Montana economist attacks review

  Dear HCN,

I want to thank Ed Marston for confirming the wise-use movement's characterization of me as an "eco-terrorist" (HCN, 12/23/96). The mining and logging industries will get good mileage out of the idea that I am a "Robespierre" leading a "reign of terror" across the West.

My book, Lost Landscapes and Failed Economies, sought to deal with the role that natural resource industries and environmental protection play in determining the economic health of our communities. In the economic dialogue in the West, natural resource industries are usually depicted as central to our economic health and as "high-paying, family wage" jobs. On the other hand, environmental protection, especially when it impacts those same natural resource industries, is depicted as imposing a relatively high economic cost on our communities. The empirical data staring us in the face, however, tell a quite different story. Mining, mill and farm towns are rarely prosperous. They tend to be depressed, run-down towns plagued by a variety of negative socioeconomic characteristics. On the other hand, areas that provide what are perceived to be high-quality living environments have seen employment, income and population rise despite declines in what they are told are their economic bases.

It is true that the floor has literally been pulled out from under relatively uneducated and unskilled workers nationwide. The blue-collar path to a middle-class lifestyle is being systematically eliminated. The result has been dramatic declines in real earnings and benefits for workers at the lower end of the economy. Poverty rates have increased; part-time work has proliferated; real earnings have stagnated; inequality has dramatically increased. It is a very bad time to be in the lower middle class, free-falling into economic oblivion.

One can condemn the public policies that have allowed this to occur. My book does exactly that (although High Country News rarely does that for fear of offending its economically conservative readership). However, the question the book seeks to wrestle with is what part of these national and international trends that one can observe in the West are tied to environmental protection measures. After reviewing the empirical evidence, I concluded little or none. That is important knowledge.

Ed Marston repeats the errors I tried to systematically guide readers around. He does not ask whether the higher poverty rates, the low wages, the part-time work, etc., found in the West over the last two decades are due to changes and policies unique to the West or just part of national trends. He does not ask whether the amenity-driven economic revitalization of our communities is reducing these problems or adding to them. He does not ask whether the low-paid migrant workforce now servicing the recreational economy is new or just a different version of the migrant workforce that staffed the West's ranches, farms, mines and railroads in the past.

Marston does not take up the key questions posed by the book: Does environmental protection and amenity-based economic vitality contribute to the reduction of the socioeconomic problems faced by Western communities or compound those problems? Given the trends in labor-saving technology and international markets, can an economy centered on mining, lumber, ranching or farming bring stability and prosperity to our communities?

Marston concludes that "the goal should not be the destruction of the land-based industries. The goal should be to eventually make those industries part of the restoration of the West." I could not agree more. Despite Marston's assertions to the contrary, I always emphasize the ongoing importance of our natural resource industries, properly constrained by environmental institutions.

In the Consensus Report by Pacific Northwest Economists which Marston cites, I put it this way: "We are not saying that the natural-resource industries ... are not important to the regional economy. Natural resources industries are still important in the Pacific Northwest and will remain so into the foreseeable future. The point we have tried to make is not that they are unimportant but that increased volumes of material extracted are not likely to be sources of expanding employment and income." Despite my stating this in bold type, Marston still reads me as advocating "the destruction of land-based industries." This says more about Marston's preconceived notions than about what I have written.

Thomas Michael Power

Missoula, Montana

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