Guest Editorial, April 1, 2009 |

Guest Editorial, April 1, 2009

Bruce Margolius, Kamas

A long series of public meetings held by the East Side Planning Commission last year led to recommendations to loosen the tight restrictions of the East Side Planning Code. There was overwhelming public support by the people for changes that de-emphasize agricultural protection and promote property rights. The Commission is now having public hearings about the proposed new mission statement of the Code. It reads:

"To enhance the quality of life in Eastern Summit County through responsible growth that fosters stewardship of the land and natural resources while respecting our rural and agricultural foundation."

Bland as that may sound, it apparently offends self-proclaimed champions of agricultural protection like County Councilor Sally Elliott. Most of those offended, however, neither live on the East Side nor know squat about the grim realities of 21st century agriculture.

The public process is properly influenced by those who show up. As it happens, those who showed up last year rejected agricultural preservation as a primary planning goal because they know that agriculture simply isn’t as viable a livelihood here as it once was. I attended the meeting in Kamas and the majority of people there seemed to be third- and fourth-generation residents whose ancestors owned or worked on ranches or dairies. But times have changed.

Why not farm corn or soybeans? That’s easy. The floor of the Kamas Valley is at about 6,500 feet elevation. We are at 40 degrees north latitude. The only serious agriculture the valley can support is livestock grazing and growing livestock feed for winter. Hobby ranching having a few horses or cows on a relatively small (five- to 40-acre, say) spread isn’t agriculture. It’s a costly pastime. This winter, due to the high cost of hay and the tight economy, many hobby horses are being starved and abandoned.

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Hay production requires the use of heavy machinery, which is why 2008’s high-priced fuel led to high-priced hay. Cattle need to be fed through the winter, and this means that cattle ranching isn’t profitable when the price of steers is down and the cost of fuel is up. Last year was one of the worst for ranchers in decades.

What’s worse, the same Snydervillains who want "open space" on the East Side often oppose cheap summer-grazing leases on federal land, which is another severe blow to the economics of ranching. Ranchers can’t afford to feed cattle year ’round or to graze their animals on ground that could be growing hay for the winter. Without the use of public land, they’re out of business and forcing them to maintain their property as agricultural open space is unfair and, I fear, reflects a cultural ignorance and hostility that should never enter into political debate.

Sally’s criticism of the long and well-attended process is an example of cultural hostility. She asserted that not enough women or shy people had been heard from. I think that plenty of women were heard from and that the culture of my neighbors here on the East Side tends to cast men in the role of spokesmen for their families. Unless they disagree, wives apparently don’t feel the need to be heard too, which is a refreshing change from Snyderville where everyone seems to have something to say, even if it’s to agree at length with the last 27 speakers.

There is no lawful way to force people to farm if it’s unprofitable. If the County isn’t careful, East Siders will sell their water rights downstream and most of this lovely open space will be brown all summer, rather than green.