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for people who care about the West

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.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].