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Rural Idaho faces change

Conference seeks solutions during changing times

"The industries on which rural Idaho has traditionally depended don’t drive the state’s economy like they have in the past," she said. "It doesn’t mean those industries are unimportant, but we have to start looking at our state in a new light."

Priscilla Salant, University of Idaho Department of Agricultural Economics professor

Express Staff Writer

Idaho is a land in transition.

As the extractive industries that drove the state’s economy in the early 20th century continue to wane, small communities that depended on logging, mining, ranching and farming to propel their economies are struggling to maintain a way of life that is becoming increasingly more difficult.

It is this struggle, and opportunities that could result from it, that several dozen panelists and speakers dwelled on for a two-day conference in Caldwell Thursday and Friday.

"Rural Idaho, Challenged to Change" was sponsored by the Andrus Center for Public Policy and the Idaho Statesman. The conference was the result of a massive, cooperative, year-long undertaking by five of Idaho’s news organizations, with help from a $20,000 grant from the Pew Center for Civic Journalism.

"One of the West’s most pressing problems is the economic future of the rural West, not just Idaho," former Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus said. "We’ve brought together some of the best minds in the state and the nation to focus on challenges and solutions that just might be available to us."

The conference didn’t provide all the solutions needed, but was a good kicking off point for efforts to revitalize rural Idaho economies and lifestyles, panelists agreed.

"It is a way to begin breaking down the rural-urban barriers," said Cyd Weiland, a Boise National Forest employee. "When that happens, things get done."

Two out of three people in Idaho live in rural settings, said University of Idaho Department of Agricultural Economics Professor Priscilla Salant. Only four other states—Vermont, Mississippi, Wyoming and Montana—compare, she said.

"The industries on which rural Idaho has traditionally depended don’t drive the state’s economy like they have in the past," she said. "It doesn’t mean those industries are unimportant, but we have to start looking at our state in a new light."

U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, agreed.

"We must not forget the base of the economic activity that has been the core of the economy in rural America for so long, and that is our traditional resource based industries," he said. "They are still the base, and even though there may need to be some adjustment and expansion in the ways that we approach them, they will continue to be a large part, if not the largest part of the economic activity that we will need to generate and strengthen in rural America. "

"On the other hand, we must also recognize that we can’t rely solely on agriculture or solely on our resource based industries in Rural America in order to bring together the strength that we need to to revitalize those communities."

To that end, Crapo said strengthening rural Idaho’s infrastructure—communications, transportation, research, technology, education and health care—is paramount to propelling the state’s flagging rural economies into the Twenty First Century.

"We have to have that critical link to connect us to the outer world, whether it’s communications or transportation," he said.

But Paul Romrell, a St. Anthony farmer, said he doesn’t know that things are going to improve much for him or his east-Idaho town.

"St. Anthony is essentially a ghost town," he said. "Many of our businesses have closed. We’ve lost our railroad, our mill, our timber. I love farming. I don’t want to change. I want to grow old doing what I’m doing."

Keynote speaker Karl Stauber, however, outlined a multi-pronged approach to help create new competitive advantages for rural Idahoans.

"Produce what consumers want and will pay a premium for, not what it’s easiest to produce," he said.

Second, he said, communities are the source of "social and human capital."

Communities, not industries, are what make young adults stay in rural areas, he said.

Third, smaller communities must work together regionally, and, fourth, new businesses must be encourages.

Idaho Department of Commerce Director Gary Mahn said "you’ve got to have an economic development program in you community."

He stressed the importance of a $3.9 million rural development package the legislature passed last year to attracting new businesses and maintaining existing ones. So far, the money has been used to hire local economic development specialists in 11 areas around the state.

The package has also funded rural community block grants, which have been used for site development and public facility construction necessary for business expansion.

Mahn added that Idaho’s plight doesn’t pit a high tech future against a rural past.

"We want to nurture and help our old line industries, and how they can be helped is through high tech," he said. "It’s happening our there."


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