We weaved among the tall buttes looming above the Southern Idaho desert in the early hours of a Tuesday morning, speeding past Craters of the Moon and its craggy lava flow surface, car stuffed with pads of paper, easels and markers — the essential tools of the public participation trade.
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Beyond the vast, empty stretches of land, we arrived in the heart of the mythically named Lost Rivers Valley — the remote communities of Arco, Mackay and Moore.
We were part of a volunteer team of planning and economic development experts from state and local agencies, traveling to the region to participate in an initiative known as the Idaho Community Review. The Idaho Rural Partnership sends these teams to towns with fewer than 10,000 residents to provide advice and expertise on a host of issues ranging from drumming up new economic opportunities to finding solutions to rural community challenges.
“I think of this as a high impact sport for community development geeks,” team member and community review veteran Erik Kingston told a group of residents.
Over 14 years in 33 communities, IRP has collected data, conducted interviews and published reports distilling a few short day’s worth of analysis into a planning document that can be used for community grant proposals, strategic planning, attracting new businesses or tourism or even to kickstart new forms of community involvement.
As a self-funded state organization, IRP consists of one full-time staffer, planner Jon Barrett, and a bird-dogging former politico turned IRP fundraiser, Mike Field. They accepted a rare joint application for a community review in Arco and Mackay earlier this year.
For the Lost Rivers community review, our team addressed three focus areas identified by the communities: economic development, community design & identity, and civic life & community involvement. “Home team” volunteers and a squadron of “visiting team” participants designed our approach over weeks of conference calls prior to the visiting team’s arrival on September 23.
For clarification, there are two “Lost River” valleys — the Big and the Little — separated by the Lost River range. The waterways are “lost” as they disappear into the dirt, only to reemerge across the state to the West, at Thousand Springs.
Arriving in the Big Lost River Valley, I was immediately struck by our surroundings. Rounding a bend in Highway 20 approaching Arco, the craggy face of “Number Hill,” festooned with tall white numbers representing graduation years painted by local high school seniors, presents a stunning, if somewhat sophomoric backdrop to the Valley. Landscape plays a large role in how visitors interact with the place.
It’s eerie just how alien the Lost Rivers Valley landscape appears at first glance. Farmsteads with sprawling center pivot irrigation systems are a familiar sight in Idaho, but rarely are they juxtaposed with the dramatic geology of the Northern Rockies, as they are in Mackay and Moore. In the shadow of Mt. Borah and other nearby peaks, a distinct lack of vegetation conveys a sense of lifelessness. There’s a feeling of human settlement as it might take place on Mars.
Likewise, Idaho National Laboratory’s sprawling series of highly securitized complexes, scattered across thousands of acres of desert in Southern Butte County, are impossible to miss. Its yellow commuter buses deposit legions of workers at “the site,” as it’s known colloquially, further enhancing the otherworldly feeling of the Snake River Plain.
But visitor perceptions vary. Even in “Number Hill,” some saw a time-honored community tradition (the oldest number dates back to 1920). Others saw unsightly graffiti. Resident opinions of Number Hill likely vary, as well.
Different groups of outsiders, rigs loaded with ATVs and other myriad recreational gear, perceive the area’s wide open spaces with a sense of awe, and nurse idyllic concepts of outdoor adventure. Visitors summit Borah, fish the valley’s watering holes and traverse its ATV trails. Tourists view the Valley through a windshield or a helmet visor — while regular community dinners, the annual Atomic Days celebration and other events take place just off screen.
Permanent residents of the Valley, while living next to nature, realize the true challenges of life in rural America.
Stagnation and population loss loom like Borah Peak over the Lost Rivers Valley. Technological change does not drive the economies of rural Idaho. In a report on the economic development challenges facing Butte, Custer and Lemhi Counties, compiled by the University of Idaho Extension program, editors opined:
Perhaps abundant beautiful scenery and recreational opportunities should drive the economies of three Idaho counties in the heart of Idaho’s Northern Rocky Mountains. But they don’t.
There’s a sadness that pervades marginal tourism communities — not special or connected enough to attract the leisure class, like Sun Valley, yet struggling not to fade from the map.
“We used to get snow in Mackay,” Mayor Wayne Olsen told our team. “When I was in high school we could hitch a ride up to Mine Hill and ski all the way down to the River. Now the snow doesn’t get deep enough to cover the sagebrush.”
Economic opportunity in the Big Lost River Valley has dwindled — first in the 1930s when the torrent of activity surrounding Mackay’s genesis industry — mining — dwindled to a mere trickle, and ultimately ran dry, in the Pioneer Mountains to the city’s southwest. In the 1980s, a spur line of Union Pacific’s history-making Oregon Short Line railroad, also part of the region’s mining exploration, was ripped out of the ground and sold piecemeal. During their childhood years some residents recall that trains were a regular sight, chugging up the Valley from Blackfoot. But no longer. The rail right-of-way has since been absorbed into farming operations, erasing its original presence, and the connections that rail service once delivered.
Today, these communities are tied to the larger world by way of state highways, limited local airports and broadband Internet. Their place in the world economy appears more tenuous than it might once have, as population growth fails to make up for out-migration. Butte and Custer Counties combined are home to fewer than 8,000 people, according to the 2012 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates, down from approximately 10,000 in 1985. According to residents, layoffs and closures at the nearby Idaho National Laboratory have negatively impacted the region. A majority of Arco residents’ jobs require a commute to Idaho Falls, Pocatello and Blackfoot. 31.7 percent of jobs for Mackay residents are located in Challis.
For more detailed reading on challenges facing this region of Idaho, read “Economic Development Challenges for Small Towns in Idaho’s Butte, Custer and Lemhi Counties.”
It’s easy to make assumptions about the people who live out there. Colloquial jokes about radiation from nuclear energy projects and the usual pejorative connections to rural places stereotype diverse groups of people. Some quip a faint “glow” should emanate from Arco due to its close proximity to INL.
And yet, community cohesion perseveres. Community events comprise a huge portion of local life. We learned about regular meals served at the Senior Center in Arco, of community dinners and barbecues like the one held around a massive Civilian Conservation Corps grill in Mackay’s “Tourist Park” (a free place for visitors to camp). Atomic Days marks the history of nuclear power in Arco, and comprises a multi-day, annual festival including a parade, a rodeo and a respectable softball tournament.
Our work revealed the passion behind individuals committed to doing something for their community. As part of the trip, the communities agree to feed the visiting team, and in this I saw individuals selflessly volunteer long hours to arrange meals, delivering breakfast, lunch and dinner to different venues. In Arco, a wonderful young woman prepared a pasta dinner in commercial kitchen space at the community’s Arco Butte Business Incubation Center (BIC) — served alongside homemade salads. We dined with them, enjoying easy conversation over plastic cutlery and paper plates.
The same woman who prepared spaghetti also presented her concept for a motocross track, one that would connect with the region’s expansive ATV trail network and provide a place for large skills and endurance tournaments.
Resourcefulness has contributed to positive outcomes for residents. We met with members of the Moore Community Association, a group formally organized to beautify their town after completing a leadership training program offered by the University of Idaho Extension. The upstart non-profit has since secured significant grant money from a private foundation to build a new community center.
Moore, located halfway between Arco and Mackay on Highway 93, is the smallest of the three communities we studied. The small town represents little more than a supply store. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 189 people call Moore home.
Donated labor significantly reduced construction costs for the new community center. Rather than pour a foundation, the building will rest atop a concrete pad formerly used for tennis courts — still marked with the white paint of service and baselines. Moore Community Association members hope the centrally located “Valley Community Center” will live up to its name and serve as a regional facility for events and gatherings. Opening is scheduled in time for the city’s annual Christmas party, marking a huge improvement — the previous four years of Christmas parties took place in the dingy confines of a spare root cellar.
Bootstrapping is a way of life in rural Idaho, in a way that it’s not in bigger cities. In planning parlance, we’d indicate that the region has social capital, but lacks other capacities. That is, the folks in these towns know what’s what but may not be sure how to get there.
Challenges exist in every community, urban or rural. Scale and degree enter the equation in considering planning challenges in rural Idaho. What will ultimately bring success and satisfaction to the state’s challenged rural communities? My visit begs this and other questions, questions I will continue to ponder back in the metropole of Boise, within the halls of academia. Will the Community Review experience prove as meaningful and useful for residents of Arco, Mackay or Moore? The answer is largely up to them.
But the community review process is clearly important to cash-strapped rural Idaho communities, as evidenced in a letter City of Arco Mayor Ross Langseth wrote ahead of our visit, to express his thanks to Idaho Rural Partnership director Mike Field:
We have researched the potential of having an outside agency provide similar services at a cost of over $100,000. With a total budget for economic development for The Lost Rivers Valley of under $45,000 (wages, travel, utilities, taxes, insurance, etc. included), the Community Review Program through Idaho Rural Partnership is heaven sent!
Programs like the Idaho Rural Partnership are a real opportunity to help Idaho’s communities better address their challenges, make strategic decisions for the future and respond to — or even embrace — change. Andrew Crisp is a planning student at Boise State and graduate fellow for TBR. He participated in the Lost Rivers Community Review in both capacities.
To paraphrase Canyon County Development Services director Patricia Nilsson, adequate planners can identity problems. It’s the really good planners who can offer solutions — employing methods that work to move the needle on community issues.
To the extent that our participation in the Lost Rivers Valley can help residents organize, collaborate and establish a common vision for their future, this method produces positive steps for small town Idaho to help lay the vital foundation of good planning.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.