With elections behind us, I hope politicians will get out from behind the rhetoric and actually help Arizonans – especially rural Arizonans – overcome the problems of poverty, hunger and limited economic opportunity. There is one immediate way to do this – by jump-starting rural economic recovery and creating jobs through a Santa Cruz Valley National Heritage Area designation.
In Southern Arizona, all local, county, and tribal governments and most civic organizations have endorsed a Santa Cruz Valley National Heritage Area extending from Nogales through Tucson to Marana. Nevertheless, Arizona’s senators have steadfastly withheld their support for such a designation, despite the probability that it would annually provide hundreds of thousands of dollars of matching grants for rural economic recovery.
In heritage areas elsewhere, each federal dollar has leveraged an average of $5 more in local investments. Promoting heritage foods, agri-tourism and other projects returns wealth to rural communities. Arizona now ranks among the three worst states in terms of poverty, hunger and childhood food insecurity.
Our politicians have failed to deliver in a timely manner any of the readily available programs that actually alleviate these problems. But in states where senators worked to secure national heritage areas for their states, production and sales of nutritious heritage foods are on the rise, creating jobs and nourishing our youth.
Oddly, Sens. Jon Kyl and John McCain cite as their reason for blocking the designation the hesitancy of the Arizona Farm Bureau to endorse the National Heritage Area. Some its members have the unsubstantiated fear that the designation might limit private-property rights. But the Santa Cruz Valley National Heritage Area legislation (HR 324) underscores property-rights protection: “Nothing in this Act abridges the rights of any property owner (whether public or private), including the right to refrain from participating in any plan, project, program, or activity conducted within the National Heritage Area.”
I am a Farm Bureau member and an orchard-keeper in Santa Cruz County, where official unemployment is listed around 13 percent but unofficial underemployment is closer to 25 percent. The ranchers, grape growers and vegetable farmers I’ve listened to there would love to see our rural heritage foods better-promoted.
When farmers speak for themselves – as they did during a recent farm tour for 600 people in the valley – they praise the Santa Cruz Valley Heritage Alliance for promoting their products. We simply want what has already happened with farm bureau support in Iowa. The Iowa bureau has been a leading donor of the Silos and Smokestacks Heritage Area because it tangibly increased farm income and agri-tourism there.
It’s time that Arizonans ask our senators, “Where’s the beef?” and urge them to designate the Santa Cruz Valley National Heritage Area. It will help get us out of our current economic tailspin by expanding rural jobs.
Let’s ask our senators to leverage our regional heritage assets and revitalize our traditional rural economy in this proven, cost-efficient way.
Gary Paul Nabhan is an orchard-keeper and Farm Bureau member, an award-winning food scientist and a board member of the Santa Cruz Valley Heritage Alliance.