Thursday, February 24, 2011

Looking back and looking forward

I recently read an opinion piece on the Amador Community News website that yearned for the good old days when our local economy was based on mining, timber, and dam building. While a sentimental look back at what used to be doesn’t really hurt, trying to build our future local economy to simply mimic the past may not be the best idea. Maybe it’s time to look forward, instead. After all, a few things have changed in the last 60 years.

And if we’re going to look as the past, we ought to do it with a critical eye. The author of the ACN piece glossed over some important details in his vision of a thriving future based on the resource extraction industries of the past. For example, he brought up the Devil’s Nose Dam project, which he supported back in the early 1990s and I fought to stop. That dam was never built, largely because it didn’t pencil out. But even if it had been financially feasible, there were plenty of other problems with the proposal.

For one, it would have relied on the county securing new water rights from the state. Because of the water deal our county board of supervisors cut with East Bay MUD in 1958, any new water rights on the Mokelumne are “junior” to EBMUD’s Pardee and Camanche rights. That means in a dry year, EBMUD would get water first. It’s not an especially good idea to base future water supply on junior water rights. That’s one reason that the Amador Water Agency never had any role in the Devil’s Nose proposal (it was a county project, on which the county blew millions with nothing to show for it in the end).

In addition, the Devil’s Nose Dam would have flooded 9.5 miles of wild North Fork Mokelumne River canyon above Tiger Creek Powerhouse, including valuable archaeological sites and critical wildlife habitat. Doing that sort of thing in this day and age is incredibly difficult. This is not the 1920s, when dam-builders could stick a dam wherever they could get the water rights without regard to the collateral damage (they also took the best dam sites). We have new laws to protect the environment and cultural resources, reflecting changes in society and values since the dam-building heyday of the early 20th century.

There were other reasons the Devil’s Nose Project wasn’t built, but like anything someone thinks is a good idea, it lives on in the fantasy world of “what if we had just done this” where some folks like to dwell.

As far as a return to the days of big timber goes, you only have to know that our local timber industry closely followed housing starts to see how unsustainable that can be. Instead of returning to the days of yore, forward-thinking folks are working to build a new, more-sustainable forest economy based on reducing fire danger in our communities and forests, thinning overgrown plantations, restoring streams and meadows, and repairing poorly built and maintained forest roads that threaten water quality.

I just helped a team of people write a sizeable funding request to get some of this off the ground. It’s investment in our natural, social and economic infrastructure.

Even if the forest project isn’t funded this year, it’s a good start on what needs to “come next” to provide decent paying forest-based jobs, build new forest-based businesses, and create products local people need and use. It also takes into account the reality of natural resources: you have to use them at a sustainable rate or you will, in fact, use them up.

That brings to mind another problem with traditional resource extraction: It relies almost entirely on external markets. Housing starts drop, sawmills close. Price of gold drops, mines close. That makes a traditional extraction economy incredibly vulnerable to forces way beyond local control. Can you say “boom and bust?”

As we move toward a more-sustainable local economy, we would do well to develop our own internal, local markets as much as possible. We do need to sell products outside the county, too, but if we hitch our horse to one, big externally driven market again – whether in housing, minerals or whatever – we’ll be in for more wild rides. Building a strong, diversified local economy is better for all of us in the long run.

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