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Code of the West: A reminder that life is different in the country

Posted On: September 06, 2019

It's always wise to stay off the (wet) lines

There’s an informal code posted on the Chelan County Public Works website that gets quoted occasionally here in the office. It seems to happen mostly when the snow is flying or spring snow melt is filling up our streams and rivers.

The Code of the West was adopted in 2002 by Chelan County commissioners. It’s not a formal code, like the one that says walking your pet bear on a leash around Chelan County is a no-no. Yogi could be declared a public nuisance, costing you $130, or 90 days in the Chelan County jail for a habitual offender.

The Code of the West is more of a philosophy. Or even some friendly advice.

The Code of the West shares its title with a novel written in 1934 by the famous author Zane Grey, often described as the greatest storyteller of the American West. In his novel, Grey wrote of unwritten, socially agreed upon laws that shaped the cowboy culture of the Old West.

The informal laws were based on integrity and self-reliance, values that guided the decisions, actions and interactions of those hardy and adventurous souls who chose to venture out on their own to build lives for themselves in the sparsely populated West.

It was a county commissioner from Colorado who seized upon Grey’s message and adapted it to county government. John Clarke, a Larimer County commissioner from 1995 to 1999, wrote The Code of the West while in office and it continues to be posted on the county’s website today.

Clarke’s work was enthusiastically picked up by other counties. A quick Google search showed The Code of the West has been quoted in newspapers from Chicago to Los Angeles and all throughout the West. In a 2015 column in the Fort Collins newspaper, Clarke wrote that The Code of the West had been adopted by some 150 jurisdictions.

"We are dealing with the gentrification of the country," Clarke said in an interview printed in the Chicago Tribune in April 1997. "We have to be truthful about what it's like to live here. And so we give a copy of this code to everyone who is interested in moving here.”

Chelan County commissioners, in adopting The Code of the West, were following suit. Calls from people moving from more urbanized areas into Chelan County prompted the commissioners’ action at a time when the county had a population of only 58,000 and was one of the fastest-growing counties in the state.

“It’s really just a reality check for people who live in an urbanized environment and aspire to live in a remote environment,” former Commissioner Buell Hawkins told an Associated Press reporter in 2003.

The code covers access (or roads), utilities, building, Mother Nature and agriculture. It reminds people that unpaved roads generate dust. It warns that if your road is unpaved, it’s highly unlikely the county will pave it in the future. It’s illegal to create your own trash dump, even on your own land. The county does not fix potholes or washouts (or worse) on private roads. Trees can catch your home on fire in a wildfire. If you fill in a ravine on your land, the water may just start draining in your home (or your neighbor’s). And, this is a direct quote, “Animals and their manure can cause objectionable odors. What else can we say?”

The Code of the West ends by saying: Even though you pay property taxes to the county, the amount of tax collected does not cover the cost of the services provided to rural residents. In general tax revenues derived from commercial, industrial, agricultural and forest uses and activities in the county subsidize the lifestyle of those who live in the country by making up the shortfall between the cost of services and the revenues received from rural dwellers.

Nearly 20 years after commissioners put their support behind it, The Code of the West still rings true today. On occasion, it may even be referenced in a commissioners’ meeting. It is a gentle reminder that life in the country is different than that in the city.

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Chelan County Calendar

Upcoming events and schedules at the county!

  • 18
    Sep 2019
    01:00 PM - 03:00 PM

    Hearing Examiner - September 18, 2019

    Posted by: Community Development

    Chelan County Administrative Building
  • 25
    Sep 2019
    07:00 PM - 09:00 PM

    Planning Commission Meeting- September 25, 2019

    Posted by: Community Development

    Confluence Technology Center
  • 28
    Sep 2019
    08:00 AM - 05:00 PM

    Coyote Offroad Motorcycle Club Rally

    Posted by: Chelan County Expo Center

    Chelan County Expo Center
  • 02
    Oct 2019
    09:00 AM - 11:00 AM

    Hearing Examiner - October 2, 2019

    Posted by: Community Development

    Chelan County Administrative Building
  • 10
    Oct 2019
    03:00 PM - 04:30 PM

    Chelan County Water Conservancy Board Meeting

    Posted by: Natural Resources

    Confluence Technology Center