There’s a lot of elbow room in Clark County.
It’s in the bottom 30 counties nationwide in terms of population density, and one of the 15 sparsest counties in the contiguous U.S. The Census Bureau estimated that Clark County had 860 residents in 2016, and they’re spread across a county of nearly 1,800 square miles.
While Bonneville County has about 44 people for every square mile, Clark County has only one person for every 2 square miles.
Clark County’s population, already the state’s smallest, is shrinking, and not for the first time.
It had its heyday in the 1920s, when nearly 1,900 people lived there. But by 1970, the population had fallen to 741. For the next 30 years, the county saw recovery, but that trend reversed around the turn of the millennium.
During the 2000 Census, 1,024 residents were counted. In 2010, there were 982. The current figure of 860 is only the best estimate — the next full count won’t happen until 2020 — but it points to an ongoing statewide trend, one that’s leaving rural Idaho counties in a precarious situation.
Zions Bank economist Robert Spendlove recently said the widening gap between urban and rural counties is the biggest economic challenge the state faces.
“The long-term struggle that we’re seeing is the urban/rural divide,” Spendlove said at a conference in late August. “There is a lot of growth, a lot of prosperity going on in urban areas. But rural areas continue to struggle. We’re seeing people move out of rural areas. We’re seeing job loss in rural areas.”
The same problem can be observed throughout the West, Spendlove said, as young people leave the rural places of their birth and head for the city.
Clark County was carved off of Fremont County by the Legislature in 1918. It’s long been known as an independent-minded part of the state. It was the site of major battles between federal troops and the Nez Perce and allied tribes, who had been forcibly removed from lands in Oregon.
The county seat, and the only city with more than 100 people, is Dubois, named for Fred Dubois, an Idaho politician remembered best for his efforts to disenfranchise Mormons.
Bonnie Burns, 83, has lived in Clark County for nearly all her life. She moved away briefly after she married, but her family returned to Dubois to raise their children.
“I lived here and went to school here, and it was just a good place,” she said. “I can’t explain it. Kids are close to their families.”
Burns still loves living in Clark County.
“It’s safe,” she said. “It’s nice to have neighbors who you know and can visit with. And I like our church. People are friendly and look out for one another.”
But it’s been hard to watch it shrink. The main grocery store closed, so now locals have to travel to stores in Idaho Falls to stock up, which she does every three weeks. Idaho Falls is 45 minutes away when the roads are good. The drive is harder in the long winters — it’s not uncommon to see snow anytime from October to May. The two hotels are gone, and so are the two car dealerships. There’s no hospital, no clinic, not even a doctor’s office.
“There’s a lot of ranches in the area, but a lot of the ranches have been sold to out-of-town folks,” she said. “We’ve lost a lot of families that way.”
Burns said it’s hard to get children to stay in the area.
“Usually they leave here to go to college, and after they’re done with college they usually go somewhere else.”
The continuous migration from rural to urban counties makes it harder each year to run a government, said Clark County Commissioner Nick Hillman, 68, who has lived in the county his entire life.
“We have a hard time keeping people on our boards — the library board, the school board, different things like that,” Hillman said in an interview. “It’s really hard to find people.”
The problem isn’t just on boards. When the county trains a heavy equipment operator for its Road and Bridge Department, it’s usually not too long before the state or another county makes an offer Clark County can’t afford to match, Hillman said.
“Because we’re such a small county, we have trouble paying to keep good people that we’ve trained. It’s the same in just about any part of our government.”
The Clark County Sheriff’s Office employs only two deputies, in addition to the elected sheriff.
“Right now, we’ve lost one of our good deputies,” Hillman said. “He was offered a job as a farm manager, and he took it.”
So, for the time being, it’s down to one deputy — in a county larger than the state of Rhode Island.
There are fiscal landmines laying all around for small, rural counties. One is public defense.
The U.S. Constitution requires that defendants who can’t afford an attorney be given a public defender. For violations of state law, that obligation falls on the state. Idaho has delegated that responsibility to counties.
If a Clark County prosecutor ever sought the death penalty in a murder conviction against an indigent defendant, the county would have to pay two death penalty-certified defense lawyers to represent the defendant.
“That could be devastating,” Hillman said. “We’re trying to get set up so that we share public defenders with another county.”
Another landmine is the Payment in Lieu of Taxes, or PILT, program, which compensates counties with large swaths of federal lands for lost property taxes. Western congressmen have to fight to make sure the program gets funded every time a spending bill comes down the pike, and that means constant uncertainty for Idaho counties. That uncertainty is much greater in Clark and other low-population counties.
“That’s one of the things we’ve counted on in a small county to keep us afloat,” Hillman said.
The total taxable value of property in Clark County is about $126 million. (For comparison, it’s $3 billion in Idaho Falls). That means it collects little by way of property tax.
Clark County’s PILT funding hovers around $150,000 — nearly one-quarter of the $630,000 Clark County hopes to raise in property taxes next year. So if PILT ever went away, Hillman said, it would either mean massive property tax hikes or “we’ll just have to let our government go.”
Clark County is a largely agricultural area, where Larsen Farms, which grows potatoes, wheat and hay, is the largest employer. The Bureau of Labor Statistics classifies more than half of employees in the county as engaged in agricultural labor, and that doesn’t count self-employed farmers.
Clark County also is home to the highest concentration of Hispanic residents in the state — about 40 percent, much higher than counties in the Magic Valley, the center of the state’s dairy industry. The Hispanic population has steadily grown. In 2000, there were 350 individuals who identified as Hispanic or Latino. By 2010, there were nearly 400. More recent estimates are unreliable.
But the growth in the Hispanic population isn’t enough to offset the overall population decline.
Net migration (the number of residents who arrive minus the number who leave) to Clark County has been negative every year since 2010, according to the Census.
Unemployment is low — it averaged 3.5 percent in 2016. But that low rate hides an underlying problem.
Since the Great Recession, the workforce in Clark County has plummeted, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 2008, about 600 people in the county were either employed or looking for work. By 2016, that figure had fallen to 400 as residents left for greener economic pastures, gave up looking for a job or took informal, unreported jobs. The decline wasn’t likely due to retirements, as the median age in the county fell from 43 in 2010 to 33 in 2015, according to Census data.
Hillman said Clark County has seen increasing traffic from tourists, particularly those with ATVs and dirt bikes. But with only a single service station in Kilgore, the city nearest to ATV hot spots, the county’s economy doesn’t see much benefit from the visitors.
“They all come and play in our county, but they don’t pay any money,” Hillman said.
Reporter Bryan Clark can be reached at 208-542-6751.