ESSAYS FROM WEST OF 98: RURAL AGGRESSION

By James M. Decker

In this space, I’ve previously mentioned a podcast called “Mountain and Prairie.” My friend Ed Roberson interviews a variety of thoughtful guests who have some involvement in shaping the present and future of the American West. Recently, Ed interviewed Russ Schnitzer, a photographer and conservationist from Colorado. In that episode, they discussed the concept of “aggression“ in conservation work. I found this perspective to be refreshing and applicable to work in our rural communities too.

As Ed observed, conservation is sometimes viewed as “feel-good” work. It has a nonprofit focus, so it should have a laid-back, “everybody wins” mentality, right? Not so. Viewing conservation work in that manner misses the point entirely. These are extremely serious issues with important consequences to the future of the American West and its people: preserving water rights, protecting ranches and agriculture production from urban sprawl, managing population growth in a way that doesn’t outpace an area’s water supply and other natural resources. Conservation might be a word that SOUNDS “feel-good,” but the outcomes are very serious. 

The same applies to rural economic development and revitalizing our communities. That sounds like a nice thing, but it’s deadly serious. It’s not an opportunity to give someone a laid back job, or to have an occasional board meeting to shoot the breeze and ponder life. Or, as many communities experience from time to time, it’s not an opportunity to waste time bickering over personal disputes and petty differences of opinion. 

For many places in the American West, the future of property rights, availability of natural resources, and the agriculture economy are dependent on sound conservation work. For many of our rural communities, our future prosperity, quality of life, and heck, even our very existence, is dependent on sound economic development. Russ commented that not being aggressive in conservation work is actually insulting. I agree. I believe the same applies to rural economic development. If you don’t treat it aggressively, do you really understand the consequences of NOT being successful?

Action is necessary. Continuing the status quo is not acceptable. I’ve talked about this before, but if the status quo was going to work, it would have already worked by now. There’s an old saying that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over again and expecting different results. But action is necessary by US. That means you and me. Simply waiting on “someone else” to help—whether it’s the government, a deep-pocketed savior who suddenly appears in town, or a magic genie—isn’t a serious solution. If that “someone else” is the government, we might find that the levers of power are managed by people with their own needs and goals that have nothing to do with rural America. They’re not going to prioritize us (at least in a real, non-patronizing way) anytime soon. 

Like conservation, rural economic development is a serious business with serious consequences. Russ and Ed observed that, instead of applying a laid-back philosophy, we need to apply the same philosophies that are used in business, finance, technology, and other for-profit pursuits. These businesses operate with an aggressive mindset. That mindset does not require one to be dishonest or mean, but it does require one to recognize that it is a serious business with serious consequences and act accordingly. If time and money is expended with the intent of affecting peoples’ lives, then results are required. 

Results also require risk. Russ pointed out that conservation organizations often suffer from paralysis—they’re unwilling to try new methods, policies, etc. for fear of failure. Like it or not, success and results require risk. They require trying new, different things. Not everything will work, but educated, unsuccessful decisions will inform better future decisions. 

I’ll leave you with a quote from Russ Schnitzer that applies to rural economic development as much as it applies to conservation:

“We can’t keep doing things the way we’ve been doing them and expect to dictate the terms of our future.”

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James Decker is a lawyer, farmer, and mayor in Stamford, Texas, and the creator of the forthcoming “West of 98” podcast and website. He may be contacted through Facebook at facebook.com/james.decker. Listen to our podcast interview with James here.

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