Idaho politicians love to conduct the nation’s business dressed in cowboy boots. Their boots aren’t just for walkin.’ On the capital’s marble floors they ring out an attitude of cowboy values and ornery independence, of things being different way out West. Loafers they are not.
Daandy as they may be, cowboy boots reflect life
in Idaho less and less. The 2000 U. S. Census makes it clear that
Idaho is no longer cattle country; it’s been
In l990, the Census described a largely rural
state. "Sirloin Row" ruled the Legislature. Only two of 44
counties, Ada and Canyon, were classified as "metropolitan
statistical areas," defined as trading centers with a population of
at least 50,000. Just l0 years later, Idaho has a dozen metro
counties, adding a new one, on average, every year of the decade.
From being defined as 66 percent rural in l990, Idaho became 66
percent urban in just l0 years.
"That may be the fastest
swing from rural to urban of any state in modern times," says
Priscilla Salant, a rural economist at the University of
The new districts are best identified by their
cities: Idaho Falls, Pocatello, Twin Falls, Nampa, Lewiston and
Coeur d’Alene. Individually, none came as a surprise. But
collectively, adding six metro areas signals profound change for
the state, change that has more to do with computer chips than cow
Idaho classifies 37 of its 44 counties as "rural"
because they have no city over 20,000. But this breakdown is almost
completely useless. There is no such place as "rural Idaho" but
rather four entirely different sets of counties. High-amenity
places include Sun Valley, Sandpoint and Driggs-Victor and smaller,
prospering places like Blackfoot and Rexburg are tied to an urban
economy and doing well. The true rural Idaho consists of about 15
counties, some still based solidly in agricultural or lumbering,
some of them isolated and losing population.
earn their living has also flipped in the last l0 or 20 years.
Employment and income from agriculture, forestry and mining have
declined steadily while service industries, processing,
manufacturing and construction--all urban activities--have driven
the state’s exceptional growth.
Yet, Idaho continues
to behave like a rural state. Our Legislature spends more time on
dairy odors and grass field burning than science and technology.
Cities and their residents and school patrons are treated like
wards of the state, unable to make taxation decisions for
themselves. Idaho can’t even fill the one position devoted to
science -- an advisor to the governor. Its Science and Technology
Advisory Committee hasn’t met for two years.
Following reapportionment, the Legislature created more urban seats
and fewer rural ones, yet it’s hard to see to what difference
it has made. Those legislators with the time to serve still do not
fully represent the urban economy.
One reason we
don’t think and act like an urban state may be that Idaho
became one largely by accident. Three business geniuses:Jack
Simplot, (modern potato processing), Joe Albertson, (supermarkets),
and Harry Morrison (construction), invented companies on a totally
new scale and put Idaho on the map. In l948, six businessmen in
Idaho Falls put up $3,000 to attract a federal facility that today
is called the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental
Laboratory; a Hewlett-Packard executive liked the golf courses of
Boise better than those of Spokane and, to make a long story short,
moved l0,000 jobs here. That’s luck, not design.
Other states mounted strenuous and expensive efforts to attract
industry; urban-based prosperity came easily to Idaho.
Unfortunately, what got us here probably won’t keep us here.
Jack Simplot’s company is shifting jobs to other states and
countries. Micron, which once paid 40 percent of the state’s
corporate taxes, is in trouble, as is Albertson’s, and the
federal lab is about half its former size. Huge international food
companies continue to clobber our farmers, ranchers and small
No one knows the economic way forward
clearly. The global economy is changing too quickly for any one
strategy to be effective for long. A great deal of what affects us
is out of anyone’s control. However, recognizing the true
urban nature of Idaho is a good starting place from which to make
public policy. It also a good starting point when thinking about
rural Idaho as well. Cowboy boots are comfortable, particularly
well-worn ones like mine. But maybe the footwear of the future
should make us faster on our feet. Track shoes, anyone?