Stories and Reports

Colorado River
In Crisis

Stories and Reports

The Western
Energy Boom

Stories and Reports

Health Care in
the Rural West

Historical Background

The Country Life Commission

Dear Visitor: This site preserves the legacy publications of the Rural West Initiative from 2009-2014. 
For more recent information on our conference and publications, please go to

John McChesney's blog

Rural Conservation Echoes Across Time

By John McChesney, Director of the Rural West Initiative

We have just published a fascinating historical essay about the relationship between the Progressive Era’s Conservation Movement and the Country Life Movement. In the first decade of the twentieth century, President Theodore Roosevelt created two commissions, one on National Conservation and one on Country Life.  Roosevelt saw the two as a continuum of natural resource conservation. “…the conservation and rural life policies are really two sides of the same policy; and down at bottom this policy rests upon the fundamental law that neither man nor nation can prosper unless, in dealing with the present, he steadily take thought for the future.”

The President and the Country Life reformers felt that American agriculture was unscientific, inefficient and destructive. Author Travis Koch traces the connection between both movements and shows how the Country Life Movement, in its attempts to reform agricultural practices, ran aground on the shoals of private property. It’s worth noting that there are echoes of this struggle in contemporary times when environmental groups argue that the Farm Bill is, or should be, all about natural resource conservation.

Read the Essay »

Last modified Tue, 5 Jul, 2011 at 7:06

Colorado River Conference at the University of Colorado June 8-10

I'm headed for the conference which is called "Navigating the Future of the Colorado River Basin." It's put together by the Natural Resources Law Center at the the law school. Pat Mulroy, whose interview we just posted, will be the keynote speaker, so here's a chance to get a preview. Doug Kenney, Director of Center's Western Water Policy Program, whose speech is also posted here, will be a key figure in the conference. The conference promises to be intense and, I'm sure, will stir up a little controversy. One of my journalistic colleagues, John Fleck of the Albuquerque Journal, will be commenting on a panel titled "Rethinking the Current Path."  In the future, we'll be posting interviews with some of the participants.  

Last modified Tue, 5 Jul, 2011 at 14:25

Nevada Water Maven: “I Would Not Declare the Drought Over on the Colorado River”

By John McChesney, Director of the Rural West Initiative

Pat MulroyPat Mulroy heads up the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which supplies water to the Las Vegas Valley. Las Vegas gets 90 percent of its water from the Colorado River. Nevertheless, Mulroy supervises one of the smallest straws sucking water from the Colorado. By way of comparison, Nevada is allocated 300,000 acre feet of water from the Colorado, while California can suck up 4.4 MILLION acre feet. But don’t let appearances fool you. Mulroy is one of the strongest voices for seven-state, basin-wide agreements on how the precious flow of the Colorado should be apportioned, especially in times of shortage.  Her grasp of the demands on the river, from its headwaters to its trickle into the Sea of Cortez, is formidable. Witness the sweep of this description, where she ties the Colorado system into the Bay-Delta system of California. For those of you who are not water wonks, Metropolitan refers to the Metropolitan Water District, which serves 26 cities and water agencies in southern California.

We recently interviewed Mulroy about the 11 year drought on the Colorado, about whether the huge snowpack this year means the crisis is over, and about what should be done going forward. You can read the interview here, but I think it’s more interesting to listen to her, so we are providing audio as well. First, though, a note about Lake Mead water levels, since they come up over and over again in this discussion. Mead is full at 1229 feet, it has averaged 1173 feet, its drought level is 1125, and its critical shortage level is 1025. 

Interview with Pat Mulroy, Southern Nevada Water Authority
Duration: 20 minutes (download as podcast)

Read on for transcript and more audio clips » 

Last modified Mon, 4 Jul, 2011 at 8:00

Rethinking the Colorado River: A Provocative Speech

As part of our Rural West Initiative, we are examining the crisis on the Colorado River, with a close eye on its impact on rural communities, and the past, present, and future of agriculture in the Colorado River Basin.

We join the conversation on the Colorado River crisis by posting a provocative speech given by Doug Kenney at the December, 2010 meeting of the Colorado River Water Users Association (CRWUA) in Las Vegas. He recently authored a report for the Western Water Policy Program entitled, Rethinking the Future of the Colorado River. He called his speech at CRWUA a "Reader’s Digest" version of that report.

Last modified Tue, 5 Jul, 2011 at 6:09

Tax Revenue, not Employment, Is Lasting Benefit of Energy Extraction in the West, Says a New Report

A new report by Headwaters Economics, a research organization based in Bozeman Montana, says the longest lasting economic benefit from oil, gas, and coal extraction comes from taxes, not from jobs. Jobs in the energy sector are often filled by transients who leave after a field is developed and goes into the production stage, but tax revenues continue to accrue during production. The report generated instant controversy with its recommendation that severance taxes on energy production be increased and that the monies collected be distributed more equitably to local governments to mitigate impacts of energy development on public infrastructure and the environment. The report also asserts that increasing taxes would not deter exploration and drilling. “A growing body of research indicates that taxes have little or no effect on where and when industry chooses to drill for oil and gas,” the report says.

Last modified Tue, 5 Jul, 2011 at 5:55

“The Sky is Not Falling…Yet,” Concludes a New Study of Colorado River Problems


The Center for Natural Resources and Environmental Policy at the University of Montana has just issued its report, “Thinking Like a River Basin.” The report was commissioned by Carpe Diem West, a group dedicated to studying climate change and water in the West.

The report is based on interviews with 29 Colorado River experts and stakeholders who were promised anonymity in exchange for their views. The need for anonymity suggests the sensitivity of the subject; apparently, real candor about hot button river issues can only be obtained by insulating the interviewees from their respective constituencies.

The report is an excellent primer on the issues confronting the 30 million people using Colorado River water amidst the uncertainties created by climate change and growing populations.

Last modified Tue, 5 Jul, 2011 at 5:56

Health Care in the Rural West: Persistent Problems, Glimmers of Hope

Giving a typhoid innoculation at a school in rural San Augustine County, Texas, 1943. (Photo: John Vachon via Library of Congress)

In spite of a broad increase in the number of doctors per capita in the United States and in the American West over the past century, many rural areas in the West have seen little or no increase. This is a cause for grave concern. The fact that much of the rural West has seen little improvement in this basic measure of health care access is surprising, and it underscores the persistent remoteness of vast stretches of the rural West. But it also underscores the importance of improving physician access in the rural West. And the state of Utah shows a way forward. Postdoctoral scholar Michael De Alessi and research assistant Robin Pam examine the trends. Explore the data yourself through interactive maps embedded in his essay.

Read More »

Last modified Tue, 5 Jul, 2011 at 6:18

Colorado River Crisis: Do Farmers Have the Water To Solve It?

By John McChesney, Director of the Rural West Initiative

In discussions about water shortages in California’s Sacramento Delta or on the Colorado River, you’ll often hear that farmers can slake the thirst caused by ballooning urban growth. Agriculture sucks up 70 to 80 percent of water in those basins. Farmers have more water than they need, some water wonks say, and can make good money selling it to thirsty urban areas. For example, California’s Imperial Valley farmers send 280 thousand acre feet of Colorado River water each year to San Diego.

What you don’t often hear in these discussions is any concern about what happens to agriculture and rural life as these transfers become more common. Bruce Finley of the Denver Post took a look at that issue here: His piece focuses on the Front Range in Colorado where “about 400,000 acres in Colorado dried up between 2000 and 2005, according to U.S. Geological Survey data...

Last modified Tue, 5 Jul, 2011 at 7:12

Wallace Stegner, the Rural West, and Me

By John McChesney, Director of the Rural West Initiative

I spent some of the most enjoyable years of my life as a graduate student at Stanford in the 1960’s. During two of those years I lived in a cottage that Wallace Stegner rented to graduate students. In our many conversations, Wally enlarged my knowledge of and love for the West, particularly the rural West. We argued sometimes, but that was almost always about the war in Vietnam. That led to a rough patch in our relationship. Since then I have read almost everything Stegner wrote and wish that I had used all my time with him soaking up his deep understanding of the American West.

Years later I was stunned to discover, while reading Philip Fradkin's biography of Stegner, that Wally had written an imaginary dialogue between us. It had a lot of things wrong about me, but I was touched. Our arguments had moved him too. Later he told my wife that he had heard me reporting from China and was glad I had found my niche in journalism.

Now, following nearly 30 years with National Public Radio as an editor and correspondent, I'm thrilled to be back at Stanford, directing the Rural West Initiative at the Bill Lane Center for the American West. We hope to stir up a robust conversation about important issues transforming the rural West — and their deep historical dimensions.

Last modified Tue, 5 Jul, 2011 at 7:11

The West as Carbon Colony: Tempest Over Wild Lands and Unexploited Oil and Gas Leases

By John McChesney, Director of the Rural West Initiative

Energy companies and some congressional Republicans have been up in arms about Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s order 3310, from December 2010, for BLM to inventory public lands for “wilderness characteristics.” If the land is found to be worth protecting, it will receive the designation “Wild Lands.” Oil and gas drilling was put on hold in areas to be surveyed until decisions are made. Energy companies felt the order was a sneaky way to get new wilderness areas without congressional approval.

When asked about the charge that his administration was restraining domestic onshore drilling, here’s what President Obama said: “right now, the industry holds leases on tens of millions of acres — both offshore and on land — where they aren’t producing a thing. So I’ve directed the Interior Department to determine just how many of these leases are going undeveloped and report back to me within two weeks so that we can encourage companies to develop the leases they hold and produce American energy. People deserve to know that the energy they depend on is being developed in a timely manner."

Last modified Tue, 5 Jul, 2011 at 7:11