Vilsack: Rural America is becoming less and less relevant

Over the weekend, Department of Agriculture Secretary Vilsack lamented that rural America is becoming less of a power-player in the United States’ political landscape.

A month after an election that Democrats won even as rural parts of the country voted overwhelmingly Republican, the former Democratic governor of Iowa told farm belt leaders this past week that he’s frustrated with their internecine squabbles and says they need to be more strategic in picking their political fights.

“It’s time for us to have an adult conversation with folks in rural America,” Vilsack said in a speech at a forum sponsored by the Farm Journal. “It’s time for a different thought process here, in my view.”

He said rural America’s biggest assets — the food supply, recreational areas and energy, for example — can be overlooked by people elsewhere as the U.S. population shifts more to cities, their suburbs and exurbs.

“Why is it that we don’t have a farm bill?” said Vilsack. “It isn’t just the differences of policy. It’s the fact that rural America with a shrinking population is becoming less and less relevant to the politics of this country, and we had better recognize that and we better begin to reverse it.”

Well, I completely agree with Secretary Vilsack, but probably not for the reasons he seems to be suggesting. The Department of Agriculture’s many farm programs exist for almost the sole purpose of providing niche subsidies, benefits, and racket-protection to almost exclusively large agribusinesses, and hardly ever the small or organic family farms that USDA-proponents so often claim they are trying to protect. Let’s not harbor any illusions about that.

When Vilsack says that America’s rural population and clout are decreasing, however, he’s absolutely right — but what he fails to mention that is that these rural populations are not always shrinking out of their own free will. Through the past few decades, there has been a growing war on the lifestyles of rural Americans as radical environmentalists keep trying to confiscate America’s wide open spaces and designate them as untouchable wilderness.

These liberal legions of conservationists, ecologists, climate scientists, and animal-rights activists swoop into these remote communities claiming to know better than the people who live there, and are constantly trying to push rural Americans off of their land or limit their use of it. More often than not, all of this is borne of the belief that human beings are always and necessarily bad for what they envision to be a static natural world, instead of a living part of nature’s never-ceasing dynamism. As Shawn Regan writes for the Property and Environment Research Center, the idea of a stable, primitive, pristine and perfect America in which our presence is wreaking havoc, is just not accurate:

Today, there are more moose in the West than perhaps any point in history—and, in general, we like it that way. …

Yet, in a way, our love for moose amounts to ecological heresy. The traditional view of ecology is that nature should be static and balanced. The influential Leopold Report, written by scientists in 1963 to guide wildlife management in national parks, concluded that parks should be maintained “in the condition that prevailed when the area was first visited by the white man.” Where this was not possible, “a reasonable illusion of primitive America could be recreated.” Taken literally, this suggests there should be no moose in Yellowstone.

But the fact that there are moose in Yellowstone tells us something about nature and our role in it: Nature is a human conception. Our values shape what it looks like, from earlier policies of predator control to the conservation efforts that attract moose to my backyard today. Human action is part of the natural world, not the antithesis of it.

But let that not deter these eco-radicals trying to forcibly mold the natural landscape of their crunchiest imaginings. They consciously want to herd people into cities, because the blights that are human beings deserve only limited space. The saddest part is, their ends are frequently counterproductive: Nobody has more of an interest in efficiently preserving natural resources than the people who fully own the natural resources, which is why farmers, ranchers, and rural property owners make the best conservationists.

These “environmentalists” swoop in with their ordinances and their regulations, start campaigns to prevent drilling or crack down on timber farms, and fence off entire areas from human use. They effectively shut down plenty of rural economies and inflicting poverty in the process, all in the name of saving the sage grouse or the spotted owl, but utterly neglecting to realize that it is their own wolf-introduction practices, land-use policies, love of windmills, and etcetera that are exacerbating the very problems they claim they are trying to fix. Their no-logging-or-grazing, wilderness-designation policies are the very things causing the catastrophic wildfires ripping across the Western states the past few years, and their penchant for top-down federal control often leads to inefficiencies and oversights that directly result in environmental degradation.

Michael Moritz provides an example in the Wall Street Journal of how the Department of Interior is often the culprit that empowers environmental radicals to dismiss economic impacts in the name of preserving nature:

After a seaside area has been designated as wilderness, when is it considered pristine enough by Washington’s standards? Is it after airplanes have been banned from flying over it? After electricity pylons and telephone cables have been removed, cars and bikers prohibited, the roads torn up? When hikers are forbidden access to trails, and kayakers, sailors and snorkelers banished from the water? When eucalyptus trees and other foreign species are eradicated? Or only after Miwok Indians’ arrowheads have been excavated and placed in a museum?

Apparently it is none of the above, at least according to Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar. Instead, he seems to think that turning a tiny portion of the lovely coastline of California’s Marin County (part of the National Seashore) into the first marine wilderness in the continental United States also requires destroying a family-run oyster operation that has conducted business in the same spot for eight decades.

So, as USDA Secretary Vilsack notes, rural America may already be well on its way to becoming an afterthought in mainstream America’s mind — but it’s pretty tough to contend with well-monied lobbies and zealous bureaucrats, conveniently flying beneath the banner of an oh-so-noble cause, working ’round the clock against you.