Idaho grows out of its cowboy boots

  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 citified.

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 Idaho.

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 chips.

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.

How Idahoans 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 lumber companies.

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?

Jerry Brady is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is president of the Post Company in Idaho Falls, Idaho.

High Country News Classifieds
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • COMMUNICATIONS ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Position Title: Communications Associate Director Location: Flexible within the Western U.S., Durango, CO preferred Position reports to: Senior Communications Director The Conservation Lands Foundation (CLF)...
  • HISTORIC HOTEL & CAFE
    For Sale, 600k, Centennial Wyoming, 6 suites plus 2 bed, 2 bath apartment. www.themountainviewhotel.com Make this your home or buy a turn key hotel [email protected]
  • MAJOR GIFTS OFFICER
    High Country News, an award-winning news organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Major Gifts Officer to join our...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • VICE PRESIDENT, LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION
    Basic Summary: The Vice President for Landscape Conservation is based in the Washington, D.C., headquarters and oversees Defenders' work to promote landscape-scale wildlife conservation, focusing...
  • BRISTOL BAY PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Seeking a program director responsible for developing and implementing all aspects of the Alaska Chapter's priority strategy for conservation in the Bristol Bay region of...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The National Bighorn Sheep Center is looking for an Executive Director to take us forward into the new decade with continued strong leadership and vision:...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Powder Basin Watershed Council, based in Baker City, Oregon, seeks a new Executive Director with a passion for rural communities, water, and working lands....
  • CLEAN ENERGY PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Type: Permanent, fulltime Reports to: Executive Director Travel: Some overnight travel, both in-state and out-of-state required Compensation (beginning): $44,000 to 46,500/yr., DOE plus excellent benefits...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition, based in Ely, Nevada is looking for a new executive director to replace the long-time executive director who is retiring at...
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -
  • LISA MACKEY PHOTOGRAPHY
    Fine Art Gicle Printing. Photo papers, fine art papers, canvas. Widths up to 44". Art printing by an artist.
  • LOG HOME IN THE GILA WILDERNESS
    Beautiful hand built log home in the heart of the Gila Wilderness on five acres. Please email for PDF of pictures and a full description.
  • CARETAKER
    2.0 acre homestead needing year-round caretaker in NE Oregon. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • SEEKING PROPERTY FOR BISON HERD
    Seeking additional properties for a herd of 1,000 AUM minimum. Interested in partnering with landowners looking to engage in commercial and/or conservation bison ranching. Location...
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.