The Census numbers don't lie: Oklahoma is urbanizing. And fast.
Of the seven fastest growing counties (up at least 20 percent) in the last decade, all but one is adjacent Tulsa and Oklahoma City. Of the 23 counties whose population dropped, all are located in rural Oklahoma, including four on the state's outer boundaries -- Cimarron, Harmon, Tillman and Grant -- that suffered declines exceeding 10 percent.
I know what you're thinking: Tell me something I don't know. Young adults for decades have pursued careers in the cities, painfully aware that the typical family farm no longer supports more than one generation at a time.
What many may not know -- or have given little thought to -- is that the mass migration to the state's metro areas is creating some painful choices for Oklahoma's political leaders.
For example, how can you ensure adequate health care in areas where declining population makes it all but impossible to attract new doctors and nurses? How can you provide adequate public education when it costs more and more to transport fewer and fewer students to the classrooms? And what state resources, if any, should be deployed in efforts to save some Oklahoma towns from irrelevance -- or outright extinction?
It was nearly a quarter century ago that two East Coast academics sought to jump-start a serious conversation about the dwindling rural population in the Great Plains. Frank and Deborah Popper suggested one possibility: a systematic depopulation that would result in a series of good-sized, regional towns surrounded by a "Buffalo Commons" of restored prairie, filled with bison -- a natural for ecotourism and other niche marketing.
In Oklahoma and elsewhere, the Poppers were jeered with the equivalent of a collective "Yankee, go home!"
Their proposal didn't go anywhere, but neither did rural Oklahoma's problems. In fact, they've been made worse by the out-migration over the last decade. And often, these problems end up in the Legislature, where urban and rural lawmakers wrestle over what the state can -- or should -- do to resolve them.
Just such an issue is currently on the legislative radar: The state tourism department's decision to close permanently seven state parks on Aug. 15 because of ongoing budget cuts.
The parks -- Adair State Park, Stilwell; Beaver Dunes, Beaver; Boggy Depot, Atoka; Brushy Lake, Sallisaw; Heavener Runestone State Park, Heavener; Lake Eucha, Jay; and Wah-Sha-She, Copan -- are all vitally important to the beleaguered economies in their rural areas.
They share something else in common: they were all money losers last year. According to state figures, it cost $509,710 more to operate them than they took in.
In a March 30 letter to the chairman of the Senate Tourism and Wildlife Committee, state tourism director Deby Snodgrass made the case that her agency had exhausted all other means to avoid the closures.
"Over the past two years," she wrote, "we have implemented furloughs, voluntary buyouts, left vacant positions unfilled, reduced our seasonal budgets, expanded state park winterization efforts and consolidated property management to address budget reductions."
Indeed, she noted, her agency "is facing budget cuts of at least 5 percent for FY 12 -- on top of a 13 percent cut last year. Since 2009, the Tourism and Recreation Department budget has been cut a staggering 19.8 percent."
Snodgrass, appointed by first-year Gov. Mary Fallin, then asserted that "even if the agency were not facing budget cuts, these closures should be considered" because most of the state's population "is located in six counties along the I-44 corridor; there are two parks in those six counties."
Moreover, she said, "of the 42 parks, 11 are located west of I-35; 31 are located east of I-35. All but one of the parks being closed is located roughly 30 miles or less from another state park. Five of the seven parks are 25 percent self-sufficient or less."
If it were a private business, making a strictly dollars and cents decision, it might be simple -- though surely the astute owner would take into account the potential for current cost centers to become revenue producers.
But as much as the Tea Party crowd would like to suggest state budget decisions are similarly black and white, they're not. Decisions to close state parks not only affect workers employed there, but also the communities and businesses around them. As taxpayers we often decide -- via our elected lawmakers -- to invest public dollars with no guarantee of return because we believe it is in the best interests of the state.
Whether any or all of these state parks should be closed is a decision that should be made by the Legislature as a whole, not by the tourism department alone. The agency is looking at its bottom line. The Legislature is charged with assessing a much bigger picture -- including whether it's worth it to the state, as a whole, to save these parks that are important to the communities near them.
It's impossible, of course, to divorce such a process from power politics, so it's worth noting that six of the seven parks targeted for closing are in Eastern Oklahoma -- in districts represented by Democrats. Is it a case of "to the victors go the spoils"?
Tourism is a vital leg on Oklahoma's economic stool. It's also a quality of life component -- especially at a time when skyrocketing gas prices and a sluggish economy leave many Oklahomans with no choice but to take short driving vacations, if they can vacation at all.
But there's an even bigger picture to consider: What are we going to do about rural Oklahoma? Are we going to abandon our rural brethren? Are we embracing a de facto Buffalo Commons? Or are we going to join forces in a quest to breathe new life into economically distressed small towns?
Maybe it comes down to this question: Are we our brother's keeper?
--(Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; okobserver.net)
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