Living On The Edge In Small-Town AND Rural America

Commentary by Sanford "Sandy" Wilbur

Updated May 2014

During my career with the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, I saw a lot of rural and small-town living. I saw towns dying when mines gave out and closed. I saw communities suffer when the crab harvest or the salmon harvest or the cod harvest was no longer adequate to support the local fishing fleet. I saw livestock-dependent economies falter because changing food preferences reduced the profits from cattle raising. I saw hundreds of people out of jobs because a national or international business bought out a local paper mill, then arbitrarily closed it down. I saw logging communities without paychecks because (in some cases) the spotted owl caused local cutting to be curtailed, and (in other cases) because most of the local commercially valuable timber had been cut, and the lumber companies moved on to greener "pastures." I've seen all this, and more, so I know that it is true that - despite what is usually (if not at the moment) an amazingly prosperous national economy - many smaller communities are undeniably LIVING ON THE EDGE.

In a way, this is nothing new. Whole occupations have come and gone: to use the often-used example, generations of stagecoach makers eventually ran out of a job, no matter that they really wanted to continue to be stagecoach makers. But of course there's a whole lot more involved, now. Not only are the stagecoach jobs gone, but the whole national means of earning a living has changed. Many traditional occupations are going, or are already gone. Wealth is no longer controlled at the local level, and many communities have found themselves in the position of having very little say about their own economic well-being. None of this is likely to change back in favor of the small town.

The problems are worst where communities have grown up around a single economic resource - whether it was logging, mining, grazing, farming, fishing - or around a single job producer - a paper mill, an auto plant, or a steel mill. Of course, this is true of virtually all small towns and rural communities. If one resource gives out, or if a main job source disappears, not only do those directly involved suffer, but all the other businesses and social structures that grew up around the primary source fail, also.

The solution seems like it ought to be simple: DIVERSIFY. But many things get in the way of diversification:
- Change may not seem possible. If your livelihood in Vermont is controlled by a corporation in Ohio - or maybe in Germany or Japan - you probably have very little say in how the business is handled. Jobs may be gained and lost, salaries changed, benefits modified - facilities may completely disappear, taking all jobs with them - without any concern for, or input from, the local area. 

-People find it very hard to change. This isn't just contrariness: for many rural and small-town people, their job isn't just their job - it's part of their culture. This is sometimes difficult for "city folks" - for whom company-changing, and even career changing, is a way of life - to understand. But it is truly life-shaking for many men and women to be confronted with the fact that they will not be able to devote their life to the occupation and society that kept their parents, grand-parents, and possibly great grand-parents going.

-People don't like the obvious options for change. All the talk nowadays seems to be about either computers or tourism. Few people who have a tradition of earning their living in the open air would willingly change for a job in front of a computer screen (even if they could make a lot more money by changing, which is not so easy, either). Few people who have worked hard with their hands in a mill or a factory or in the woods have any desire to herd tourists around. (In fact, the very idea of tourism is repugnant to many rural people - people with too much money running around making nuisances of themselves, when they should be doing something useful!)

-People are afraid of change. For instance, I found few ranchers or small-town residents who could picture "tourism" that didn't end up in their minds looking like Disneyland or Cape Cod or Las Vegas. Because they value their uncluttered lives, promoting that kind of change does not come naturally or willingly. They are not aware that there are other kinds of tourism that may be quite compatible with their way of life.

Granted that diversification and change are often very difficult, some communities are learning to do them - and learning how to control their own destinies, in the process. In these webpages, I'll share with you some of the things I've seen and heard about, that may give you some ideas useful in your own situation. I hope to add new pages periodically.

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