Depopulation nation 

New Homestead Act aims to save the Plains

The poet Walt Whitman was so staggered by the immensity of the Great Plains that words failed him. “……the terms far, large and vast &c are insufficient,” he wrote in 1879. The painter Thomas Hart Benton, writing more than a half century later, was better able to sum up his feelings of that far, large and vast place when he wrote, “For me the great plains have a releasing effect. I like the way they make human beings appear as the little bugs they really are.”

For two decades, human beings have been scurrying out of the rural areas of the Great Plains in search of greener pastures. The U.S. Census Bureau calls this population shift from rural to urban “out-migration.” Montana has experienced the same shift in recent years, with seven counties—Ravalli, Missoula, Flathead, Gallatin, Lewis and Clark, Lake and Yellowstone—seeing a total increase of nearly 25,000 people in the first four years of this decade. Montana’s rural counties, like the majority of rural counties in the Great Plains states, have been losing population.

In the past 20 years, according to Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., 70 percent of rural Plains state counties from Texas to North Dakota lost more than a third of their populations. Concur-rently, the National Corn Growers Association figures that three of every four rural American counties experienced below-average economic growth despite record agricultural subsidies in the 1990s.

Nearly a century and a half after the original Homestead Act of 1862 lured settlers west with the promise of 160 acres of land, Congress is giving it another go with the New Homestead Act of 2005. Introduced by Dorgan and 11 co-sponsors in the U.S. Senate, including Montana Sen. Conrad Burns, the bill, which was originally introduced in the last Congress, is a legislative attempt to stanch a decades-long out-migration of residents and revitalize America’s heartland.

The New Homestead Act aims to keep people home on the Plains by offering the 21st century economic equivalent of 160 acres: a grab bag of tax incentives and loans that would reward stay-put Plains staters with money and tax breaks for college loans, home purchases and business start-up costs.

A county that qualifies for these benefits is one that has lost 10 percent or more of its population over the past 20 years. Nationwide, that’s 556 counties. In Montana, it’s half the state’s 56 counties—mostly the eastern half. Montana’s qualifying counties span an arc from Pondera in the northwest to Big Horn in the southeast. Garfield County, with a land area of 4,668 square miles, serves as a good example of the Plains’ dilemma: Between 1980 and 2000, Garfield County’s population declined from 1,649 to 1,279. Likewise, Petroleum County lost 164 souls in the past two decades and now makes do with 493 residents. And so it goes, from Chester to Winnett, Terry to Plentywood.

But shouldn’t people live where they want to live? And if they choose to live in places where the venture capitalists don’t roam, where funerals outnumber weddings four to one, in places like Wahoo, Neb., or Homestead, Mont., why should taxpayers be asked to subsidize that choice?

Precedent, for one thing. Federal dollars for urban renewal projects were poured into American cities during the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. The New Homestead Act is another go at congressional population management, this time with a decidedly rural twist.

Small towns and rural America deserve saving simply because of what they are, said Dorgan, reintroducing the legislation in March. “Most rural communities have good schools, low crime rates, and a level of civic involvement that would make any public official proud.” In fact, Dorgan claims, the easy-going rural lifestyle is what harassed city dwellers would like to have—if only they could.

In an e-mailed statement, Montana Senator and New Homestead supporter Max Baucus said, “I support the goals of this legislation. Loss of residents in our rural areas is a real problem and has hurt our rural communities and economies. I believe that we need to find ways to help folks stay and make a living in the rural areas that are so important to the values of Montanans and the West. That means working together to find ways to help our farmers and ranchers, small businesses, rural communities and families keep and create the good jobs, great opportunities and quality of life that can be found in Montana.”

Said Burns, also in an e-mailed statement: “The (1862) Homestead Act transformed America’s homeland into a productive and vibrant part of our country. Our New Homestead Act explores solutions that will help close the gap between rural America and the rest of our country.”

The New Homestead Act has been sent to the Senate Finance Committee, where Baucus is the ranking Democrat.

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