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Plates, potatoes, and gravy

IDAHO's ``Famous Potatoes'' are losing their celebrity status, it seems, at least for a few years. The slogan that has graced Idaho license plates for more years than most Idahoans have lived is being banished in favor of ``Centennial,'' a laconic reference to the state's 100th birthday, to be marked in 1990.

The new plates synbolize some major economic shifts in the American West.

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State and local governments are shifting their attention from traditional industries - farming, ranching, forest products, mining and other energy industries - to tourism. Officials are waking up to the realization that tourism is the largest private employer in some of these areas, and that government is the largest employer overall. All sorts of money is being spent to promote tourism on television, in the press - and on license plates.

It certainly makes sense, from one point of view. The traditional industries aren't what they used to be, and high-technology companies are unlikely to move in, given the relative lack of academic and financial support. And local officials have got it into their heads that tourism is ``like having somebody fly over in an airplane and throw money down on your town,'' as surely more than one has remarked. Foreign tourism is even better - it eases the trade deficit.

This phenomenon needs a bit of context: The traditional industries of the West have been capital intensive, not labor intensive. With sparse population - many East Coast cities have more people than entire states out West - an employer in the West doesn't need too many on the payroll to qualify as ``major.'' Wide-open spaces out West have been attractive sites when Uncle Sam has wanted to build military facilities. And just think of all those forest rangers on the payroll at Yellowstone and elsewhere.

Still, the whole business of all these states competing for tourism brings to mind the mythical kingdom that prospered because every family took in its neighbors' laundry. Nobody can make a go of tourism unless somebody is making a go of something else further up the economic chain. Western tourism can't succeed if the farmers of the Midwest and the blue-collars of the industrial belt can't afford vacations out West. Idaho might do well to stick with potatoes, and if it gets tourism, call that gravy.

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