Fearing for future, rural Utah towns fight for post offices
Emery • Washington politics are threatening the heart of this hardscrabble town stretched along the Muddy Creek, residents say, potentially bringing the same kind of disruptions as the time when Emery School was torn down in 1963 or last year's closing of Consolidation Coal.
Although they are far from alone in their fears, this hamlet of 308 people is in danger of losing its post office, which has been a lifeline to the outside world since the 1870s, when the first contract was awarded to deliver mail to what was then known as the Old Muddy, 200 miles southeast of Salt Lake City.
Residents are resentful that their post office is among 3,653 local offices, branches and stations listed since this summer for possible closing especially when considering that their sacrifice would bring less than a 0.2 percent savings to the financially troubled U.S. Postal Service, postal officials say. They point out that even as the federal government subsidizes oil companies and corporations, people living in rural Utah will be bearing the brunt of the cuts to the USPS.
Retired truck driver Cameron Brinkerhoof, 87, explains it this way:
"How about closing down a post office in Salt Lake City and requiring people there to drive 30 miles round trip to mail a package or to buy stamps," he said. "Politicians would save a lot more by cutting back on home mail deliveries in the big cities. But it won't happen because there's a lot more of them than there is of us."
Citing steadily declining mail volume as one reason for its steadily declining revenue, the Postal Service has designated Emery's post office among 13 in Utah that could close (in addition to more than 250 processing centers nationally, including one in Provo). All except the office near Salt Lake International Airport are in isolated, rural areas, often great distances from supermarkets, department stores and other urban conveniences. Congress has placed a moratorium on closures until mid-May to determine new guidelines for the shutterings, but that hasn't curbed the angst.
In Emery, with no cafÃ©, school or market, the post office is one of the town's few gathering places.
"It's here that we learn who bagged an elk or whose cows are coming off the mountain, and we do like to chat about politics," said resident Doris Mangum , 76, who has lived in Emery for 70 of her years. "We only have one church, and because not everyone here is a Mormon, this is really the town's only social center. The post office is our identity. It's always been important to us."
The same can be said of Randy Johnson, the town's postmaster for more than 40 years. He is known for having spare change in his pocket for customers lacking the correct amount for stamps or packages. He'll also call when live chickens are delivered so the chicks can be picked up without delay.
Residents say that just about everyone knows his home telephone number for after-hour emergencies or to help those in a bind. Such as the time last Christmas Eve when a father telephoned to say he was running late, so could Johnson reopen the office the family could retrieve a skate board that had been delivered earlier in the day?
"It wasn't a hardship," said Johnson of the request. "We're pretty much like family here." He isn't allowed to discuss closures.
In even more isolated areas, post offices have been so vital that the Utah town of Garrison,population 200, was named for its first postmaster. Residents in the town, once known for cattle rustlers who would slip across to the Nevada Territory to evade capture, now may have to travel more than 100 miles to Milford if their post office is closed. To make matters worse in many residents' eyes, Garrison ranchers could drive to Baker Nev., which is only eight miles away but that post office also is on the closure list.
A closure in Garrison would harm surrounding communities, such as residents in Eskdale who rely on the post office to deliver mail bags every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Residents fear that service would end if the Garrison facility is closed. They already drive 18 miles, one way, to Garrison if they need to use certified mail for government agencies and other services.
"If they remove the Garrison post office, and the facility in Baker, Nev., we're not sure if we would be able to get any services at all," said Eskdale resident David Sturlin.
Residents in Hanksville, population 200, would have to drive more than 50 miles to Green River if their post office closed.
"With that kind of a distance, we don't understand why we were ever put on a hit list," said Hanksville mayor Stan Alvey. "It makes absolutely no sense."
It is unclear how much help the rural communities might get from Utah's congressional delegation. With the exception of Rep. Jason Chaffetz, no other lawmaker was willing to talk specifically with The Tribuneabout the impending closures.
Chaffetz said that closing post offices in rural areas of the West would pose an undue hardship.
"This isn't about sending a birthday card to Grandma," he said. "Post offices in rural areas are a tool of commerce. If you don't have proximity to a post office, commerce can be harmed. Besides looking at the volume of mail, we should also be looking at whether people can reasonably get to another post office."
He intends to address the issue through his committee assignments.
Local postal officials are trying to get their bosses to remove from the hit list communities that are at least 20 miles away from the nearest post office if theirs is closed. But that won't help residents in Emery, where the distance is 14 miles.
They are so concerned that 130 of them attended an October hearing more than one-third of the entire town.
"It's going to be very difficult to attract young families or other businesses without a post office," said LynnÃ© Lake, owner of Randy's Service, a gas station and small market. "If a town doesn't have a post office, it doesn't have much of a future."
But at this point, only one post office in Utah has been saved, and it is in a populated area. Although revenue has remained flat for the past four yearsat Park City's Old Town outlet, postal officials determined that it would be cost prohibitive to relocate its postal boxes to a larger post office, 1.6 miles away. In addition, the Old Town office rents 2,400 of its 2,700 postal boxes, giving it a 90 percent occupancy rate, the highest of all offices on the closure list,said USPS spokesman for Utah, Robert Vunder.
Postal officials say that even if rural post offices do close, residents who have access to computers will be able to purchase stamps via the Internet, and they would have access to cluster post boxes, where they could pick up their mail. But Emery residents say they'd be forced to pick up retirement checks and prescriptions in unsecured boxes, which could be a magnet for vandals and thieves.
Of course, residents who are not computer savvy or who want to mail packages or do complex transactions would have no choice but to drive to other post offices.
Emery resident Wayne Staley, 83, said elderly people in the town "will be playing Russian roulette" with fast-moving coal trucks to pick up prescriptions in Ferron if their post office is closed.Residents 65 years of age or older make up more than one-quarter of all households in the town. More time on the highway means a greater risk of an accident, he said.
"The trucks move pretty fast. It's safer if we stay close to town."
The Emery post office has no home delivery, and there are no curbside boxes for homes. Only 144 postal boxes are rented, giving the office an occupancy rate of less than half. Postal officials say that revenue has been flat the past four years, which put the Emery facility on the closure list.
Nationwide, the Postal Service is reeling from a massive shift from first class mail to email, operational inefficiencies and from the effects of the economic downturn, losing more than $8 billion last year. It has not been funded directly by taxpayers since the 1980s and is not seeking federal funds. Instead, the agency is asking for relief from such restraints as prefunding medical costs for its thousands of employees a requirement not placed on federal agencies. Those benefits are to be funded for the next 75 years, covering many workers who have not yet been born.
The USPS is expected to name which post offices it will close sometime next year.
In Utah, 12 rural post offices are set for closure, which would require residents to travel varying distances to buy stamps or mail packages:
Garrison • 100 miles to Milford
Hanksville • 54 miles to Green River
Dutch John • 44 miles to Manila
Park Valley • 42 miles to Snowville
Vernon • 24 miles to Eureka
Emery • 14 miles to Ferron
Rush Valley • 8.5 miles to Stockton
Henrieville • 8 miles to Tropic
Clawson • 5.3 miles to Orangeville
Whiterocks • 5 miles to Fort Duchesne
Trenton • 4.5 miles to Vernon
Elberta • 3.2 miles to Goshen
Also • Salt Lake Airport station