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

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.

Featured Interactives


Data Visualization

Journalism's Voyage West

Latest Posts

Feeling Overwhelmed by Pace Of the Oil Boom, North Dakota Residents Want to Hit the Brakes

Ag and Oil: Can They Coexist?        

By John McChesney

I should have known what it would be like here when I could not find a motel or hotel room within a hundred-mile radius of Williston, North Dakota.

Even after a year of reading about the oil rush on the Bakken field in western North Dakota, nothing had prepared me for what I found when I drove in. It seems that nearly every 18-wheeler tank truck in America is on the road here, making tens of thousands of trips , hauling water, fracking fluid, waste water, oil, and oil well condensate. Then there are the semis hauling fracking sand, gravel for drilling pads, gravel for roads, drill casings, pipeline sections, drilling rigs, huge oil tanks, and more. Dozens of small – we’re talking really small – rural towns with one main street dot the area, and those trucks rumble through the towns at all hours, creating monumental traffic jams and deep potholes.

Oops! Still Learning to Turn.

Tankers by the hundreds blanket huge lots on the edges of towns. On the two-lane roads linking towns, you stare up the tail end of the tanker ahead, and flinch as the massive grills of Kenworths, Peterbilts, and Macks whoosh past on your left. It’s brutal out there. Last October through June of this year saw 1,142 crashes involving trucks, with 16 fatalities and 242 injuries. One official told me that some workers come here, take a two-week course in big rig driving, and hit the road as amateurs. 

Last modified Wed, 2 Nov, 2011 at 15:01

Is There More Water to Be Moved From the Colorado Basin?

Photo: Wyoming's Flaming Gorge Reservoir on the Green River, by Carfull...Holding onto Summer via Flickr

By John Fleck

Testifying before the House Subcommittee on Water and Power in April 2010, the Environmental Defense Fund’s Jennifer Pitt warned of the dynamic among the states of the Upper Colorado River Basin:

There appears to be a race among the states to develop the next big use of water, because for water users who don’t get their straw into the system first, their risk of curtailment increases.

Last modified Wed, 28 Sep, 2011 at 10:57

Refinery Construction Begins on North Dakota Reservation

Photo: Oil refinery in Billings, Montana, by Jon Martin via Flickr

By Reese Rogers

We are of the firm belief we will become more sovereign by the barrel.”

–Chairman Tex Hall. January 2011.

Construction began recently on the first oil refineries to be built in the United States in decades. The refinery is situated on the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota, home to the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation. The construction is the culmination of a development process that began back in 2003 when tribal leaders of the Three Affiliated Tribes first proposed the refinery project as a way of bringing economic development and jobs to the reservation community. Fort Berthold now encompasses much of the booming Bakken oil field.

This recent energy boom on the reservation and now the permission to build the refinery are long-awaited bright spots in the economic development of a people who have seen more than their fair share of hardship. Beyond the history of decimation through disease and violent conflict, many tribe members today still remember the tribe’s 1951 relocation to make way for the Garrison Dam on the Missouri River. Their original settlements and childhood homes are now buried under the waters of Lake Sakakawea. 

Last modified Wed, 28 Sep, 2011 at 10:58

High Stakes for Rural Health in Fight over Affordable Care Act

(Photo: Edgar Zuniga, Jr. via Flickr)

By Robin Pam

According to a new report from the Center for Rural Affairs, conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and stroke are responsible for 75 percent of all health care spending. Rural Americans experience these diseases and chronic conditions in higher numbers than the general population. This happens for a variety of factors, including heavier tobacco use, physical inactivity, poor diet, and alcohol abuse.

The health challenges facing rural communities are even further exaggerated in the West. Here rural and frontier communities are farther away from urban centers or larger towns with more sophisticated health care facilities. The large distances and extreme isolation place a greater strain on community health providers. 

Encouraging healthier behaviors and preventing chronic conditions is critical to controlling costs in the health care system. These goals are a major part of the Affordable Care Act, the health reform law passed in 2010. Residents of rural communities, and especially those in the West, stand to benefit greatly from the increased emphasis on prevention.

Last modified Thu, 8 Sep, 2011 at 8:36

Bonus Water on the Colorado River

Lee's Ferry, the dividing line between the Upper and Lower Colorado River basins. (Photo: Lissa Heineman)

By John Fleck

It is telling that when Los Angeles Times reporter Bettina Boxall went looking for a way to explain the implications of this year’s bountiful Colorado River Basin snowpack, she ended up at one of Lake Powell’s boat ramps:

The sudden rush of water into the lake has meant seven-day workweeks for the National Park Service and concessionaire crews that manage the boating facilities. Again and again they have reeled in floating docks and marina utility lines that were extended as the reservoir shrank. Dive teams were called in to move anchors.

At the Hite marina on the lake's northern end, where boating facilities had been stranded on the dry lake bed for years, workers used a backhoe and trucks to free them from layers of muck and silt as the water rose.

This is not a criticism of Boxall, one of the best reporters on the Western water beat. Such is water management on the Colorado River that, in the wake of the worst drought in a century of record-keeping, from 2000 to 2010, everyone in the seven western U.S. states and Mexico that depends on the Colorado River continued to get their full allotment. As the lakes receded, journalists (myself among them) turned to the recreational boating business in our search for a visible manifestation of drought. Marina operators engaged in the ritual they call “chasing water”, moving their floating docks farther and farther out into the lakes as the reservoirs shrank. Reporters followed along.

Last modified Wed, 7 Sep, 2011 at 14:51

Join the Radio Conversation: Community Newspapers and the Rural West

Data visualization of U.S. weekly newspapers in 2010, in white. View interactive map »

Bill Lane Center creative director and Rural West Initiative contributor Geoff McGhee will be talking about our recent report on community journalism on KUER Public Radio's live program RadioWest on Monday morning, August 8, at 10am Pacific Time. Geoff will be talking his report on the relatively good health of small-town and rural newspapers – compared to the crisis that big-market papers are enduring – and the Center's data visualization showing the growth of newspapers across the United States since 1690.

Appearing with Geoff will be the broadcast journalist and educator Judy Muller, a contributing editor at the Rural West Initiative, and author of the well-received book Emus Loose in Egnar, Big Stories from Small Towns. McGhee and Muller will talk about the state of small-town and rural newspapers and take listener questions about community journalism in the West. 

The program will be broadcast live on Monday, August 8, at 10am Pacific Time (11am Mountain Time) on KUER FM 90.1 in Salt Lake City and the SiriusXM Public Radio channel on satellite radio. Callers can join the conversation by calling (801) 585-WEST or emailing The archived broadcast will be available for playback on KUER's website and as a podcast on iTunes

Last modified Fri, 5 Aug, 2011 at 12:21

A Heated Argument About the Quality of Care in Rural Hospitals

Map of hospitals designated "Critical Access Hospitals" that are eligible for Medicare financing to shore up health care access in underserved communities. (Source: the Flex Monitoring Team, a consortium of university health care research centers) Click to enlarge.

By Robin Pam

It’s not every day that the American Hospital Association calls out researchers for doing a “disservice” to a group of hospitals. Yet that’s just what the president, Rich Umbdenstock, said in response to a recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association about the quality of care at Critical Access Hospitals, almost all of which are small, rural hospitals that serve as a first point of access to emergency care for the 20 percent of Americans who live in rural areas. 

He’s not the only one. The article has been generating heated responses among rural health experts from all corners in the weeks since its publication. 

Last modified Mon, 1 Aug, 2011 at 11:28

Examining The Global West

By Jon Christensen

We live in a global West. Even the most remote rural areas of the American West are plugged into the global economy. This has long been true. And it is even more so today. The connections between the local and the global run from the simple and straightforward to the complicated. In the current issue of High Country News, reporter Jonathan Thompson traces some of the connections that constitute this “Global West” through production and trade of natural resources, particularly energy and minerals. 

While Thompson reported on this story for High Country News in Douglas, Wyoming, and other parts of the West, researchers here at the Bill Lane Center's Rural West Initiative closely examined trends in direct foreign investment and the effect of global demand on the energy sector, which is booming in the West. Robert Jackman, a Stanford graduate student in public policy, wrote a sidebar for Thompson's story exploring three future scenarios for global energy demand and its impact on the West. Graduate students in computer science working here at the Bill Lane Center created an interactive online map of current foreign investment in energy and mining operations in the West to accompany the reports.

Jackman’s article for High Country News was based on his in-depth report -- the first in our Rural West Initiative Working Paper series -- is available here:

Fossil Fuels, Foreign Trade, and Foreign Investment in the American West


Jackman provides a sobering assessment of foreign influence in this crucial sector of the economy of the American West. He found that foreign direct investment in fossil fuel production occurs at a much lower rate than foreign direct investment in the American economy in general. Most of that investment comes from companies based in Europe, Canada, and Australia — and not from Asia — continuing a historical pattern. 

The biggest foreign influence on fossil fuel production comes from rising worldwide consumption of fossil fuels, and that is largely driven by growth in Asian economies. However, the main driver of demand for fossil fuels from the American West continues to overwhelmingly come from domestic consumption in the United States. 

The American West is indeed a “carbon colony.” But it is our carbon colony. 




Last modified Thu, 18 Aug, 2011 at 13:11

Rural Broadband Policy: Some New Recommendations

Areas with access to broadband Internet service, from the FCC's National Broadband Map

By John McChesney

We have had a tremendous, positive response to Geoff McGhee’s and Krissy Clark’s work on rural newspapers. On a related topic to rural media access, the Center for Media Justice and the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Initiative have just published a set of recommendations regarding rural broadband policy, drawn from a session at the National Rural Assembly in St Paul, MN on June 28th.

Some of their recommendations:

  • Define broadband as community infrastructure
  • Recognize broadband service as a public utility
  • Reform the Universal Service Fund
  • Support public ownership and community broadband networks

You can read the entire document at

Last modified Thu, 21 Jul, 2011 at 12:54

Cow Town to Boom Town: “A Feeding Frenzy”

Cow Town to Boom Town: "A Feeding Frenzy"
Duration: 5:46 (download as podcast)


Click image to view interactive feature.

The new $20 million aquatic center in Pinedale

By Claire Woodard

The influx of wealth from the gas boom has brought a lot of new infrastructure, investment, and business opportunities to Sublette County, Wyoming. But it has also inspired an unfamiliar and sometimes troubling response among residents: greed.

Last modified Thu, 2 Apr, 2015 at 11:54