Economic Sierra County J

Rural Economic Research and Sierra County
Janice Maddox

Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.     ~John Muir

Today I hiked to the Calpine lookout and took the picture of Sierra Valley, above, and the picture looking to the North, below.  The Manzanita is blooming and wildflowers are starting to appear. Sierra County is the greatest place in the world. 

When I tried to sell my parents on the wonders of Sierra County, one or the other would respond with one line, “We’ve been to Switzerland.”   This meant, “There is really nothing else for us to see.”  I have vague memories of Switzerland from when I was a child. Maybe the mountains were taller and the peaks more rugged.  I remember being on a mountain so high we were looking down on, not fog, but actual clouds. After we moved to the United States, we spent as much time as we could in the Uintah Mountains. The peaks of the Uintah Mountains range from 11,000 to 13,500 feet, and it is a beautiful mountain range.

Still, my favorite place in the world is Sierra County.  Partly, our particular mix of people and the local culture enthralls me. We have a unique blend of down-to-earth lunacy that I love. For the most part, we can fight with each other and still show up to help each other. We can yell at each other and then go to lunch. 

I had a head and heart full of Sierra County walking down from the lookout with the valley spread out below feeling a mix of gratitude and concern. The Calpine post office is being considered for closure another potential blow in a series of blows that started a long time ago.  I believe others in the county are experiencing the mix of attachment to our communities along with a sense of helplessness and sadness as businesses close, houses remain vacant, auction signs go up on properties and neighbors we’ve grown attached to leave the area to find work.

At the end of the hike, I sat down at the computer and reviewed research on economic development in rural communities.  I’ve summarized relevant information from the studies I reviewed below. My intent is only to provide the information, not to support an agenda.  What was most surprising to me is how closely Sierra County’s economic decline correlates with factors contributing to a lack of prosperity in rural and frontier counties (technically Sierra County is designated as a frontier county, which involves less population density and more isolation than areas designated as rural).

The most recent relevant study I found was conducted in 2007, although there may be more recent studies out there. It is likely that availability of funding for researching rural concerns has declined since the onset of the recession.  Another study I discuss is from 2006. The other two studies are from 2000 and 2002, but the information appears to still be relevant.  Links to each study referenced are provided at the end of this article.

I wish I could say I found a solution in the research. I did not, I only found validation of our barriers, but I believe being aware of the research as we seek solutions is important.

At the end of the day, our solutions may be based on individual entrepreneurial efforts, which have always been a part of the fabric of Sierra County. I have faith that the people who love Sierra County will not give up and I hope the beauty that surrounds us sustains us during these challenging times.

A study commissioned by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development, titled Why Some Rural Communities Prosper While Others Do Not, May, 2007 found “Only hills and mountains seem to be a geographical handicap for rural prosperity.” “Hills and mountains. might be appealing for retirement and recreation, but these counties have the lowest prosperity percentage, chiefly because of high poverty and unemployment.” 

Additionally, “Relatively few prosperous counties are retirement counties. …The often recommended rural development strategy of attracting recreation visitors and retirees has not yet resulted in prosperous counties, whether because of the places selected by visitors and retirees, the consequences of their arrival, or both.” 

Factors associated with prosperity for rural communities in this study were proximity to more populated areas and warmer temperatures. The article noted, “Factors like temperature, distances to cities, and employment in the nearby region are beyond the control of local rural development actions.”

This study found counties that have more diverse economies have a greater chance of being prosperous. Counties that are dependent on one or two industries suffer when those industries collapse, as has been the case with Sierra County’s timber and mining industries. 

Interestingly, the study found that population growth and rural prosperity do not go hand in hand. Prosperous counties averaged slower growth, compared to non-prosperous counties.

I’m not including the paragraph below to fuel anger in the county towards environmentalists, only to highlight there is a faction that likely believes we shouldn’t be living where we live. A 2006 Carsey Institute report by the University of New Hampshire titled Demographic Trends in Rural and Small Town America stated the following:

In each year between 1994 and 2001, the federal government spent two to five times more money per capita on urban than rural community development (Rathge and Johnson, 2005). Rural areas also received only one third as much federal money for community resources as did urban areas.

Recreational areas face special problems.  Rural areas endowed with natural resources including lakes, rivers, forests and scenic views face serious environmental concerns as well. Continuing growth in such recreational and natural amenity areas is particularly significant because they contain many environmentally sensitive areas. Population growth increases the population density along the forest edge, puts additional pressure on riparian and environmentally sensitive areas, increases use of recreational facilities and complicates forest management and fire suppression (Radeloff et al., 2001; Wear and Bolstad, 1998; Wear,, 1998).

Government is a leading if not the leading employer in Sierra County. It turns out; this is normal for counties in our position and particularly counties that have a high proportion of federal land.  A 2000 report by the National Center for Frontier Communities titled Geography of Frontier America, A View at the Turn of the Century states:

Government-dependent counties derive 30% or more of their earned income from government employment. These counties have slightly higher proportionate representation in the frontier than in nonmetro counties overall, with 48% of all government-dependent counties being frontier counties… This is probably partially due to the much higher proportion of federal land in the frontier. Of all frontier counties, 13% qualify as government-dependent. The government sector often brings with it services and amenities not available to other economies in the remote frontier areas.

This report further stated counties with low population density are most at risk for population loss. This finding was from research conducted during good economic times, nationally. 

A 2002 study titled Perceptions of Rural America: Views from the U.S. Congress showed no surprises.  The perceptions then that would probably hold true today were that there is a lack of a strong national voice to support a rural agenda. Agricultural issues and interests dominated rural policymaking. They admired our values.

All members of congress surveyed at the time agreed upon the need to expand access to the Internet. Broadband was universally seen as a way to open up economic opportunities to rural America. The belief was high tech companies could be lured to rural areas with tax credits and low labor costs, if rural areas actually had comprehensive broadband (This journalist’s opinion:  entrepreneurship through internet-based enterprise may hold the key for some Sierra County residents).

All members of congress saw lack of infrastructure as a barrier to drawing industry to rural communities. Related barriers were cited as being specifically lack of adequate access to healthcare, educational opportunities, water and sewage, and transportation systems. Policy makers identify improving the economy of rural areas as the single most important thing to do to assure the viability of the communities and people who live there.

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