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Rural Folks Want Perks Without Paying for Them

by Larry Dennison, Guest Columnist
Seattle Post-Intelligencer - September 9, 2000

The Post-Intelligencer's Aug. 28 front-page article "State's rural voters riled by 'urban meddling'" points to the chasm between those in our state who have enjoyed the virtual subsidy of our natural environment and those who believe the scale between thoughtless human development activities and natural processes has tipped dangerously out of balance.

One common thread I found distressing among those who want the government "off their backs" is that they generally want government subsidies but not government regulations. The article says, "Many (rural citizens interviewed) say they need lower taxes, better schools and cheaper prescription drugs." In other words, they want their cake and eat it too, or put another way, every one wants to go to heaven but no one wants to die.

The farmers interviewed wanted legal access to cheap immigrant farm labor, cheap publicly subsidized water, barge transportation and power, cheap grazing rights on public land, but no environmental regulations regarding their impact upon the public's land, water and air resources.

The timber workers and business owners want cheap access to public timber resources, plenty of free water for their mills and cheap electricity but they want freedom from water quality and salmon habitat regulations. One says, "We need to take care of the environment, but not at the expense of people's livelihoods."

The true meaning of this, of course, is "We want the rights but we don't want the responsibilities that go with them."

Well, guess what? It doesn't work that way. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. In exchange for the cheap water and power provided by the publicly created and maintained dams, the farmers, loggers and aluminum companies have unwittingly put hundreds of commercial fishermen out of business at a loss to other local economies of many millions.

Every time a dairy or beef farm loads a stream with fecal coliform, a shellfish farmer downstream goes out of business. What's worse, if the problem isn't caught by the mean ol' government, someone may get seriously ill or die from the fecal coliform toxin. Does the farmer's right to pollute outweigh his neighbor's right to safe food and water?

Before the government finally started regulating the timber harvest along salmon watersheds, the timber owners and companies literally wiped out major salmon and steelhead spawning streams such as the once legendary Deer Creek in the Skykomish watershed. But the regulations came too late. Once the timber industry got used to free access to public timber resources with no environmental responsibility, it became their "right." But that right came at the expense of what was once an infinitely renewable sustainable fishery.

One mill worker in the article even blamed falling lumber prices on spotted owl and fisheries regulations. Last time I checked the law of supply and demand, taking supply off the table normally would add to the price of limited resources. Lower demand is more likely the logical culprit for low lumber prices, I would suspect.

Clean water, clean air, healthy watersheds, safe shellfish, and sustainable salmon stocks are public resources. They are not there for private exploitation at the expense of the public, even though that has been the historic model forced upon us by past special interest politics.

Think of regulations as the minimum responsibility that goes with living and working in this "neighborhood" we call Washington. They are not forced upon you by "urban meddling." They are the price we all must pay for using -- and often abusing -- the public's resources. This responsibility hits current generations harder because past generations didn't pay their share. Unfortunately it is time for us to pay their piper. Voting for George Bush simply puts the pain off for the next generation to deal with. However, the piper will be paid, and it won't get any easier or cheaper.

Larry Dennison is a former Jefferson County commissioner and retired businessman. He lives in Port Townsend.
Rural Folks Want Perks Without Paying for Them
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 9, 2000

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