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Farming Community. Photo by Christian Heitz

The TwispWorks economic analysis of the Methow Valley is a good analysis of the demographic and economic characteristics of the Valley. Most noticeable is the economic disparity between new residents who have for various reasons chosen to move from urban environments to rural Methow. Many are able to remotely work and maintain large salaries in the $200,000 range. This living standard is in contrast to the average income of Okanogan County residents of $57,779 annually. This is compared to other statistics where the population is aging and poverty is increasing among long term residents.

The income disparity - rather than a problem of equity is more one of economy of scale. The higher income earners earn their income outside the economics of Okanogan County in job areas where higher wage earnings are possible, especially if related to high end and digital technology. In contrast, Okanogan County and specifically the Methow economic capacity is based on resource use such as agriculture, grazing and commodities such as forest products and mining. While these are still players in the county economy, their contribution has decreased. This is more the case for the Methow as it became more of a tourist and recreation economy with a high-end building industry. This demand has increased home and property values pushing local living costs outside the range of the incomes based upon the local economy.

The TwispWorks study recognized the decline of the resource-based economy and the emergence of a recreation and tourist economy. The study also noted that the changes in the Methow economy and demographics has led to an outcome many sought to avoid, "Aspenating" the Methow (becoming like Aspen Colorado). The study did not evaluate the forces that drove this direction in the Methow.

The beginning of the change originated with those who wanted to enhance the economy in the Methow. The first actual development in this direction was building the North Cascades Highway which was completed in 1972. Closely associated with the highway completion was the Early Winters Resort Ski Hill proposal submitted in 1978 by Methow Recreation, Inc. The prospects of a destination ski resort along with the North Cascades highway drew investment interest which began to affect land values before the 1980’s. At the height of interest and assurance of project completion, land speculation increased.

Individuals were not unaware of the threat the Methow could become like Aspen Colorado early on in the sequence of events. These fears attracted a significant association of people from Methow Citizens’ Council to Okanogan Wilderness league and the Mazama Advisory Council. The biggest voice was opposition to the resort development. The means used to oppose development and preserve the character of the Valley (this affected the Okanogan Valley as well) was to attack access to resources such as water, use of private land, grazing range, forest products, and mining. While not all these efforts were directed at the proposed resort issue, what was not recognized was the attack on the basic custom, culture and economic welfare of Okanogan County. As a resource economy, all resource use and formation of usable products from resources are interconnected.

Most agriculture in Okanogan County is not self-supporting nor are all resource jobs year-round. If agriculture is considered, one member of the family is required to work outside the farm or ranch to make an adequate family income. If that option is not workable, many created other businesses to supplement their farm income. Employment in other resource jobs provided the work with adequate pay. It was not uncommon for men to work in the forests or mill while also taking care of their farm. The reduction of resource jobs in forestry and mining directly affected the viability of agriculture. Efforts to reduce grazing opportunities is a further burden to ranchers. Agriculture and other resource jobs worked in a connected way to provide adequate living.

Rural economy works differently from an urban economy. A resource-based economy like Okanogan County requires coordinating use of resources to live. Operating a small farm or ranch would provide food and profit to cover basic expenses. Supplementing farm income with work in forestry or mining often was sufficient to make a good living. This lifestyle meant that one did not have the same out of pocket expense of urban living for food and shelter if one also owned their property. The level of self-sufficiency of growing or making the things one needs means one can live on a lower income. Those living in an urban economy do not often have the opportunity to be as self-sufficient. Higher earned income is necessary to purchase all needs and wants. Also, the perceived need for products and services provided by an urban economy affects the profits and associated incomes. Nor are urbanites aware of their dependence on resources originating from a resource-based economy.

In retrospect, the effort to address impacts from a potential resort should have focused on strengthening the resource economy. This would continue the growth of associated businesses that pay better than those in the tourist industry and create good competition for land use that preserves agriculture and forestry related jobs. For a resource rich environment, human involvement is necessary to maintain harmony and balance between the human and natural environments. This is obvious with the overgrown forests and large fuel loads that have contributed to catastrophic wildfires. Those who have worked to limit commercial harvests on forest and preserve a natural unmanaged forest have drastically reduced, if not destroyed, the wood products industry in Okanogan County as well as the health of our local forests.

The answer to the issues presented in the economic analysis range from some form of assistance for housing to addressing the differences between new, part time residents and locals. While not unimportant, little reference is made to creating a holistic economy that diversifies opportunities beyond a focus on tourism and utilizes the resources in the Okanogan. A holistic economy requires a change in understanding the importance of human participation in the environment. This is important in reference to developing the remaining resource economy. For example, the forest products industry was drastically reduced over concerns of over-harvesting and damage to ecosystems. The question was never raised regarding how to harvest products from the forest in a sustainable manner that also addresses wildfires, increases water retention, uses regenerative grazing and maintains or enhances forest ecology. These are important questions that must be raised. Concern for the environment needs utilize principles that are holistic in its inclusion of active human participation in the environment that gives human access to the natural resources that support human life and industry.

--Dick Ewing

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