Loservilles of the West and modern day Ghost Dance
Republican Presidential candidate, Donald Trump, likes to suggest there are “winners” like him and “losers” like most everyone else. And if you want to be on the winning team, you should vote for Trump. Trump has suggested that he is willing to state the truth, and is not inhibited by political correctness. But one truth he is unwilling to acknowledge is that most of his supporters across the West are “losers.”
Surveys have shown that most Trump supporters are older, white, with a high school education or less. These people have suffered a disproportionate decline in their economic prospects and their communities during the past few decades. And they are angry, disillusioned, and ready to blame just about everyone else for their predicament.
At least in the West, many of these people live in the smaller rural communities scattered across the vast spaces of America’s outback. You know them—Challis Idaho, Burns, Oregon, Republic, Washington, Libby, Montana, Price, Utah, Rifle, Colorado, Reserve, New Mexico, and many more that could be named. These towns have not enjoyed the prosperity that western urban areas have experienced.
Playing off of Trump’s analogy of losers and winners, a friend of mine–with no qualms about political correctness–calls these small towns Loservilles.” Of course, not everyone in these rural towns are Trump supporters; nor are all small towns are declining in propriety or vitality.
Nevertheless, for at least a century the rural West has been losing its best, brightest, ambitious and most creative people to urban centers. This brain drain has affected the community values and ability to react effectively to changing economic and cultural issues. These “Loservilles” are filled with the people who didn’t leave.
Though they tend to be pockets of poverty in an otherwise booming west, what they really suffer from is not only economic poverty, but a poverty of imagination.
In the past, you didn’t need to be particularly ambitious, creative or bright to raise a family in these communities. There were jobs in mills, mining, logging, oil and gas drilling, and ranching. However, global economics have taken away most of those jobs.
People in these communities blame environmentalists, the federal government, Muslims, Mexicans, atheists, China, and a host of other people for their situation, when the situation is at least to some extent self-created.
GHOST DANCE RESURRECTED
Disillusioned and uncertain about their future, many of these people are vulnerable to anyone who has simple answers to complex issues.
Whether it is the Bundy family, “Constitutional Sheriffs”, Oath Keepers, American Lands Council, and others, who are reinterpreting the law to suggest that the federal government has no jurisdiction over public lands, this message has found a willing audience in many rural parts of the West who feel they have little control over their destinies.
This enthusiastic acceptance of the “take back federal lands” and other erroneous messages, reminds me of a modern day Ghost Dance. The Ghost Dance was advanced by the Paiute Indian, Wovoka in 1890s. According to Wovoka, if you did the right moves, and sang the right song, the white people would disappear and the bison would return. To the spiritually defeated, and disenfranchised tribes relegated to reservations, the idea of returning to the old ways was an attractive concept. The Ghost Dance spread across the West, but tragically came to an end at Wounded Knee, South Dakota.
In a similar manner, many in these rural communities are vulnerable to the ideas parlayed by the modern day Ghost Dancers.
Many in rural communities want to believe if they could get the federal government out of the way, their communities would thrive once more. They believe if only they could log, mine, drill more, they would be “winners” again.
However, what they don’t understand is that global economics have changed, and even if the federal government wasn’t around to interfere with their desire to ramp up resource exploitation, the old jobs are not coming back.
The irony for these places is most jobs are now with government. The dreaded hated government. For instance, in Harney County where the recent standoff at Malheur Wildlife Refuge occurred with anti-government thugs, 59% of the income in Burns, Oregon, (where community sympathy is strong for getting the government off our backs”), comes from government jobs. Increasingly these rural communities are wards of the state—and dependent on taxpayers from elsewhere.
Harney County, where Burns is located, has only 7,000 residents. Given that many are children, you have a very small tax base. Does anyone seriously believe that Harney County taxpayers could, on their own, fund the construction and maintenance of highways, medical clinics, campgrounds, fire-fighting, and all the other expenses that are borne by taxpayers from outside of the county?
A REAR VIEW MIRROR OF ECONOMY
The future for many of these rural communities like Burns, Challis, Prineville, Escalante, and other similarly situated towns is dependent on fostering and protecting their natural environment.
Study after study has demonstrated that counties with protected lands like wilderness and parks have a more robust economy and more importantly, a more diverse population than those communities that are lacking in such amenities. Not only do these communities attract more “footloose” businesses and retirees, protecting the landscape enhances the attitudes of the communities as well. That is where the economics is today.
I do not want to imply that economics is the only yardstick to use for valuing a community, nor am I ignoring that the fact that population growth and expanding recreational use has its own set of environmental problems. Nevertheless, in many of these communities, economic opportunity is the goal of community leaders, but they often fail to comprehend that looking in the rear view mirror isn’t going to provide the jobs and future they desire.
LOSERVILLE OR WINNERVILLE?
Imagine, what Burns, Oregon (where the Malheur Wildlife Refuge take over occurred) could be if instead of promoting ranching and longing for the “good old days” when logging was a big employer in the community, they instead promoted the area as a great place to live because the proximity to Steens Mountain Conservation Area, the beautiful Wild and Scenic rivers that are near-by, and the wildlife watching at Malheur Wildlife Refuge. Instead of opposing wolf restoration, imagine how the tenor of the town would change if they actively promoted wolf restoration and advocated wildernesses designation for the many roadless lands nearby? The community could boast that it was the center of wildlands in Oregon. And that moniker would resonate with many people who can afford to live anyplace, as well as businesses looking for a high quality of life for their employees.
If these communities wanted to be “Winnervilles” instead of “Loservilles”, they need to recognize that what is truly valuable in today’s world are the remaining wildlands and wildlife in the West. They cannot economically complete with natural resource exploitation in other parts of the world, and jobs in logging, milling, and so forth can easily be exported to Third World countries where labor is cheaper and/or be replaced by automatism here.
What you can’t move abroad are the scenic landscapes of the West, the free-flowing rivers, the wildlife, and the sense of open space. These intangibles increasingly have both economic and spiritual value to an urbanized population. They are attractive to the creative society. To be a winner in today’s economy means looking forward with imagination, celebrating new ideas and innovation, not casting a longing eye backwards in the rear view mirror to restore unsustainable industries.
George Wuerthner is an ecologist and former hunting guide with a degree in wildlife biology
28 Responses to Loservilles of the West and modern day Ghost Dance
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This is one of your very best. You’ve correctly and completely identified our national malaise. Thank you
What a great article! Absolutely on target! Before I realized that you, Geo Wuerthner, had written it, I said to myself, “Who is this great writer, summing up the problem so succinctly!”? And so positively as well! The solutions are there to be embraced! Bravo!
Ralph, really!! You are better than this. George has stooped to a new low. What an elitist!!
Another Watts blowhard response. No rebuttal with facts of any kind, just all mouth.
One of the most abused monikers in society today. Used most exclusively by the residents of Loserville.
A recent comment made by Presidential pageant contender Trump:
“I think I look real good. I mean, I think I look like a president. You mean, you mean Kasich looks better than Trump? I think a lot of people would disagree with that. Cruz? Cruz? You think lyin’ Ted is better?” Trump said Sunday during a speech in Hagerstown, Maryland
Not one of your best articles George. Too many generalities and a lack of focus. Your choice for the title suggests you support Trumps Winners and losers paradigm. These are real people who should not be so readily categorized. Throwing in the tragedy of native Americans was rather insulting and unnecessary to make your point.
George is completely spot-on with this article. I don’t know where you live, but I’m in the middle of what he is describing and I know the mentality he is describing to be true.
I rarely agree with this author (i.e. harvesting trees on federal lands) but this article is the low of the lows. I’ve been to many of the small towns he cited (Burns, Challis, Libby, Prineville and Republic and they all have a few commonalities; isolation and surrounded by federal lands.
“This brain drain has affected the community values and ability to react effectively to changing economic and cultural issues. These “Loservilles” are filled with the people who didn’t leave”.
Wow! So if you like to live in a small community where neighbors know each other, townsfolk are generally friendly and willing to help, like wide open spaces, wildlife viewing, working the land and outdoor experiences, you are a loser. Are there some bigots in these communities, yes, just not as many as in urban areas.
“In the past, you didn’t need to be particularly ambitious, creative or bright to raise a family in these communities. There were jobs in mills, mining, logging, oil and gas drilling, and ranching. However, global economics have taken away most of those jobs.”
I won’t get into his initial demeaning comment but the job losses in mills, mining, oil and gas drilling and ranching can be strongly correlated to local federal land management decisions (i.e. T&E species, major changes in ranching and forestry practices, drought) and not global economics.
“The dreaded hated government”.
I’ve listened to numerous radio broadcasts and personally talked with many, and the vast majority of residents in these communities DON”T hate the federal government. They may not make the headlines like the Bundys but they they just want more say in how local decisions are made.
“Imagine, what Burns, Oregon (where the Malheur Wildlife Refuge take over occurred) could be if instead of promoting ranching and longing for the “good old days” when logging was a big employer in the community, they instead promoted the area as a great place to live because the proximity to Steens Mountain Conservation Area, the beautiful Wild and Scenic rivers that are near-by, and the wildlife watching at Malheur Wildlife Refuge”.
Steens Mountain and Malheur have been in existence for a very long time and while they are promoted, they do NOT provide economic opportunities on an every day basis. Bird migrations occur during realitively short time periods and the Steens Mountains and any wild and scenic rivers are fairly long distances from Burns.
“The community could boast that it was the center of wildlands in Oregon.”
Trust me, I have always looked for innovative ways to do things better, and I know pot is legal in Oregon, but it’s time to put down the pipe George. Burns, Oregon and the other places he noted are too isolated at this time to attract business that he expounds.
I’ve lived in large and small communities, and since I’ve chosen the latter, I’m now officially a “proud loser”.
You call this journalism!
@Gary Humbard: “the job losses in mills, mining, oil and gas drilling and ranching can be strongly correlated to local federal land management decisions (i.e. T&E species, major changes in ranching and forestry practices, drought) and not global economics.”
Global economics aside, those federal land management decisions are intended to internalize the environmental costs of commodity extraction that were previously externalized, that is, socialized. If those costs had been internalized at the outset, fewer jobs in “mills, mining, drilling and ranching” would have been available, and the parents and grandparents of many of today’s rural residents wouldn’t have moved to those communities and had families, who are now left without livelihoods.
It’s unfortunate, and many would argue unjust, that rural communities are now paying the costs of natural resource exploitation carried out in the name of economic development, while the investors who promoted “business-friendly” land-use policies in the pursuit of profit have taken their money and run. Meanwhile, those of us who value native biodiversity and unspoiled landscapes have already paid a very high price indeed.
(It gets complicated, of course. I may owe my own existence to the destruction of the once-vast white pine forests of the Great Lakes region, in which my great-great grandfather was employed.)
Extinction is forever, but unemployment doesn’t have to be. I’d much rather use public funds to buy out, retrain and relocate unemployed rural residents, than to subsidize unsustainable land use practices. After all, no amount of money will bring an entire unique species back from extinction.
Such diverse feedback. Reads a lot like a Jim Beers piece. Either one likes it, or they don’t.
But if you live in one of those places you’ll know it’s a spot on article.
Didn’t say I was taking one position or another, yet residing in an area of similar subject matter, I see the clamoring for days long past, that will never return, be it logging or mining, as productivity has increased as employment has gone down. The equipment available to extractive industries has supplanted the labor intensity that once fed those industries. They ain’t never coming back
I assumed, as is the case whenever someone speaks the truth, there will be a lot of folks who react with reactionary, highly negative diatribes. Mr. Wuerthner’s comments are wholly accurate. I am very familiar with Mackay, Idaho, and his description of the decline of these small towns fits there exactly.
My family has been going there and to the nearby fishing and hunting spots for over seventy years. My Dad fished for salmon & steelhead on the Salmon River as a kid and Big Lost at Box Canyon and all up and down that river for huge trout.
The atmosphere was friendly and welcoming. They wanted tourist dollars, and happily accepted people from all over. No more.
Now locals are suspicious and decidedly UNfriendly. I almost never stop anymore except for gas so I’m sure I can get the hell back down the valley. People in stores have been rude and made it clear that we were not welcome, even as we were handing over our cash. To hell with that.
The local ranchers and landowners adjacent to the river don’t want average Pocatello Joe six-pack with his can ‘o worms and a bunch of kids anywhere they will mar the view for rich Sun Valley Orvis wearin’ fly fishermen who pay top dollar for exclusive access.
The political nature of the area has done a complete 180º flip. They may be isolated but they still get Fox news and Rush on AM radio.
They bemoan the decline of their standard of living but it has little to do with Big Government. Logging has declined because most of the good big trees have already been cut down. What are the Feds supposed to do, let lumber companies take every last one and drive to extinction every last bird and fish? Or Canadian mining companies create more situations like the mine in Colorado that released tons of toxic waste when the EPA, trying to mitigate the huge problem left by the miners who just walked away from it?
It’s hard for me to give a crap about these xenophobic, paranoid, proud to be an ignorant redneck shit holes. Let them stew in their own cow dung.
I’m afraid you are right, although I never got good vibes in Salmon or Challis.
Well stated Kevin…..
I always love George’s articles, but this one may be a wee bit too harsh? 🙂
Two weeks ago in the Challis Messenger there was an article about a speaker from New Zealand who was warning the locals about COMMUNISTS IN THE GOVERNMENT!
Talk about pining for the good old days. “We need to bring back McCarthyism!” He was described as very well received and the writer portrayed this “News” as if it were all accepted fact.
I’m sure Trump is very popular. Obama is regularly portrayed by LTE writers as the worst this or that, ever in the history of…
These folks will eventually either die off or move away like everybody else did. If you aren’t a rancher there is practically no way to make a living.
Tourism is on it’s last leg propped up by ATV trail riders tearing up the countryside.
I read that story too. You know that Challis did not get electricity under 1954. This New Zealand man’s thinking was formulated at about the same time.
Well said George, the “rearview approach to economics” is a dead end. The decline in economic fortunes is hardly the result of “big guvmint,” as the Don’t Tread on Me types proclaim. Resource exploitation economics in the West has always been a boom & bust phenomenon, and such activities typically benefit only a small number of people, most of whom live elsewhere. Moreover, the logging, mining, and livestock industries have externalized their costs to the local landscape in the form of erosion, tainted water, overgrazing, “predator control,” and shattered ecosystems.
For better and worse, the economic future of the West lies in preserving what remains of the natural environment. Tourism and recreation economics dwarf resource extraction, which has proven time and again to be unsustainable. As Thomas Power argued years ago, we need to lay to rest the fear that environmental protection will cause the imminent collapse of communities. History doesn’t show this. The resource extraction model is a dead end despite what a handful of vocal politicians claim. People from around the world don’t visit the West to marvel at devastated landscapes, oil rigs, cow patties, and open pit mines.
George, you’re absolutely right that many small towns in the West suffer from a poverty of the imagination, a misguided notion that somehow the glory days of the past can be revived to secure an economic future. Demagogues and misguided “patriots” are doing a huge disservice to local people and communities by their continuing embrace of discredited models and spewing of mindless propaganda.
This article, while some will see it as harsh, paints a rather accurate picture. I have lived near and amongst some of these towns, and it’s evident that the isolationist attitudes of some of the townies and especially the ranching interests that run the town keep it depressed and sunk. Anti-intellectualism runs rampant in these towns and that mentality does not help their childrens prospect in life. In the end it just becomes a vicious circle that seems to get worse.
I agree. I have thought for a long time that ranching holds these towns in a kind of thrall.
We call it arrogant ignorance here, and they all have it.
I see the truth of George’s message in the small Montana rural community where I live. Wish it weren’t so but denial will get us nowhere.
Good article, George. Earlier today I was discussing how so many people are driven by fear; fear of Muslims, Mexicans, gays, Natives that are a different tribe, or part White. It isn’t only people living in the dying rural communities, though. I don’t know if their attitude is any better or worse than in the distant past. I suppose it depends on who and what you are, as to how you were treated in the past or treated now. I suspect the fear driven blame of anyone and everything that is foreign to their comfort zone seems to have metastasized across this country.
The analogy to the Ghost Dance is not derogatory in my opinion. I have thought that the Ghost Dance is quite similar to how people use and turn to religion or extreme beliefs when they become desperate. The period of the Ghost Dance was a desperate time. Hell hath no fury like annihilating America’s sweetheart who was too Trump-ish in his narcissism to wait for other cavalry units before attacking. Custer deserved what he got, but the price paid by tribes in the West was devastating. Desperation led to the Ghost Dances, which of course, the ‘Christian Nation’ outlawed. Desperation leads to the rise of people like Trump and Cruz.
Desperate and fearful people search for anyone outside their group to blame for all that ails them and a voice that will repair all that went wrong.
George has nailed this issue. The Old West extractors are on the wrong side of history. The problem is they are unable and utterly unwilling to see any other way. “Custom and culutre,” and “way of life,” they inexorably recite.
In spite of their lack of economic clout, rural counties have immense and disproportionate political power. How then to create the change required to move toward Winnerville?