Poor counties into bucolic Disneylands?
May 26, 1983
The topic this week in 1983 was the French model of rural national park and whether it offered opportunities for the rejuvenation of Illinois’s depressed countryside. The answer was no, of course, but it was (and remains) an intriguing concept.
This version has been edited slightly for readability.
I can't improve on his eloquence, so I will quote him at length. Describing our national park system in the August, 1982, issue of Natural History, Joseph Sax wrote, "Our attraction to untouched wild country is no accident . . . . Exploitation has dominated our relationship to the land, and the unstated premise of the wilderness ideal is that when humans appear on the natural scene, they come as intruders and destroyers."
Sax imagined a collection of parks memorializing this relationship to nature. parks consisting of vast acres of white pine-stumps in Minnesota, acid-killed streams in Appalachian coal country, a dustbowl in Oklahoma. And, he might have added, a cornfield in Illinois. It will strike some observers as stretching the point to include cornfields on that list. Those fields—Illinois's rainforest, its veldt—represent desolation of a subtler sort. A mere century and a half ago the landscape hereabouts was so richly diverse in color, in species, in insects and animal life, in genetic possibility, in mood that it beggared attempts to describe it. Today all that's left is the terrain that once bore it, like a skull whose bare shape only suggests the smile of the face which once adorned it. No solace is offered the weary traveler by these tedious stretches of factory floor.
Economically, the agricultural countryside has been impoverished too. Not so much in the amount of wealth it produces but its variety. People—tradespeople in the small towns and smaller farmers outside them—have been pushed into the margins of the big mechanized grain farms much the way the birds have. The point isn't that human habitation has altered the landscape but that we've done it so very crudely. As Sax puts it, "Our past has left us believing that harmonious relationships between humans and nature are not normal—that perhaps they are not even possible."
Such harmonious relationships did exist, even in Illinois. I mean of course that intermediate "nature" which typified parts of the Illinois countryside until the last fifty years or so—a rural landscape (perhaps more accurately called a humanscape) dominated by small farmsteads, each growing not just cash crops but nuts, orchard fruit and vegetables, and livestock. Farmsteads which grew their own energy and fertilizer in the form of hay and oats for horses and manure. Farmsteads which employed technologies which were comprehensible and sustainable.
There is scarcely any farming of that sort left in central Illinois, only agriculture. But it survives, barely, in parts of western and southern Illinois where the land is too poor to make its industrial exploitation worthwhile. Sax, for example, might have been describing much of southern Illinois to a nicety when he wrote of "places that were left behind in the process of urbanization, industrialization, and agricultural modernization . . . suffering depopulation and drastically declining economies."
Sax wasn't writing about southern Illinois, however, but about rural France. The French, like Europeans generally, have confronted problems of rural decline similar to ours, but with rather a different approach. Rather than relying exclusively on factory relocation schemes or new highways of the sort so beloved by our county-seat Rotarians, the French have chosen to make a virtue of adversity. They have made twenty of their depressed rural areas into national parks.
Let Sax describe them: "The very things that made these places economic disaster areas—isolation, rugged landscapes, small-scale agriculture, and traditionalism—identified them as ideal destinations for urban visitors seeking a change of pace and place." The broader administrative aim of the system, explains Sax, is twofold, to protect the natural resources of the area against further deterioration and to revitalize the towns of the area as part of an effort to preserve traditional ways of life.
These are not parks in the U.S. style. The French would not buy up, say, White County and put in a parking lot and "Please Don't Feed the Rednecks" signs. Instead, the tactic is to offer modest subsidies whose targets vary from place to place but whose aim is to alter economics back in favor of traditional occupations. In one county such subsidy might take the form of a grant to restore a small town hotel, both to add to its tourism amenities and to provide useful work for local craftspeople. The French pay for the repair of, say, thatched-roof cottages, and in the process give locals places to live while sustaining a centuries-old craft and giving tourists something to gawk at.
Such subsidies need not be large to make possible increased flows of money into and out of stagnant rural economies, only intelligently applied. For example, tax exemptions or tax-paid market facilities (including advertising and transport) are just two ways one might make small-scale diversified market farming economically viable again. The French, for instance, pay half the cost of maintaining orchards in one of their regional parks for the manufacture of traditional liqueurs, on condition that such orchards be cultivated using traditional methods and with local labor.
Or take forested land. Presently in Illinois, a rural landowner who keeps land in trees pays taxes as if that land is farmed, which is one reason why so many trees are cut and replaced with corn; the amenities trees provide—wildlife habitat, nuts, watershed protection, beauty—are considered (quoting a State of Illinois forester) "a private donation to the public." A public donation to private forest owners in the form of tax breaks would seem a fairer bargain.
Such experiments in restoring the ecological and economic diversity of the countryside could pay a double dividend in the form of tourism. "City-country days" have been organized for years by local farm bureaus, and enjoy an enduring popularity. The Chicago Tribune, whose readership encompasses more than a few of Sax's urbanites yearning for a change of pace and place, this week published a listing of farm families which take in guests from the city eager for a "weekend of rural living." The French regional parks have assisted the opening of networks of bed-and-breakfast accommodations in private farm homes to cater to just such traffic, much of which travels via marked hiking and bicycling trails—trails which, it should be noted, do not shun towns as ours so often do but seek them out.
The cost? Consider first what we are already spending, and how. Billions have been poured into the countryside since World War II through such agencies as the Farmers Home Administration which built sewer extensions and highways and industrial parks whose effect has been to destroy rather than enhance the fabric of the rural economy and culture. As for direct farm subsidies, well, the USDA's Payment-in-Kind program alone is expected to cost something like $20 billion this year—money spent to sustain an agricultural production system which manages to produce crops the world either doesn't need or can't afford to pay for in ruinous amounts at a cost in cash, topsoil, and energy which no one—farmer, small-town banker, taxpayer—can afford to pay for very much longer.
The prospect of a revivified countryside offering fresh produce to nearby urban markets, open space and forest, expanded hunting and hiking as well as stabilized small towns is appealing. But one would be foolish to underestimate the difficulties in reinventing Eden. As Sax quite correctly points out, facile attempts to transplant institutions from one culture to another have risks. Such an effort would require controls and coordination of both planning and programs which are far less congenial to Illinoisans than they are to the French.
Perhaps more troublesome is the fact that, as Sax puts it, "Our attachment to what the French call their 'patrimony'—cultural, historical, and social—is a good deal less fervent than theirs." And there is always the risk that we would turn our poor counties into bucolic Disneylands. In any event, it won't be until we begin to inquire more carefully into what we buy with our subsidies—as long as the aims of subsidy remain political rather than social, in other words—that even the possibility of programs on the French model can be discussed. I wouldn't make my reservation for that walking tour of "Egypt" just yet. ●
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