The sun sets over a long-vacated farmhouse in Lycan, in the southeast corner of Colorado. Lycan is in Baca County, one of a dozen rural counties that have seen their numbers shrink to less than half of what they were at their historic peak.
That used to mean to us pretty much the same thing as the Continental Divide, a high mountain ridge where the water on one side ultimately flows to the Pacific Ocean, the water on the other ending up in the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean.
Now it is a divide defined not just by the rift of our Rocky Mountains but by the rift of our populace. It is between urban and rural Colorado. Between the economically affluent sections of our state where broadband internet access is swift and abundant, and neglected corners of Colorado where internet speeds are only barely better than dial-up. Between corporate consolidation and ma-and-pa farms, between health care just minutes away or half a day’s drive away, between killer commutes on suburban interstates and killer curves on country roads. It is a divide between the culture of younger Coloradans, who have relinquished their rural roots for remunerative rewards, and older ones, who haven’t.
It is, as The Denver Post put it on Sunday in the debut of its series focusing on the Colorado Divide, about “the issues, values and attitudes that can leave rural and urban residents feeling they live in two Colorados.” It is, as Post journalists Jennifer Brown and Kevin Simpson said, about a “fault line,” and the line is no more lucid than on the charts that pepper their piece.
The first one is about “peak population years” for Colorado’s counties, and this speaks volumes about the divide: in 23 of our 64 counties, mainly along the entire eastern border of the state and most of the southern border, the population peaked before 1950. They have been losing people ever since. No surprise if they’re not prospering. Or, for urban Coloradans, if they’re not even on the radar.
Yet they should be, because as one official from remote western Colorado said in the story, “Rural Colorado is the picture of what Colorado promotes itself to be. We’re really the culture of Colorado.”
The next chart is about politics, namely, the counties’ preferences for president in 2016. The majority of Coloradans overall voted for Hillary Clinton, but two-thirds of the counties — pretty much the whole eastern third of the state and, but for a few pockets, the western quarter — were in the Trump camp. Aside from a handful of outliers, it was only the Front Range — the cities running north to south from Wyoming to New Mexico — that voted for Clinton. Is it any wonder that on impassioned issues in the state legislature, from transportation to taxation to education to hospitalization, there are fault lines between urban and rural that often retard reform?
Then there’s a pie chart about the budget for the Colorado Department of Transportation. More than half its “new construction” funds are spent in metro Denver. Arguably, this is justifiable since Denver has grown more than 20 percent in the past 15 years and fully half of Colorado’s 5.5 million people live in the metro area. But if you look at it through rural eyes, there’s still far more asphalt in the rest of the state and, therefore, when they require roadwork, rural residents regularly feel rebuffed.
These are just pieces of The Post’s picture of the Colorado Divide. And while many are revelations to me, the most conspicuous come from quotes by two citizens in Colorado’s southeastern-most corner, Baca County.
A woman who runs the county’s weekly newspaper resents Denver-based television weather forecasters because when they use those big maps, “they stand right in front of us. We don’t exist. We get ignored like that.” A county commissioner speaks of a “disconnect” between urban and rural residents: “Maybe we don’t understand the lifestyle that they live. But we sometimes feel we’re not appreciated for what we do.”
The first step toward bridging the Colorado Divide is exposing the sentiments of each side to the other. Each has value, each has needs. The state can flourish if we recognize that, and fail if we don’t.
Greg Dobbs of Evergreen is an author, public speaker, and former foreign correspondent for ABC News.
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