Of course, we think it should rank No. 1, but 181st is not bad.
According to a “natural amenities index” from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (see map below), Clark County stands as the 181st most desirable place to live based upon the region’s natural surroundings. Considering that 3,111 counties were assessed — excluding Alaska and Hawaii — landing among the top 200 should be a point of pride. The index judged each county in the continental 48 states by six categories related to climate, topography and water access — things that, as the USDA puts it, “reflect environmental qualities most people prefer.” The original study was compiled in the 1990s, but the importance is that it involves criteria that does not change over time. A mild climate and access to the Columbia River remain attributes for Clark County — and if you live here, you are well aware that they create a desirable locale.
With any ranking, there is room to quibble with the methodology. And the good people of Skamania County to the east probably would take issue with their position as the 1,472nd most desirable county and their status as having “low natural amenities.” But other local counties on the western side of the Cascade Range fared similarly to Clark, with Cowlitz ranking 158th, Oregon’s Multnomah 174th and Lewis 257th.
Nationally, the top 10 counties all could be found in California, led by Ventura County north of Los Angeles — and most Washingtonians likely disagree with the notion of California as “desirable.” As Christopher Ingraham of The Washington Post wrote this week: “It may seem that there’s an inordinate emphasis on warm weather and ample sunshine. How else to explain that Inyo County, Calif. — home to Death Valley, a place so inhospitable to human life that it literally has death in its name — ranks so much higher than say, the bucolic rolling hillsides of New England?”
How, indeed? While such rankings should be taken with a whole handful of salt, they also have some practical applications. Studies have indicated that areas rich with natural amenities have experienced inordinate population growth in recent decades. Most of the low-ranking counties in terms of amenities can be found in the Great Lakes region, and it is no coincidence that the Rust Belt has suffered during the nation’s great westward migration. Whether intuitively or through calculated planning, people are more likely to move to areas with favorable climates and landscapes. “The relationship is quite strong,” the USDA’s original report surmised. “Counties with extremely low scores on the scale tended to lose population . . . while counties with extremely high scores tended to double their populations over the period.”
That bodes well for a robust future in Clark County, and it raises questions about the best way to make use of those amenities. Economic growth and stability for the region should be built upon a foundation that embraces those natural advantages rather than diminishes them. This plays a role in consideration of a proposed oil-by-rail terminal at the Port of Vancouver, which not only would be the nation’s largest such terminal but would attract related industries that belie Clark County’s strengths. It also plays a role in pointing out the benefits of a proposed waterfront development near downtown Vancouver, one that will highlight the Columbia as the county’s most stunning and most dominant natural landmark.
Regardless of how Clark County ranks on a federal index, the region has many natural amenities. Local leaders should work to take advantage of those.