Bridging the urban-rural divide

To the editor,

Some say there is a divide in La Plata County between urban and rural residents. I agree that there exists a disconnect. My rural and agricultural neighbors complain that folks in town do not understand and appreciate them and their lifestyle, while my urban friends say that folks from the country seem unfriendly, cliquish and unapproachable.

Durango is a great place to live and raise a family, so it is no surprise that many people do whatever it takes to live here. Most urban and suburban residents of La Plata county choose to live in La Plata County for the quality of life. They love the great outdoor culture, community supported events, local restaurants and a college which supports the arts and culture. Problems occur though, when urban and suburban folks sometimes see their rural and agricultural neighbors’ property as their “view shed” and want to regulate how and what is done on that property. We forget the value and benefits that our agricultural neighbors bring to our county. The generations that grew up visiting Grandma and Grandpa’s farm or ranch are quickly disappearing. Connection to agriculture is disappearing.

Many years of insufficient representation of rural and agricultural residents in county government has created a government culture that has sometimes lacked support or understanding of one of the greatest assets of La Plata County: its deep rural and agricultural heritage. In 2018, over 1,000 angry county residents attended a meeting held by county commissioners about a proposed new land use code, which had been drafted by an out-of-state consultant. Farmers and ranchers didn’t want to be told how to manage their livestock, what color their barn had to be, nor how many people could attend Grandpa’s 80th birthday party (the proposed code required a special permit for gatherings of more than 25 persons). Thankfully, county commissioners had the wisdom to start over with a more grassroots approach to a new code.

The average age of a farmer or rancher is approaching 60! A big shift in land ownership is on the horizon. What will happen to all of the food production, scenic value and rich cultural heritage that we take for granted if our community does not support it? Will it be preserved by the next generation of ranchers and farmers, or will it become acres of noxious weeds, or turn into subdivisions and urban sprawl?

Here are some ways that urban and rural citizens, and government can support each other:

• To my rural and ag friends, I say support local businesses. Don’t take your business away from La Plata County. When you meet people in town, engage with them. Tell them what you do and why you do it. Make new friends of city dwellers, and even consider inviting them to your farm or ranch. Take the time to help them understand what you do, why you do it and how they benefit.

• To my urban friends, I say reconnect! Learn more about where your food comes from. Go visit one of the many farms in the county that welcomes visitors and sells their wares, such as the James Ranch, Foxfire Farms, or the Old Fort Lewis Farm Stand and Education Garden. Learn about the rich farming and ranching heritage in La Plata County. Continue to support our local food producers by shopping at farmers markets and produce stands that sell locally grown food. Support local consumer supported agriculture subscription programs. Volunteer at a community garden, or shop for and prepare a farm-totable meal as a family activity.

• As for government – fortunately, in the proposed new land use code, there will be a section called “Ag Plus” which will give more flexibility to farmers and ranchers, and provide more ways for them to stay productive and profitable on their land. County commissioners and the planning department are working on a community outreach plan with more opportunities for community input and involvement as the new code is rolled out. These are steps in the right direction.

A big part of what makes La Plata County so great is our blend of urban, rural and ranching traditions. Each brings a vibrant contribution to our economy and lifestyle. Let’s work together to protect our unique environment and our common experience. We can do this as we all strive to listen to, understand and appreciate the diverse cultural and traditional perspectives of both urban and rural county residents.

– Charly Minkler, independent (unaffiliated) candidate for La Plata County Board of Commissioners, District 3