Using tourism to increase resource awareness

Less than 3 percent of the American gross domestic product is from current solar energy. By this I mean sale of farm and forest products that are in turn the products of photosynthesis. In colonial America of the 1790s, an estimated 90 percent of the population drew their living from the soil.

This situation is a product of our farm policy, and of technology. Nationally, the smallness of the forest and agricultural production sector results in a decrease in its economic, political, and cultural clout. One of the most dangerous consequences is people believing that food comes from the supermarket. It's a widespread notion that if the auto industry should collapse, the U.S. economy would collapse with it. It is very seldom acknowledged, particularly in big-city papers, that much more than the economy rests on the 3 percent solar production sector.

In effect, our economy is an upside-down pyramid, with the point consisting of the 3 percent solar production. Distribution and processing of agricultural products is a sector many times larger than farm gate receipts. Services and manufacturing are still larger. Yet all of them depend on food and fiber--the point of the pyramid.

In turn, the gross domestic product is but a fraction or point of an even larger pyramid that consists of an enormous and almost inconceivable volume of currency trading and various types of speculation.

Alarming as it is, this situation is not likely to improve much in the immediate future. What can we do to keep people aware of the importance of the point of the pyramid? What resources do we have to spread awareness of the links between community, agriculture and forestry, and soil health?

One of the big ones is the tourist sector. Especially in Wallowa County, it is our primary means of exchange with the larger public. What if we had a tourist sector that did a better job of bringing people together--stockbrokers and ranchers, civil servants and tree farmers? If every community in eastern Oregon had such a tourist sector, would we still face divisive and punitive Measure 38s every couple of years?

Last year the Wilderness Society released a report, authored by Ray Rasker, that in effect suggested that the economies and communities of the interior Columbia Basin abandon or downsize that portion of their economy derived from photosynthesis, and jump on the bandwagon of the service sector. The message is that agriculture, ranching, and forestry are dying, outdated industries, and that in order to survive, these people should move into service businesses, espresso stands, and bed and breakfasts.

I'll suggest the opposite: that we figure out ways to make the tourist sector support agriculture and forestry, and broaden people's understanding of resource issues. The Lake County Chamber of Commerce in Lakeview has been doing this for 8 years. The ranching and agricultural community strongly supports this type of tourism, because they know it is working for them rather than against them.

We have grass tours, we have tree farm tours, but oftentimes the general public does not attend. This isn't a matter of forcing a message down the throat of an unwilling and uninterested public. It is a matter of bringing people together. Even within this county, we have many businesspeople who have never been inside a sawmill, and schoolchildren and others who have never spent time on a working ranch.

The benefits would be an increasing awareness of the 3 percent solar base of our economy on the part of the sectors that depend on it. I doubt if the side effects of this kind of tourism would be as formidable--in terms of July-August peak loads, second home development, and so on--as they are now from the kind of tourism that we have been practicing. In moving in the direction of what I will call resource-oriented tourism, we might also increase local sales of value-added local products.

As always, we have three choices for progress--keep doing the same thing, do it harder, or do something different. We've got all the ingredients for an outstanding resource-oriented tourism sector.