Kenton Bird

Kenton Bird is Director of the School of Journalism and Mass Media. He has lived in and around Moscow for many years.

Kenton Bird

What role does the University play in the Palouse?
The University of Idaho is really a remarkable creative and learning environment. It’s the creative, vibrant sense of community that is a result of having not just one university but having Washington State University eight miles away. And you have here the kinds of artistic and cultural events that you might have in a big city, but you wouldn’t necessarily participate in.

So, on any given night of the week between September and May, you could choose from a play, a concert, a poetry reading, a lecture by a Nobel prize winner, and it’s all so accessible.

And I think it’s that atmosphere that attracts what several authors have called the "creative class," that there is a huge in-migration of people who are entrepreneurs or consultants, people who don’t have to live in a metropolitan area but come here to take advantage of the educational and cultural opportunities. So that’s all percolating together in this wonderful mix of community that we have in Moscow.

I've heard Moscow called the Berkeley of Idaho.
I've heard Moscow compared to Berkley or Boulder or Eugene, but it’s really not in the same category as those university towns, in part because of the distance from a major population center. Moscow even now is only 22-23,000 people, and that’s when 14,000 students are here. Secondly, because U of I is a land grant institution, it’s always tended to attract a much broader student population than those universities do. So the presence of a College of Natural Resources, College of Agriculture and until a few years ago, a College of Mines, meant that there has been a different sort of student mix – more male, more conservative and perhaps more resistant to the kind of radical strains that went through some of the other state universities in the west in the 60s and 70s.

What about the research angle of the university and its role in agriculture?
One of the strengths of the University of Idaho is the emphasis on interdisciplinary collaboration. This place is still small enough that people can see colleagues from other departments or colleges for coffee or meet them for lunch or have a beer after work; and I think that sense of community creates a level of comfort that people aren’t afraid to leap outside their department and contact somebody in Agriculture or Natural Resources or Law or Engineering. And we’re seeing that with the new bi-regional planning initiative, which is one of the president’s strategic initiatives – an area he had identified. And the faculty responded; and I believe there are a dozen different departments that are involved in that with the idea of promoting sustainable development in Idaho and around the northwest, but also in helping training some of Idaho’s elected officials to be better prepared for the challenges of growth.

There’s something very comforting about the rolling hills of the Palouse; and the artists and the poets can describe the curves and the undulations and the shadows and the light much better than I can, but I just know that when I come back to the Palouse after being away, I feel at home.

How long can Moscow avoid the growth spurts that have adversely affected other Idaho communities?
Moscow has been immune from a lot of the growth pressures that have hit Coeur d’Alene, Sandpoint and parts of the Panhandle for two reasons. One is our distance from a major airport. We’re about an hour and a half from Spokane Airport; and the distance from an interstate highway. Interstate 90 in Coeur d’Alene is again about an hour and a half away. But with the improvements of Highway 95 that are coming, both north and south of Moscow, I think that we’re going to start seeing more people who have decided that this is an attractive place to live.

So the highway improvements will make it easier for us to get to the rest of Idaho, but it will also make it easier for the rest of the world to come here. So we’re looking at that as sort of a mixed blessing. Even so, there are going to be some limitations to growth that may end up having sort of a buffering effect, and one is the amount of water in our underground aquifer. The rate that we are depleting the aquifer has led to an inter-local agreement between Moscow and Pullman and the two universities, and there is a commitment to try and stabilize the water use.

That means we’re going to have to be very selective in the type of growth that we have, that we can’t bring in a big manufacturing plant that is water intensive unless that company wants to pump water 30 miles uphill from the Snake River to Moscow. So even with the improvements in transportation I would expect we’re not going to see the kind of double digit growth figures that other places in Idaho have.

Politically speaking, does the Palouse exert a moderating influence on the rest of Idaho?
I think a couple of factors explain why politicians from this part of the country seem to be mellower,if you will. I remember covering Tom Boyd’s first race for the House of Representatives for the Moscow Idahonian back in the 80s, and remembering how he really reached out to the Democrats, because obviously he knew that in a fairly liberal, moderate community, that he was going to have to carry a lot of votes from the middle in order to win.

So part of it is the general make-up of the community, and the need to run from the middle rather than from the extremes. Latah county has been very competitive in presidential and senate races, and we have this reputation as being this sort of liberal hot bed, but two of the three members of our legislative delegation are Republicans.

aerial view of U of I building

But the other factor I think is that people like Tom Boyd and Tom Trail and before them John Mix and Harold Snow and Orville Snow all come from agricultural families. Tom himself was an active farmer. Tom Trail’s family has been farming here for nearly a hundred years. And I think being close to the land maybe gives a sense of connection with a community, that the people from Latah County generally don’t have ambitions for higher political office, they’re not entranced with power, but rather have this sense of public service. And I think that comes from being firmly rooted in the community and having a good sense of who their neighbors are and what those neighbors’ interests are, and how they can best be represented in Boise.

But I think also being a university community where people are exposed to new ideas matters, this sense that we’re maybe a little more cosmopolitan, a little more looking outward rather than inward, and a sense of being global citizens and not just being parts of Moscow or north Idaho or the northwest.

What effect do these rolling hills of the Palouse have on people?
There’s something very comforting about the rolling hills of the Palouse; and the artists and the poets can describe the curves and the undulations and the shadows and the light much better than I can, but I just know that when I come back to the Palouse after being away, I feel at home.

Several people describe what they call the "rubber band effect." You can be away from Moscow for so long or so far and then you get snapped back. And that's happened to me several times. And there are people I knew as students in the 70s who left and worked in Boise or Spokane or Seattle or Portland, but decided to come back to Moscow to build a career and raise a family.

There really is a feeling you get on the Palouse that you don't necessarily get elsewhere in the state.
What I think is appealing to a lot of people is the mix of farm land and forest; as you go farther east and north of Moscow, you get into some of the less intensively farmed areas and more pasture land, some small wood lots, little creeks and houses that are tucked away – I think those tend to be very appealing to a lot of people.

So when people talk about rural residential development in Latah county, they’re not talking about tract homes on the edge of Moscow. They’re talking about the former farm house or somebody’s cabin on Paradise Ridge or the edge of Moscow Mountain or between Viola and Potlatch. My wife jokes that I’m a city kid, that I wouldn’t want to be in the country. And I say, no, I’m really a small town person. I like to be able to ride my bike, to walk to the post office, walk to the bank, walk to the library and walk to campus. I like being part of this community center. And yet there are those who don’t mind a ten or fifteen minute drive on the way in, in the morning.

How did Moscow get the University?
It’s sort of an historical accident that Moscow ended up with the University of Idaho. The historians of Idaho’s territorial years have done a great job of describing the political intrigue between north and south and between southeast and southwest and north, but it comes down to two decisions. One was when in 1887, the Territorial Legislature passed a bill that would establish a state university at Eagle Rock, which later became Idaho Falls. But there were some technical flaws with that bill, and the Governor vetoed it. And so the University of Idaho or Idaho State University, whatever it would have been called at Eagle Rock, never came to be.

And then before the Legislature could meet again the following year, Congress passed a bill severing the Panhandle from Idaho Territory and attaching it to Washington Territory. And that was going to be admitted into the Union as the State of Washington, and that would have left most of Idaho south of the Salmon river on its own. And the territorial governor appealed to President Grover Cleveland not to sign the bill; and he didn’t overtly veto it, he pocket vetoed it. He stuck it in his desk drawer until Congress had gone home, and then the bill died.

So the next year the Legislature realized that if it was to keep north Idaho from seceding and making a better deal with Washington Territory, that there needed to be what was called an "olive branch," and that was the decision to place the university in Moscow, which was then one of the larger towns in the Panhandle. And that was seen as a unifying gesture that would keep the Territory together as it went into statehood the following year. So the University of Idaho actually precedes statehood and the University charter was then incorporated into the State constitution in 1890.

What are your hopes and concerns for the future?
I worry that agriculture will become less profitable, and as it becomes less profitable, there’s more pressure on farmers to sub-divide, to sell off their land. I think we’ll lose something when we don’t have people like Wayne and Jacie Jensen, who are living on the land, farming it, raising their kids there. That’s something I worry about.

I worry about people who come here because they see it as a quaint little town that they are going to have a vacation home and they’ll be here for two or three months in the summer, and then they’ll go to some place more temperate in the winter. I know this is a big worry all over the northwest; those people don’t tend to be as invested in the community. They are not going to be the volunteers at the bake sale or involved in some of the civic and arts and community groups around town.

I hope as the Palouse welcomes migrants from other parts of the state and other parts of the country, that we’ll find people who recognize the values and want to be here year round and be an active part of the community.

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