Rural folk unite to be heard over cities' roar

Colorado counties are uniting to challenge the political clout ofDenver in a growing urban-rural clash.

There are no condos here, no strip malls, no rush-hour gridlock. The closest Interstate highway is more than 100 miles away - and it's farther still to the closest Baby Gap.

This is Colorado? Yes. In fact, this is the "real" Colorado, say inhabitants of other rural communities like Center (pop. 2,000). Here, Big R Farm Supply is the busiest retailer in town. Notable recent developments include a potato-flake manufacturing plant and a migrant-worker housing complex. Local residents don't worry about preserving open space; they worry about crop prices and how to keep the next generation from moving away.

Rural concerns are invariably a world away from the big city. And here in the West, the rural-urban divide is deepening.

"There's a growing disparity between these big cities in the West, and the rural areas in these states," says Bob Wurmstedt, communications director for the Center for New West, a public-policy research group in Denver.

Western metropolises, surrounded by vast tracts of land populated by livestock and the occasional farmhouse, are growing by leaps and bounds - further eroding what meager political power rural residents can exercise. Residents here have long groused that city dwellers have little understanding and less appreciation for life struggles in sparsely populated areas.

Now, they are taking action. Last month, rural counties across the state banded together to form a coalition - called ACTION 22 - aimed at increasing their political clout.

"ACTION 22 was set up to give us some real voice in the state legislature - and possibly even federally. I think it's going to be a good way to get our concerns out there," says Saguache County Commissioner Bill McClure, a charter member of the group, which represents 22 southern Colorado counties.

ACTION 22 was patterned after another rural coalition that has long been a political force in Colorado: Club 20, which was founded in 1953 and represents 22 counties in western Colorado, as well as two native American tribes. Together, the two organizations represent nearly three-quarters of Colorado counties. Yet until now, there was no other rural political power like Club 20 anywhere in the West.

Lots of land, few people

"Part of the problem is that while we have most of the resources that drive the economy, we have very little of the population," says Greg Walcher of Grand Junction, Colo., who has been Club 20's executive director for a decade. "We need help on these issues, which is why we were so excited about ACTION 22. If there were groups like this all over the West, we could get a lot done," he says.

Pleas for help

With dozens of concerns ranging from outdated telecommunications technology to inadequate transportation systems, rural leaders say their pleas for state assistance increasingly have been drowned out by those of fast-growing cities from Denver to Colorado Springs.

The state fuel tax, for example, is distributed to counties for road maintenance in proportion to total gasoline sales, explains Mr. McClure. Yet, in relatively remote areas like Saguache County, "we don't sell a lot of fuel, but we have a massive road system. The road tax should be distributed to counties by road use," he says. "People in the urban areas want to use us as their playground, and they want decent roads here."

McClure also believes the state should do more to encourage economic development in rural areas.

While Colorado's metropolitan areas are bursting at the seams, agriculture-based communities like Center struggle to maintain population.

"All the young people move out of here," says McClure, whose grandparents homesteaded here. "Who wants to work in the potato-processing plant? Who wants to work for $5.15 an hour?"

Wanting a share of the wealth

While Colorado's economy, like much of the West, is riding high these days, most of the state's rural areas remain economically depressed. This disparity has long been a feature of the West, where the long distances between metropolises are dotted with little towns that people drive through on their way to somewhere else. And most of the rapid growth of the past decade has been confined to urban areas.

"There's a lack of recognition that this is an integrated economy," says Flo Raitano, executive director of the Colorado Rural Development Council, in Dillon, Colo. "We're the place that supplies food to urban areas; we mine the minerals they use for energy; we supply their water.... But, with the legislation that occurs, there seems to be a lack of sensitivity - or comprehension of - rural interests."

In fact, even as Western states lead the nation in personal income growth, per capita income in the region is among the lowest in the nation.

Moreover, as urban populations swell with newcomers from places like Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago, consideration for rural concerns takes a further hit, says Ms. Raitano. "Historically, most people had ties to the land and to agriculture. Now, they come here mostly from big cities. Or they have long since forgotten their roots, and from whence they came."

But County Commissioner McClure - a tax accountant in Center, as well as former mayor of the town - is optimistic that the creation of ACTION 22 will help build rural political momentum.

"We think this is going to help us out a lot," he says. "It's hopefully going to put things on a more even keel."

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