Saturday, November 20, 2010

Rural Area Depopulation is in part Due to Lack of Surrounding Natural Beauty


The subject of depopulation of our farming and rural areas of the U.S. was featured by the USDA's Amber Waves this month. Though the report covered a number of factors, I would just like to point out what has bothered me forever but is seldom talked about.

The point is that for a younger dynamic population to choose an area in which to live, many value outdoors activities and surrounding beauty. Finally, here is a report which covered that factor in its study.

What I saw in my recent drive through Kansas and Nebraska looked like a desert of corn, a vast wasteland as compared to what Lewis and Clark would have seen and would no doubt, if they could see it today, call "paradise lost". Not only that, the trend is visibly palpable to me that the fields are getting bigger, the farm places fewer, and the field edges more sterile.

Why was every square mile of the prairie homesteaded and turned into farmland in this young country? Every lush river and waterway channeled and controlled? Would that policy foresight had required 10% of the best recreational and beautiful prairie lands to remain undisturbed as public lands out of every 100 square miles of the Midwest, for example. Then, the region could still offer the natural beauty and diversity of its original ecologically rich grasslands and waterways for the enjoyment of its inhabitants while providing habitat for the species which should dwell there.

Diversified local small communities are key to making them desirable as places to live. That means diversified in human capital and amenities, as well as in beauty and outdoor public lands to enjoy. One of the reasons large animal vets have disappeared from the rural areas, which is a modern day crisis, is that today's veterinary student has no desire to live in the small town rural community. Quality of life issues such as unique restaurants and grocery store offerings, available quality health care, and internet are all important to would-be small businesses, manufacturers, and entrepreneurs. If you look up a small rural farm town on Wikipedia, under "Recreation" you might only see "swimming pool and 9-hole golf course".

Recently, I eavesdropped on a group of five unmarried twenty-somethings debating whether or not to pursue their dream of "homesteading". The reason they questioned the move, although it was what they truly wished they could do themselves, was the availability of health care and opportunity for their unborn children.

How ironic that a region with vast open spaces as far as the eye can see contains few public lands where residents can go out and enjoy nature. In Britain, Scotland, and Ireland, global travelers choose the rural public walking paths through their countrysides as a holiday destination. The other great irony in this is that our agriculture policy results in overproduction which in turn requires tax subsidization and other price support policies (think ethanol). We could have easily afforded that ten percent of preservation of the original prairie ecosystem.

Current agriculture policy is suicidal in this respect. By alienating its best and brightest potential inhabitants by way of aesthetics, these regions continue to depopulate and become less and less diversified. Now our monocultures dominate all ways of life on the Great Plains.


From Amber Waves:

ERS research has shown that pleasant landscapes are associated with population gain through migration: 70 percent of the low-poverty outmigration counties fall in the bottom third on a composite measure of landscape attractiveness. Lack of forest is a major reason for the low landscape scores, as nearly two-thirds of these counties have less than 5 percent forest cover. Most of these counties have extensive farmland and very little public land.

Their summary:
  • Over a third of nonmetropolitan counties lost more than 10 percent of their population over the past 20 years through net outmigration.
  • Poverty and low education account for the high net outmigration in some of these counties, but most are relatively prosperous. Their outmigration is related to low population density, geographic isolation, and a lack of scenic amenities.
  • Programs that reduce the disadvantages of geographic isolation and that enhance residents’ access to scenic amenities could help slow or reverse net outmigration in many nonmetro counties.
source: Amber Waves
also see: Hollowing out the Middle