts have left large swaths of the West with dwindling populations and impoverished agricultural areas.
This is familiar territory for Swanson, who grew up on a 700-acre farm in Nebraska, and wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on the decline of the rural Plains. During the 1970s, he directed the Great Plains Office of Policy Studies at the University of Nebraska. He watched farm groups and academics perform "rain dances to ideology," arguing for price supports and tax provisions that, in the end, only skewed the economics of farming and hastened the decline of family farms. The fallout continues today; from 2000 to 2005, 83 out of 93 counties in Nebraska lost population.
It’s a gritty civics lesson that stays with Swanson as he watches small Rocky Mountain communities struggle for survival. Roughly half the counties in Montana and Wyoming are losing people; all but a handful face declining school enrollment. And it’s not just happening out on the Plains; many below-the-real-estate-radar mountain communities are withering as well.
Swanson blames the persistent ideology that rejects new people and ideas, puts quantity over quality, and expects the federal government to keep rural economies afloat. So he travels the Northern Rockies preaching pragmatism. Most isolated rural areas are doomed to decline, he says, what with land and resources increasingly in the hands of wealthy estate owners and corporate farm producers, and young people leaving in search of better opportunities. At the same time, however, Swanson sees "areas of hope": small cities like Helena, Idaho Falls and Billings that are building new economies on top of the old and attracting a younger generation.
The most successful towns, he says, are developing industries that cater to an aging and wealthy population: health care, finance, architecture and marketing. Maverick Marketing of Hamilton, Mont., for example, has "clients all over the country," he says. Other communities are capitalizing on the freedom provided by the Internet: Swanson points to Philipsburg, Mont., whose 959 residents live little more than a stone’s throw from the Anaconda mining pits. Their small town is now home to a company called Vote Smart, a political research center dedicated to candidate accountability.
Plenty of young people want to live in the scenic West, Swanson says, and "undiscovered" small cities offer the advantage of comparatively lower-cost housing. In hopping towns like Missoula and Bozeman, or in Sheridan, Wyo., "Kids are trying to buy into their parents’ housing market. Well, they can’t do it," he says. "But a house in Boise that goes for $450,000 goes for $200,000 or less in places in Montana."
Swanson also has advice for towns that are currently booming: "Don’t assume that the growth will last." Growth creates jobs in construction and minimum-wage services, but it’s temporary, he says, not something to build a future on. Community leaders need to see growth as the bridge to the next economy; they should concentrate on training workers and incubating businesses that will carry the community forward even after the growth bubble bursts.
In the end, Swanson believes that Westerners need to find local solutions, ones that will put them on top of this "new economy" rather than at the bottom. "Globalization makes us feel inconsequential," he says. But focusing and acting on the community’s strengths — and future strengths — helps people overcome long-held feelings of helplessness.
The author writes about the West from Sheridan, Wyo.© High Country News