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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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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,

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)

What a Difference a Year Makes on the Colorado

Water returns to Boulder Harbor on Lake Mead. But how long will it remain? (Photo: John Fleck)

By John Fleck

There’s five feet of snow now at Bison Lake, on Colorado’s west slope north of Glenwood Springs. Melted and measured by the folks who run the federal SNOTEL network, that translates to 15.6 inches of “snow water equivalent”, the metric that matters once spring and summer warmth start its trip down into the Colorado River.

The water nerds pronounce SWE as “swee”, a word that sounds vaguely like a ski move, but it’s really the most important number in western water right now, the measure of water supply for the year to come, sitting in the relatively small patch of high country that feeds the entire Colorado River Basin. Last year at this time, the SWE values at Bison Lake were nearly twice as high, and the bounty just kept building. This year things aren’t looking so good.

In December, I paid a visit to Boulder Harbor on the west shore of Lake Mead to see the results for myself. Boulder Harbor is one of those places where the dropping reservoir is made tangible. Two years ago, its boat ramp was closed, its shrinking harbor abandoned to an epic flock of American coots feasting on the critters left in the muck and an osprey that entertained me with a spectacular dive to pick off a stranded fish. Now, thanks to last year’s big snowpack, the water’s back, and boaters have displaced my osprey and coots.

But things appear to be headed back in the other direction. On its face, the effect is clear. After rising with last year’s big snowpack, Lake Mead and Lake Powell, the Colorado River’s two largest reservoirs, are forecast to drop a collective 42 feet in surface elevation over the next year, according to the latest forecast from the US Bureau of Reclamation.

But the while those results are in some sense obvious – reservoirs go up in a wet year and down in a dry one – there’s a subtler problem buried in the Bureau of Reclamation’s data. (Read more)

Last modified Fri, 3 Aug, 2012 at 12:36

Bringing "Real Rural" California into The City

Photographs from "Real Rural" by Lisa M. Hamilton

On Monday morning, many BART riders will look up from their newspapers, iPads, Kindles, and smartphones to see the faces of farmers, rodeo riders, young smalltown boxers, and country poets staring back at them, thanks to an innovative public information campaign designed to connect urban Californians with their rural compatriots.

"Real Rural" is the product of a collaboration between writer and photographer Lisa M. Hamilton, the nonprofit organization Roots of Change, the Bill Lane Center for the American West, and the Creative Work Fund, which supports artists working in the nine Bay Area counties. On a media fellowship from our Center, Hamilton spent much of 2011 criscrossing California, capturing offbeat portraits of the state's remarkable scenery and seeking out stories about the diverse residents of what she calls "the rest of California."

Hamilton writes:

Real Rural is meant to start a new conversation, between two parts of California that are at best disconnected, and often at odds. Many people in our cities think they already know the story of rural California: who’s there and how they think, their values and their struggles. I have aimed to demonstrate that in fact this place and its people are far more diverse and dynamic than most of us from outside realize.

Working with Geoff McGhee, the Center's creative director of media and communications, and the San Francisco design firm MacFadden and Thorpe, Hamilton has crafted an elegant, interactive and multimedia rich website — — that tells the stories of 20 rural Californians, as well as posters on BART. Later this year, the project will be featured on mass transit and billboards in Los Angeles and Sacramento, and in exhibition at the California Historical Society in San Francisco.

"Real Rural" is featured in the "Insight" section of the Sunday San Francisco Chroncle and will be featured in other media this week, including KQED Radio's "Forum" on Tuesday from 10 to 11am and public radio's "California Report" magazine on Friday afternoon.

We hope you can join us to celebrate "Real Rural" California at the California Historical Society in downtown San Francisco on Tuesday, January 31, from 5 to 7pm, where Lisa will talk about the journey she took to find these extraordinary stories from the rest of California. Please click here for more information and to RSVP.

Last modified Mon, 30 Jan, 2012 at 9:36

Call for Participants: Rural West Conference in October 2012

Photograph: Native American Woman with Basket of Huckleberries. OSU Archives WilliamsG:USFS281580 via Flickr Commons    

Building on the work of the Rural West Initiative, the Bill Lane Center for the American West will hold a conference titled "The Rural West: Toward a Regional Approach to Common Issues." Scholars, journalists, policymakers, and others are invited to propose papers for the conference, which will be held October 12-14, 2012 at the David Eccles Conference Center in Ogden, Utah.

Last modified Thu, 26 Jan, 2012 at 11:27

What Seven States Can Agree to Do: Deal-Making on the Colorado River

The Central Arizona Project carries Colorado River water to Phoenix. (Photo: John Fleck)

By John Fleck

As western water leaders converged on Las Vegas in  December 2001, Southern California’s inability to contain its voracious appetite seemed finally to be bumping up against reality - there is only so much water in the Colorado River.

Shared among seven states and Mexico via a shifting, uncertain set of bargains, the river was running up against the era of limits.

For years, California had been living large off the surplus of others. It slurped Colorado River leftovers other states weren’t using, pumping it 250 miles to rapidly growing coastal cities. But as the rest of the southwest grew and began taking its rightful share of the Colorado, California faced an urgent deadline. It had to come up with a plan to cut its use or see a large share of its water supply simply cut off on Jan. 1, 2003.

Testifying at a Dec. 10 House field hearing, Larry Anderson, head of Utah’s Division of Water Resources, was blunt. If California did not tame its appetites, the other states dependent on the Colorado River expected the federal government to step in and enforce the “Law of the River”, the maze of laws that govern distribution of the river’s water. “Appropriate enforcement is critical to protecting our rights,” Anderson said. 1

In response, Southern California Congresswoman Grace Napolitano's question to the federal government’s top water official sounded more like a plea. If California is making a good faith effort, she asked, could the Golden State have more time? Coming from a representative of the region’s largest state and economic powerhouse, the plea also contained a hint of a threat: “California cannot afford the immediate reduction by that amount of water,” she said. “Our economy reaches out to the neighboring states so that if we suffer, so do the rest of the states around us.”

Sitting at the witness table, Interior Department’s assistant secretary Bennett Raley responded with what, in the coded language of western water law, amounted to an ultimatum. His boss, Interior Secretary Gale Norton, was ready to cut California’s share. If the state missed the deadline, “the Secretary will have to use all means at her disposal to ensure that she is in compliance with the Law of the River.” 2


Carving a course

The Colorado River carves a defining course through North American geography and history. Winter snow falling in the Rockies, mostly in Colorado and Wyoming, feeds it. The Colorado and its longest tributary, the Green, spend much of their lives in the deep, arid canyon country of the arid interior western United States.

The river and its tributaries pass through seven U.S. states – Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California – before making a short run between the Mexican states of Sonora and Baja California to the Gulf of California. (Read more)

Last modified Fri, 3 Aug, 2012 at 12:43

Conservation Is Up in a Down Economy Out West

(Graphic: Geoff McGhee)

From High Country News

By Jon Christensen, Jenny Rempel, and Judee Burr

The Great Recession, it turns out, may have been good for one thing in the West: private land conservation. From the tiny Orient Land Trust in Colorado’s San Luis Valley, which has nearly doubled its holdings to 2,260 acres, to the 138,041 acres of ranchland protected by the California Rangeland Trust over the last five years, statewide and local land trusts in the West have done better than ever recently, even as many environmental advocacy groups continue to trim budgets and federal funding for conservation falters.

The federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, which agencies rely on to acquire valuable private lands, suffered a 38 percent cut and protected just over 500,000 acres over the last five years. During the same period, private nonprofit land trusts protected 20 times as much undeveloped land — 10 million acres nationwide, according to data in a new census of 1,700 land trusts in the national Land Trust Alliance.

Land trusts also grew in other ways, including a 19 percent increase in paid employees and contractors, a 36 percent increase in operating budgets, a 70 percent increase in volunteer numbers, and a near tripling of long-term endowments. Land trusts protect land by either buying it outright or paying for a conservation easement, which restricts or removes the landowner’s right to develop open land. Landowners can also donate property and easements and then receive a break on their income taxes from the federal government and some state governments. The latest gains bring the total area protected by the nation’s land trusts to 47 million acres — more than twice the area covered by all of the national parks in the Lower 48 states.

In fact, private land conservation is now shaping the future of much of the West as decisively as development.

Last modified Sun, 29 Jan, 2012 at 23:36

Drilling to Energy Independence: Can the West Save Us from Foreign Oil Imports?

(Photo: John Amos via Flickr)

By Dustin Bleizeffer

True to the frontier attitude still prevalent here, oil and gas officials say there’s a treasure of fossil fuels in the West that will take America closer to energy independence than any plan conceived in Washington D.C.

Story Written In Collaboration With

Wyoming Politics & Policy

While speaking to a group of energy industry leaders in Wyoming recently, Chesapeake Energy’s John Dill said his company — and other oil and gas developers — fully intends to implement their own American energy plan.

“The country has waited long enough for a national energy policy,” Dill told attendees of the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority’s October meeting in Laramie. “So we’re going to take the bull by the horn and do it ourselves.”

Petroleum Consumption, Production and Import Trends (1949-2010)

(Petroleum Consumption, Production and Import Trends)

Chesapeake Energy’s plan, “A Declaration of Energy Independence,” proclaims America’s “$400 billion a year” in foreign oil imports is “fiscally insane.” Toward American energy independence, Chesapeake created a $1 billion venture fund to convert transportation fleets from gasoline to compressed natural gas (CNG), aiming at the No. 1 driver for oil imports. The company invested another $150 million in Sundrop Fuels, which is developing what it calls a non-food biomass “green gasoline.”

“We believe American energy needs to be supplied 100 percent by domestic resources,” said Dill, director of Chesapeake’s corporate development and government relations.

With a huge presence in America’s current onshore drilling boom, Chesapeake Energy is the second largest natural gas producer in the nation. It’s recent acquisitions in the Denver-Julesburg Basin and Powder River Basin are part of an industry-wide shift toward developing shale oil.

Last modified Tue, 6 Dec, 2011 at 12:16

Rural West Initiative's North Dakota Story Airs on NPR

By John McChesney

NPR carried my story on North Dakota's oil boom on Morning Edition today. Some of the characters will be familiar from my reporter's notebook from earlier this Fall. But you can hear emotion and connotation better in audio, so it's better to listen, rather than read in this case.   

The tough economy has taken its toll on most states, putting budgets deep in the red and putting people out of work.

But North Dakota has a low 3.5 percent unemployment rate and a state budget with a billion dollar surplus. That's because of a major oil boom in the western part of the state, a discovery of at least 2 billion barrels to be gained by fracking — the controversial process of injecting fluid deep into underground rock formations to force the oil out.

The find could be the largest ever in the lower 48 states. It's expected to make North Dakota the third largest producer of oil after Alaska and Texas. But many residents of the oil boom region are not singing "Happy Days Are Here Again" — they're saying "enough."

Listen to the story at NPR's website  »

Last modified Tue, 6 Dec, 2011 at 11:31