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Resist the plunder of rural America

By Jim Scharplaz
Prairie Writers Circle

(Monday, March 17, 2003 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- My friends Mike and Teresa are folksingers. I love the songs they sing, and the sound of their voices and guitars. One of their favorites is a song called "Paradise" by John Prine. The refrain goes:

Daddy wonít you take me back to Muhlenberg County,
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay?
Iím sorry, my son, but youíre too late in asking,
Mr. Peabodyís coal train has hauled it away.

Iíve never been to the Appalachian coal fields, but from what Iíve heard and read, the song pretty well sums it up. The coal trains hauled away the coal -- and the money. The local people were left with holes in the ground and polluted water.

I imagine the coal industry looked like a good thing when it started. Those mountains must have been a hard place to live at farming. Coal would bring money and a better standard of living. But it didnít turn out that way. The money never seemed to make it down to the local folks, and when it was all over, they were as poor as ever.

I wonder if the same thing will happen here in Kansas. Will I someday sit in a cramped factory-town apartment and reminisce about the rural Kansas I once knew? Will I have to tell my boys itís too late to go back? Hog factories, megadairies, toxic waste incinerators, landfills, lead smelters, military bases, power plants: To industries like these our clean air, clean water and open spaces are resources to be mined like coal. They can use it up, wear it out, haul it off, and leave us with the mess, just as broke as we are now.

Yes, I know we all have to make a living. I live here, and I have to make a living. But someday my boys will have to make a living, and, if Iím so blessed, so will my grandchildren. They will need more to work with than polluted aquifers and toxic waste.

The "big stinkers" are also big liars. Our challenge is to see through the promises of "economic development" to the exploitation that lies beyond; to ignore pious spouting about "sound science," and base our decisions on good sense. And we must find ways to use our resources sustainably, so that the profits from their use remain in the communities to which the resources belong, and so that our kids can use them, too.

Mike and Teresa sing another song, which Mike wrote, called "Blue Kansas Skies." The refrain goes:

Iíll take my stand
In the promised land,
Underneath the blue Kansas skies.

I think Mike is right. I think we need to take a stand here. May our skies always be blue.

About the writer: Jim Scharplaz raises cattle in Ottawa County, Kan. He is a member of the Prairie Writers Circle at The Land Institute, which is working in Salina, Kan., to develop perennial grain agriculture.