Berwyn: Summit County’s boom-bust cycle
September 20, 2009
During the past couple of weeks I spent a few days high up in the backcountry of the Snake River Basin, watching a team of state and federal scientists sample the water in Peru Creek. The work is aimed at trying to clean up at least some of the pollution that’s streaming from the abandoned Pennsylvania Mine and killing the stream several miles downstream.
As we discussed the latest round of testing, one of the researchers shook his head in disgust as he referred to what he called the triple-R mentality of the old-time miners – “rape, ruin and run.” He did acknowledge that the general consciousness of the mining era didn’t include much in the way of environmental awareness. Even so, they must have known that they were leaving behind a huge mess for someone else to deal with.
We soon agreed that, although we are more cognizant of our own footprint these, days, the same mentality is still sadly prevalent. It was incredibly frustrating to both of us that humankind hasn’t been able to break out of that self-destructive cycle. Despite all our advances in science and technology, we still are compelled to think in terms of short-term economic gain, damn the long-term environmental consequences. Watching the poisonous metallic-blue water burble down the valley, I wondered if, 100 years from now, some future scientists and journalists will be making similar observations about our activities.
I can’t help but think of the real estate development industry when this issue comes up. It’s certainly not the worst offender when it comes to unsustainable development, at least not when you compare it to practices like removing mountaintops for coal. But even though we pay a lot of lip service to environmental protection, we are far from finding a balance between development and preservation. Keeping the same direction and proceeding at the pace we’ve been moving at the past few decades, we are likely headed toward environmental ruin. The growth that was fueled mainly by speculation was – obviously – unsustainable. In hindsight, it was clearly an economic model based on the same boom-bust premise as the mining industry.
The past year has been frustrating in many ways. Along with the many people who suffered as a result of the economic downturn, it doesn’t seem like there’s been a whole lot of soul-searching about what went wrong and how to prevent it from happening again. It feels more like people are just hoping that things will go back to the way they were, or that by tweaking a few rules here and there, by regulating financial practices a bit more tightly, we can avoid a repeat. In general, we seem to be aiming for business as usual, as soon as possible. In that sense, I see the past year as wasted time.
It’s unfortunate, because according to some development experts, those boom-year levels of growth are not going to return anytime soon. And from what I can see, we haven’t spent much time coming up with an alternate model. So what if things stay slow for a few more years? How are we going to sustain local governments and businesses? Can the mega-ski resort conglomerates sustain themselves on income from ski operations alone, without the huge influx of cash from slopeside condo sales? How many tickets, ski school lessons and burgers do you need to sell to keep paying the day-to-day bills, not to mention whatever debt service you have floating around out there? Wouldn’t it better to start planning a long-term sustainable growth model right now, while we have a chance?
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I know it’s not likely to happen. The big economic stakeholders have way too much invested in the boom-bust model to let it go without a fight. But it would certainly serve the larger, long-term interests of our community to at least begin looking at alternatives for the future.
A good place to start would be a statewide roundtable, drawing together economists, business experts and environmental stakeholders, to define what a sustainable future would look like, instead of leaving it purely to the coincidence of market forces. The economic collapse of late 2008 should be the starting point, with the clear recognition that we don’t want to go back to the same cycle. We need to first accept that business-as-usual didn’t work, then find a better way to move ahead.
Bob Berwyn has been reporting from Summit County since 1996 and riding out the boom-bust cycle in the mountains of the West for almost 30 years.