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Colorado River
In Crisis

Stories and Reports

The Western
Energy Boom

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Health Care in
the Rural West

Historical Background

The Country Life Commission

A Collaboration Between Journalists and Scholars

The Rural West Initiative aims to create a unique collaboration between journalists and scholars to investigate the forces transforming the rural west.  We are generating reports and stories ourselves and will commission more from reporters, scholars, researchers, and students across the West. Our work uses extensive data visualization as well as text, video, and still photography to tell our stories.
 

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Rural West Conference, April 2014

Rethinking the Rural-Urban Divide
In the Modern West

An Interdisciplinary Conference
April 4 & 5, 2014
Stanford University

 

For nearly two centuries, the rural-urban divide has served as one of the great dichotomies in both the conceptual and organizational structuring of the United States; and perhaps in no region more than the American West. This conference seeks to complicate such characterizations in the modern West and explore the increasingly porous nature of the rural-urban divide in the late-twentieth and twenty-first centuries.  Moreover, the event promises to offer an important intellectual bridge between urban and rural scholars within the West, aiming to advance an interdisciplinary discussion on the inter-connected relationship between the region’s cities and its countryside.

Interested attendees must register online to observe the conference.

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Comic: Can Fallowing Crops Help Save the Colorado River?

Since the mid-1990s, farmers in the Palo Verde valley in Southern California have embraced a new way to supplement their livelihood: temporarily transferring their water rights to urban utilities in exchange for cash. By not farming, farmers free up to 111,000 acre-feet of agricultural water per year for the cities — enough for 220,000 homes. In this illustrated report, the Bill Lane Center for the American West's research assistant Emily Bookstein (Stanford '11) looks at the largest and longest water transfer of its kind in California history.

 

Last modified Fri, 20 Sep, 2013 at 11:44

Hunting a New Kind of Fugitive in the West

In exploring the hidden sides of the western shale oil and gas boom, the Rural West Initiative has looked at the impact of energy extraction on communities in North Dakota and Wyoming: on housing and infrastructure, strains on health care, disruption of local banks and the importance of refining state fiscal policies

With our video feature "The New Western Fugitives," we now turn our focus on a side effect of gas extraction that is literally invisible: the build-up of “fugitive” emissions that contribute to high levels of ozone gas. 

According to the EPA:

“Breathing ozone can trigger a variety of health problems including chest pain, coughing, throat irritation, and congestion. It can worsen bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma. Ground level ozone also can reduce lung function and inflame the linings of the lungs. Repeated exposure may permanently scar lung tissue.”

Along the Green River in Wyoming and Utah, we look at two basins that have some of the worst ozone pollution in the nation. They have recorded ozone levels that sometimes exceed peak conditions in traffic-choked cities like Los Angeles. Following on a lawsuit by a citizens' group in Pinedale, Wyoming, the EPA has declared Wyoming's Upper Green River Basin a "non-attainment zone" for ozone, a ruling that could carry sanctions against the industry if conditions don't improve. Further south, in Utah’s Uintah Basin, the EPA is still studying the problem, along with partners from NOAA, Utah’s Department of Air Quality, and the Bureau of Land Management. Environmentalists are frustrated with the delays and say some regulators seem to be in a state of denial.

But where does the ozone come from? Ozone creation in these areas requires two ingredients: volatile organic compounds, called VOCs, and nitrous oxides, known as NOx. Sun reflected off snow cooks the compounds into ozone, which can be trapped by a lid of warm air – an "inversion" – and threaten public health. 

We visit a gas field with an inspector from the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality and see just how tricky it can be to contain ozone precursors, as fumes escape from old wells, blowback from new wells, leaky pipes and valves, and from evaporation ponds where water produced from drilling is stored. VOCs sources are often elusive, and the technology used to find them is outmoded. 

We look at some promising new technologies for identifying hot spots, and visit a gas field run by the energy giant Anadarko, which is trying to get ahead of future regulation by clamping down on emissions. 

Still, the outlook is uncertain for containing ozone precursors. This winter, ozone readings in the Utah basin were again very high, sometimes nearly twice the amount allowed by the Clean Air Act. But it takes three consecutive years of data for the EPA to declare that a region has unacceptably high ozone levels. An EPA spokesman says such a declaration could not happen before 2015.

 

To follow some of our previous reporting on the western energy boom:

 

Last modified Wed, 24 Apr, 2013 at 22:23

Rural West Initiative on NPR's Talk of the Nation Monday, Feb. 11

The Rural West Initiative's John McChesney will be appearing on the second hour of NPR's Talk of the Nation radio program on Monday, February 11, to talk about life in the energy boomtowns of the American West. Bay Area listeners can tune into KQED radio at 12pm, local listings are available on NPR's website.

Talk of the Nation
America's New Boomtowns

Natural gas and oil are booming, and in some small towns like Williston, North Dakota, that means unemployment is low. Really low. Hear about he ups and downs of America's new boomtowns.

Last modified Mon, 11 Feb, 2013 at 12:03

Closing Remarks to the Conference on the Rural West

The Initiative's first Conference on the Rural West took place over the weekend of Oct. 13-14 at the Ogden-Eccles Conference Center in Ogden, Utah. Organized by the Bill Lane Center for the American West in collaboration with the Western Rural Development Center at Utah State University, the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies at Brigham Young University, and the American West Center at the University of Utah, the conference brought together scholars, journalists, researchers and community members for exploration, dialogue and debate on critical issues facing the rural American West, from economic development to health care, energy and natural resources, Native American concerns and the essential nature of western rural life and culture. At the conclusion of the conference, the historian David Danbom delivered the remarks below, which summed up the wide-ranging subject matter and the state of a rural West in transition. Danbom has written several books about rural life, including the seminal work Born in the Country: A History of Rural America.

By David Danbom, Independent Scholar

In the past 20 years an estimated 110,000 people have moved onto the Eastern Slope of the Colorado Rockies, mostly into scattered single-family dwellings in the area between Fort Collins and Colorado Springs.  These exurbanites may live in the wilderness, but they desire the conveniences a modern society offers—well-maintained roads, electricity, broadband internet access, and, when they can get it, water. 

They also desire the amenities of wilderness living, and thus they oppose such prudent measures as controlled burns and forest thinning.  That becomes a problem when forest fires erupt, as they did all along the Eastern slope this spring and early summer.  When the fires broke out, the presence of householders shaped the way the flames were fought.  In addition to establishing fire lines, fire fighters were called upon to attempt to save individual homes.  It was not always possible to do both jobs well.  And now, when areas vulnerable to fires face sharply rising property insurance rates, they are requesting enhanced fire protection from counties.  Other county residents—especially those in municipalities—have trouble seeing why their tax dollars should go to protect people who choose to live in the forests of pine and aspen. 

David Danbom
David Danbom of North Dakota State University delivering the closing remarks at the Conference on the Rural West on Oct. 14 in Ogden, Utah

In Park County, Colorado, the Bureau of Land Management proposes to lease 2850 acres of land for oil and gas drilling, a process that will involve fracking.  The BLM argues that it is doing its part to advance American energy independence, and the Colorado Oil and Gas Commission, which both promotes and regulates energy development in the state, supports the plan.  However, the leasing plan is opposed by the city of Aurora, which draws some of its drinking water from Spinney Reservoir.  The BLM would allow fracking within half a mile of this impoundment, while Aurora would like a buffer of at least one mile to protect the integrity of its water supplies.  Park County opposes the leasing plan altogether.  In common with many mountain counties, Park’s livelihood is dependent on tourists who come to hunt and fish.  County leaders are wary of any development that might diminish their area’s aesthetic appeal or threaten fish and game.  Read More »

Last modified Fri, 19 Oct, 2012 at 12:21

Conference on the Rural West: Complete Audio

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Bakken Boom Fractures North Dakota Health Care

The emergency room at Mercy Hospital in Williston, North Dakota

The emergency room at Mercy Hospital in Williston, North Dakota

The Bakken oil boom in western North Dakota has put a tremendous strain on the rural region’s small hospitals. A declining, older population and a rapidly expanding younger, uninsured population; a major overload on emergency facilities, accompanied by skyrocketing bad debt;  nurse and staff recruitment has become much more difficult due to high housing prices and high competitive wages in the oil patch; and physician recruitment, always a problem for rural areas, has gotten worse as needs soar.

By John McChesney

Randall Pederson, Mercy HospitalI met Randall Pederson, right, in his cramped office. As I start my interview, he yawns. He’s sitting behind a desk piled high with papers surrounded by shelves,  and also piled high with papers. Pederson is President and CEO of the Tioga Medical Center, a 25-bed hospital in the town of Tioga, population around 2,000, although Pederson says it’s anybody’s guess how many people live here now. Several towns have more than doubled in size in the last couple of years. Pederson not only runs this hospital; he also serves on the town’s volunteer ambulance squad. Thus, the yawn. The squad is now making a lot more runs in the middle of the night. “They say New York City never sleeps,” Pederson says. “Well, I don’t know if western North Dakota ever sleeps.”

Like many small town hospitals around here, the Tioga Medical Center has seen a dramatic leap in ambulance runs and emergency room patients. “In 2007 we would see 600 patients in ER per year,” Pederson says. “In 2012, we anticipate seeing over 2,000. So in a five-year period, we have more than tripled our emergency room visits. We are seeing a lot more industrial accidents, major trauma, many of those involving car accidents, because there’s a lot more vehicles on the roads these days.”Many of those accidents involve a 40-ton tank truck colliding with a 5,000-pound passenger car. Those can bring several patients with horrible injuries into the small ER at the same time. The one doctor on call has to scramble to get some help. Read more »

Last modified Mon, 1 Oct, 2012 at 10:34

Boomtown Bankers in North Dakota: What to Do With All That Money?

By John McChesney

So here's a problem you would think banks would love to have: more deposit money than ever before, coming in from people reaping the rewards of the oil boom in western North Dakota. Lease payments, royalties, and money from property sales are pouring in to the small independent banks of the many small towns in the region. Why is that a problem? Because banks make money from loans, not from deposits.

Gary Peterson, along with his family, owns the Lakeside Bank in New Town. I first interviewed him about a year ago, and didn’t notice the hint of gray showing along his temples. He’s smiling as he tells me, “The amount of liquidity in the system is amazing. We’re growing at 20% a year in deposit growth, which for rural North Dakota is unheard of. Before this happened, I think a lot of bankers would have told you that one their concerns is how we going to sustain the deposit side of our balance sheet. As the elderly would leave or die, those deposits would go to their kids who are usually elsewhere. Totally different story these days, we’re wondering what to do with it, frankly.”

The story of imbalance between money in the vault – so to speak – and money out on loan is common across the region. David Grubb is President of the Bank of Tioga, an unassuming, single story building on the town’s main drag. “We’ve seen a tremendous rise in deposits. The last couple of years we’ve grown at about a 26% clip. The growth rate has been very robust, and it also causes some concern.” Grubb adds that the fed has kept interest rates so low that that treasury yields are practically zero, so there’s no haven for new deposits there.

“Causes some concern” and “we’re wondering what to do with it” seem like odd sentiments in the booming economy of the oil patch. But until a few years ago, these banks were making mostly agricultural loans to farmers and ranchers, people with whom they had a personal relationship (Read More)

Last modified Tue, 23 Apr, 2013 at 19:40

Theodore Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch, the “Walden Pond of the West,” Threatened by North Dakota’s Oil Boom

By John McChesney

Note: A radio version of this story ran on NPR's Morning Edition today.

Theodore Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch in North Dakota is often called the “Walden Pond of the West.” But Roosevelt’s ranch today is in the midst of an oil boom that is industrializing the local landscape. Critics say a proposed gravel pit and a bridge could destroy the very thing that made such a lasting impression on Roosevelt: the restorative power of wilderness.

It’s not easy to reach the place that Roosevelt said created the best memories of his life. Over 30 miles of dirt road, then and a mile-and-a-half hike, lie between a visitor and the ranch. Roosevelt National Park Superintendent Valerie Naylor drove me out on a Sunday. We didn’t see another person at the ranch site, which sits on the banks of the Little Missouri River. 

Naylor showed me the old hand-dug well and the ranch house’s massive foundation stones, cut from granite. “That’s what’s so special about the Elkhorn ranch,” she told me, “We don’t have anything that’s reconstructed here – we just have a site and it’s the way that it was – for the most part – when Roosevelt first found it in summer of 1884. So it’s very special.”

The long drive out here takes you across the North Dakota Badlands, which are in fact beautiful, not bad. Because they made for hard travelling, early French trappers called them so. The area is crisscrossed with ravines (called coulees), meadows at bottom, tree-lined on the sides, and bordered by gray and red walls. Their fantastical formations fracture the horizon. Naylor said the site’s isolation is its charm. “You can see and hear things that many people have never seen or heard,” she explained, “That is, a landscape without any development, or minimal and all natural sounds, birds, wind in the cottonwood trees, and that’s exactly what Roosevelt heard and wrote about while he was here at the Elkhorn ranch.” (Read More)

Last modified Tue, 23 Apr, 2013 at 19:40

Oil and gas lobby overstates job potential

Dustin Bleizeffer is editor-in-chief of Wyofile, one of the best sources of information from the cowboy state. He is one of our contributing editors. From 2000 to 2010, he was energy reporter for the Casper Star-Tribune.

By Dustin Bleizeffer, Wyofile.com

Once again, the oil and gas industry’s bulldog lobbying group, Western Energy Alliance (formerly IPAMS, or Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States), is grossly misleading the public and elected officials about the supposed suppression of jobs and revenue from proposed energy development in the West.

Dustin Bleizeffer

Western Energy Alliance (WEA) — whose supposedly mom-and-pop-sized members include Anadarko Petroleum Corp., EnCana Oil & Gas, Halliburton, Chesapeake Energy and Schlumberger — hired consulting firm SWCA Environmental Consultants to look at 22 proposed oil and gas projects in Wyoming and Utah that were subject to review under the National Environmental Policy Act.

WEA insists there are rigid timelines that federal regulators must abide by in any NEPA analysis, but remains silent on the industry’s tendency to oversize projects and change plans midway through analysis. Nonetheless, some projects were delayed by three years, which is “preventing the creation of 64,805 jobs, $4.3 billion in wages, and $14.9 billion in economic impact every year,” according to WEA. (Read on)