Rural communities must meet the challenge of soaring fuel prices

Watching those digits roll past at a dizzying speed as you pump gasoline to fill up your vehicles tank is a sickening experience. But the realization that much of what you earn is now spent merely towards commuting to and from work, is even worse. Life is tough enough in the North Country without the crushing fuel costs were now enduring. For Adirondackers, the consequences of soaring fuel cost are far more than just an expensive nuisance, like they are to residents of metropolitan areas. While suburbanites are bellyaching about how they have to pare down their vacation plans or combine trips to the shopping mall, weve got far more serious concerns. In the Adirondacks, particularly in more remote areas, the local communities dont offer much in the way of employment. Theres not much work available except at wages that are not sufficient to meet basic needs. Many Adirondackers are forced to commute great distances for a job with decent pay. Nowadays, the cost of commuting has for some people risen to the point they are shelling out a fifth of their family budget or even more to fill their tanks. This financial pain will be busting budgets for many people who live and work in the Adirondacks, the majority who were struggling to get by before the incomprehensible fuel price increase. But if you think were all facing financial pain now, wait until the winter temperatures plummet and empty our wallets. We dont have municipal natural gas piped to our homes like many city residents or suburbanites. Most people up here rely on heating oil, which industry officials say may rise to $5.80 by this winter. That means filling up a home fuel tank which may only last a couple of weeks during the frigid months is likely to cost about $1,450. Thats about $1,300 more than heating fuel cost back in 1979 when I first moved up to the North Country and my brother handed me a maul and sent me out in freezing rain to split wood for the woodstove to earn my keep. Its disconcerting to think of whats likely to happen with these crushing fuel costs. Besides the personal budgetary pain, the potential consequences of these new fuel costs to our communities are serious and far-reaching. We may see the middle-class working folks move out of the Adirondacks as a matter of survival, and this may unravel the communitys cultural fabric. Already, weve seen our communities shrink, primarily due to limited employment opportunities. Across the Adirondacks, school enrollment on the average has shrunk more than 30 percent over the past few decades as families have moved out in a quest to provide a more promising future for their children. This exodus has effected our lives in many ways. Many churches that just decades ago had full congregations for worship services, have scores of near-empty pews on Sunday. In some communities, clubs, teams and organizations that once flourished are gone or are barely surviving. On the other hand, properties still change hands at prices local working families cant really afford prices driven up by people who merely want a summer retreat. Many of these homes are dark and empty for most of the year. But this fuel crisis, however, could conceivably strengthen out communities if we strive to meet the challenge. We could be drawn closer as we face the crisis together. As fuel prices make travel for shopping unreasonable, we could work together to make our communities more self-sufficient. Local entrepreneurs could develop retail stores that offer merchandise and services that we now travel considerable distance to obtain. Reducing our dependence on oil could mean an increased demand for our own homegrown resources, whether its, wood for fuel, food from local gardens, or labor. Take a look at how Hudson Headwaters Health Network has accomplished this over the past 30 years, bringing good jobs and advanced health care to local communities through the lower Adirondacks. Other enterprises could follow their path to success its a matter of imagination and hard work. Government, too, could step up to the plate and look at new ways to accomplish its work like private enterprise is now doing. Warren County, for instance, could convert many of its jobs to a four-day workweek, reaping a considerable savings to employees. The county could also use digital technology to cut expenses and boost productivity by allowing a number of its employees to work from home reducing the ever-increasing need for expensive governmental office space. Plus, government officials could hold teleconferences for meetings that now are conducted at taxpayer expense. But theres a more universal, fundamental change that we all can pursue reducing our consumption, economizing, and becoming more self-sufficient and locally interdependent. Perhaps people will begin to rediscover the joys of living simpler lives reconnecting with neighbors and friends in the process. Thom Randall is editor of the Adirondack Journal. He can be reached at thom@denpubs.com.

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