"I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors." - Thomas Jefferson (appears in the Jefferson Memorial)

An irreducible minimum

idaho RANDY

No community in Idaho would relish the loss of 21 jobs. Boise would not; Nampa would not. The east side of Seattle just lost more than 1,300 jobs at Microsoft, and certainly didn’t welcome that.

But Boise, Nampa and Seattle weather these losses, however unpleasant. The loss of just 21 jobs is more critical in some places than in others, as the people of Dubois could say emphatically.

Dubois is like one of those places the writer Dayton Duncan wrote of in his book Miles from Nowhere (1993), which was about the remote and small-population places of western America. Among Idaho communities, he happened to focus on Stanley and Yellow Pine.

His most striking instance, in a chapter called “Below the Irreducible Minimum,” was Loving County, Texas, population 107, and its one community, the seat of Mentone. It raises a question: When does a community become too small to remain a functioning community?

Clark, with a reported 867 residents (down from 1,022 in 2000), is Idaho’s least-populated county, and the 30th least-populated county in the United States. It’s a rugged place; many residents here head south in the winter. Among the country’s lowest-populated counties, it has the highest percentage of residents born in a foreign country – presumably, many reliant on agricultural work. The Census reports that Clark has 18 non-farm businesses employing 83 people.

Aside from farm employment ad local government, the largest employer in the county may be the U.S. Sheep Experiment Station, located a few miles north of Dubois but managing operations scattered around the Clark County area. Its job, simply, is to research sheep: Its website lists one goal as “an understanding of the interactions between sheep and the environments in which they are produced that can be used to improve sheep production systems and ensure the sustainability of grazing land ecosystems.”

It also says, “Currently, there are 21permanent, full-time employees at the USSES. In addition, the USSES has one postdoctoral fellow. Other employees include high school interns, undergraduate interns, graduate students, and intermittent general duty employees.”

There aren’t a lot of good-paying jobs in Clark, and those at the Sheep Experimental Station near Dubois are among the few. Take those jobs, those families, and the money they circulate in the community, out of the picture, and local businesses and local governments will find a critical piece of their income has vanished. Is that enough to trip an economic sequence that could seriously damage Dubois and Clark County? It might be.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture several weeks ago sent out a notice that it was considering shutting down the sheep station. For now at least, that won’t happen. Representative Mike Simpson, going to bat for one his district’s counties, made the case in Congress for retaining it, and appears to have pulled in enough support in the House to persuade USDA to back off, at least for a while.

The incident overall should come as a scary moment for Clark County, though. In the small counties it wouldn’t take much of a loss to start flirting with the concept of an irreducible minimum.

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