Planning for the new rural Idaho

  • Jerry Brady

 

Recently, an acclaimed young writer and a world-renowned opera singer charmed a packed house in Driggs, Idaho. What were they doing there instead of in a place a hundred times larger? The answer tells us something about the future of rural Idaho.

The writer was Ann Patchett, whose most recent novel, Bel Canto, draws its intensity from the art of opera and the unexpected relationships that bloom between revolutionaries and their hostages. Bel Canto has become a favorite of book clubs throughout the United States and in the growing number of “one book” cities, cities where a large group of people choose to read and discuss the same book at the same time.

Well over l00 communities, including Boise, asked Patchett to read this year, yet she agreed to read only at Driggs and a few other towns. Why? The prospect of hiking in the Tetons.

The opera star was Kristine Ciesinski, a veteran of La Scala in Milan. Locally, she is perhaps best known as a teacher at Brigham Young University-Idaho, as a captain of the Idaho Falls Wing of the Civil Air Patrol, and as chair of the Teton Valley Hospital Foundation. She fell in love with the mountains while performing with the Grand Teton Music Festival in Jackson, and moved to Teton Valley, Idaho, in l995.

This leads to an obvious lesson for rural Idaho: People visit and then choose to live in beautiful places. This is often forgotten in the dozens of decisions made by planning and zoning boards, governments and individual citizens. Mountains will remain mountains, but humans control valley floors, water quality and the environment where people live.

Retirement and investment income is now the largest source of income in most rural Idaho counties. These new residents are people who don’t work, usually don’t have children living at home, but who do have money to spend.

The second lesson goes to the matter of leadership. For years, I’ve admired how Teton Valley has promoted economic development and the arts, protected sensitive land and water, and funded a hospital — remarkable for a town of l,000 and a county of 6,000. The schedule for its youth recreation program is printed in both English and Spanish, which tells you another way it is ahead of other places in the region.

Teton County is nonetheless a tough place to make a living. Between 1970 and 2000, average earnings fell from $24,000 to $17,000, adjusted for inflation. No wonder hundreds of people commute over a difficult pass to Jackson, Wyo., for work every day.

Preparing for and accommodating growth has led to mighty struggles over the years. Because earlier county commissioners gave little attention to planning, hundreds of homes have been scattered across the valley, increasing the cost of school busing, police and ambulance service. Growth and zoning issues have been at the center of every recent election.

In a question-and-answer session, Patchett was asked why she writes the books she does, which seemed to the questioner so different one from another. “Most writers have one central story they keep telling over and over again,” she replied. “The story in all my books is about people who come together as strangers and form a family.”

This is the story Teton Valley residents are struggling to write about themselves. They are trying to build a true community, one organization and one event at a time. However, after the concert, one old-timer told a reporter that while he enjoyed the performance, he was also sad. He said it marked the passage of the old Teton Valley and the arrival of the new. But the old and the new can make a rich mix in all of rural Idaho — if both sides work to make a go of it.

Kristine Ciesinski is a newcomer who has done just that. She took up flying, volunteered, and set aside the frantic busyness that goes with operatic stardom. While I have no statistics, it seems to me that more newcomers like her “stick” on the Idaho side of the Tetons because of the vibrancy of the local organizations that welcome them.

Ciesinski may have come for the mountains; she stayed because she was needed. The central story in Teton Valley may, therefore, be just the opposite of its pattern of habitation. People come here thinking they want to live apart from each other, on 20-acre homesteads or ranchettes. But they stay because they discover community.

Forty years ago, the musical Oklahoma sang of how “The farmer and the cowboy can be friends.” The song of today’s Idaho is still being written.

Jerry Brady is president of the Post Company in Idaho Falls, Idaho, and was a Democratic candidate for governor in Idaho in 2002.

High Country News Classifieds
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Trout Unlimited seeks an individual with successful development experience, strong interpersonal skills, and a deep commitment to coldwater conservation to serve as the organization's...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • CAUCASIAN OVCHARKA PUPPIES
    Strong loyal companions. Ready to protect your family and property. Proven against wolves and grizzlies. Imported bloodlines. Well socialized.