Off campus: A sociologist tries to help Idaho's small towns

  • Aaron Harp


Note: this feature article is one of several in a special issue about land grant universities in the West.

When sociologist Aaron Harp interviewed for a job at the University of Idaho, he was asked if the university had an obligation to save the state's rural communities.

"That's a loaded question," says Harp. "And having anticipated that question, I said, 'No, we have no obligation whatsoever, but we have an obligation to give them as many tools as we can muster to save themselves.' And that was the right answer."

It's also the only possible answer. Harp has been the lone sociologist working for the University of Idaho Cooperative Extension Service for the past three years. Population is increasing in his state, but many rural communities have been thoroughly destabilized. Some have followed the boom-and-bust cycles of mining and logging. Others went over the edge in the 1980s when the bottom fell out of the international farm market. Many are being buffeted by waves of immigrating retirees from California.

Harp's remedy: "Show them, "These are your potential scenarios for the future, and these are your tradeoffs." Give them technical advice, leadership training and conflict resolution training so they stop being at each others' throats."

Walking into a buzzsaw

The stocky, amiable Harp has walked into some of the most contentious situations rural Idaho can dish out. He was part of a university team that went to central Idaho to create an economic study for Custer and Lemhi counties, both of which are overwhelmingly federally owned. Here, at the foot of the stunningly beautiful Sawtooth Mountains, controversies about rangeland reform, salmon recovery, and the possibility of becoming a recreation mecca have divided the populace into well-defined and vocal factions.

Custer County is home to an annual salmon cook-out, where local residents barbecue what they call "the only endangered species you can buy in a grocery store." (Most of the salmon consumed in this country are from Alaskan waters. Unlike three species of Snake River salmon, Alaskan salmon are not on the endangered species list.) The county is also the base for a group appropriately called RAGE - Rebellion Against Government Excess.

As for environmentalists, Harp's first contact with them came one morning in October 1992, when he walked into a day-long meeting of a group planning a counteroffensive against the efforts of a university they had long mistrusted.

"It was like walking into a buzzsaw," says Harp. The environmentalists charged that previous University of Idaho economic studies had been skewed to favor traditional extractive land uses. "The university has had a long and lousy history with environmentalists," Harp says. "We work on production issues. We're seen as part of the problem."

After a tense day explaining that the university was working on an economic model to "take the guesswork out of what the local economy was based on," Harp turned to the participants for help. He asked them to collect on-the-ground data on how the local economy worked. He even supplied them with partners: local ranchers.

The resulting study revealed that recreation was a much bigger part of the local economy than most people had assumed. Just as important, the experiment eroded some of the walls that had been built between the people of the local towns of Challis and Salmon. And Harp's persistence took the edge off some of his critics' icy feelings toward the university: He spent five months in the area, operating out of a duplex in Salmon and a series of hotel rooms in the smaller towns.

"It became more of a relationship," he said. "That was good. I attended some local planning meetings. I got to see one of the ranchers tell another guy to shut up and let a young lady (a member of the local branch of the Idaho Conservation League) speak."

In spite of this kind of bridge-building, Harp says that small communities in public lands-dominated areas are in an "unbelievable quagmire.

"I can think of about two dozen ways to make rural communities stable, sustainable and growing, none of which will work in the current political reality," he says. For example, a community could hash out guidelines to protect the fish in local rivers while keeping ranchers in business.

"Even if that worked out well for the locals, anyone with 29 cents could sue them," says Harp. "When it deals with endangered species (like Snake River salmon), anyone can appeal that plan. The interpretation is that even if you make something work locally, some yahoo from Boise or Ketchum is going to pull the plug. By the same token, the BLM could ignore the plan on any level. Local communities have no power. There's no institutional structure that takes local input seriously."

Asking the big questions

The 33-year-old Harp is not a by-the-book University of Idaho employee. The son of a carpenter and a bookkeeper who raised their family and a herd of sheep on two acres in Sacramento, Harp doesn't mind blasting "the never-ending cheerleading in favor of technology" that has come out of the land-grant system.

He points to the recent development of bovine somatotropin (BST) which stimulates cows to produce more milk. Tested largely at land-grant colleges, and sold commercially by Monsanto since February, the hormone has given large dairy producers an edge in a market that was already producing more milk than America could drink. The hormone is projected to contribute to the demise of many of the country's remaining dairy farms over the next five years.

"We're not just a bunch of dreamy Wendell Berry lovers here," says Harp. "You can be rational and scientific and say to science, 'No, that is unacceptable because it causes a (social) dislocation.' We're sick and tired of spending public money to depopulate rural America."

Vital to the survival of rural communities, says Harp, is to make farming and other rural economies sustainable. In agriculture's case, it means supporting farms that produce food and maintain the environment and the community.

"To farm sustainably you've got to sustain the families on the land and the communities in which they live," he says. "As we've gotten high tech we've driven families from the land and bled rural communities. That adjustment's been going on for 100 years ... The most notable success stories in sustainable agriculture rarely come from the applications of even more technology."

The technophile's dream of an environmentally friendly machine that could replace the wisdom of local farmers with computer intelligence and satellite technology launches Harp into a rhapsody of interrogatories: "By the time you get to this point, have you reduced it to a handful of the big boys?" he demands. "Or does this spell the death knell of those who can't afford the technology?" Then there are the larger questions: "The presupposition is that this is what anybody wants. The presupposition is that the current system is what we need to expand on."

Unfortunately, says Harp, our government lacks a policy on rural America. "Europe wants to keep its rural community, whether it's the Germans locating industry there, or the French subsidizing the daylights out of them. We're not willing to do that. We've always assumed agricultural policy was rural policy. This hasn't been the case since the 1940s (when the farm programs of the New Deal, such as electrification of farms and the establishment of the Soil Conservation Service, gave way to the influx of technology spurred by World War II.) We can't have a national dialogue, apparently, to say, 'This is what we value about rural America, and this is what we're going to do to protect it.' We wring our hands every now and then, and that's about it."

Not with a 10-foot pole

In Idaho, the political and fiscal reality is such that Harp doesn't go near topics like migrant farm labor, poverty and teen pregnancy. One of his colleagues was stripped of state funding in 1979 after he held a series of workshops on the fiscal impacts of growth. The program apparently angered the chairman of the State House Appropriations Committee, who was a developer in one of the towns that had hosted a workshop.

Harp has a laundry list of topics he "won't touch with a 10-foot pole:"

"I won't talk about teen pregnancy. I won't talk about abortion, female-headed households and poverty. None of those things.

"I have given out poverty statistics in the past and I've had county agents and county comissioners kind of sidle up real nice and say, 'Thanks for all the statistics, but there is no poverty here.'

  " 'Well,' you say, 'Sure there is. It says right there, a certain percent of your people in female-headed households live in poverty.'  

" 'Well, that's by choice.'

"You can work your way from the hints into the direct suggestion that there is no poverty here, period. So I figure, 'Okay. Do I really need that when I can deal with other issues?' I don't feel constrained, because there are so many problems."

Swampy ground

Harp is a rural sociologist in a country with no rural policy, in a state where it's professionally dangerous to tackle some of the toughest problems, and in counties where local governments are often politically crippled by the fact they contain so much federally controlled land.

Why does he do it?

"My value system is I have an ethical obligation in the face of power to give rural people as much ammunition as possible to make their case. I define power as the ability to distort or stop communication.

"It's my job to convince county agents and sometimes county governments to go ahead and try to do what they think is right anyway, even if they know it's swampy ground," he says. "Even if you know it's futile, it's better to have worked with the local groups to get down to their true differences. It's better to have done that and failed than not to have done it."

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