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 iinteractive maps embedded in his essay.
From its early beginnings to the bustling of cities and rural depopulation, the human landscape of the American West continues to change dramatically. Click on the link below to visit our interactive map of the United States to explore spatial and temporal changes in population, population density, population change, age distributions, and the evolving "trans-frontier" region of six or fewer people per square mile from 1850 to the present. Follow the links below the interactive map to see decade-by-decade how the United States and the rural West have changed. And read postdoctoral scholar Michael De Alessi's essay on demographic upheavals in the rural West.
As oil prices hover around $100 a barrel, new technologies are being put to use to exploit various forms of energy in the West. Experts say the reserves in oil shale are vast, and energy companies are turning huge stretches of rural western landscape into pincushions bristling with wells piercing deep. The process, known as “fracking,” has become increasingly controversial as evidence emerges that groundwater is being contaminated both by the drilling and by the produced water stored in surface ponds. States like North Dakota and Wyoming are stretched to the limit to regulate the drilling. Wyoming, for example, has only 12 inspectors to monitor 39,000 wells.
With Lake Mead at 39 percent capacity and Lake Powell at around 59 percent after an 11 year drought, there’s no question that the Colorado River system is in crisis, and, experts predict, climate change will make things worse. With 30 million people dependent on the Colorado River, the outcome of disputes over distribution of Colorado River water is critical for the West. Researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography say Lake Powell has a 50 percent chance of becoming unusable by 2021. Some experts say that within the next 15 years, the Central Arizona Project, which supplies Phoenix and Tucson and the agricultural lands between them, may become the testing ground to see what happens when the water runs low.
The federal Bureau of Land Management controls 256 million acres, mostly west of the Mississippi, and 700 million acres of subsurface mineral land. It manages well over half of all the land in states like Nevada and Utah. Arguably, the BLM has more impact on the rural West than any other government agency, local, state or federal. It governs grazing rights, logging, mineral extraction, and recreational use. The agency is often in hot controversy on the local level. Nationally, it is regularly buffeted by changes in administrations pursuing different policies for conservation and mineral extraction. The same goes for the U.S. Forest Service, except that it falls under a different federal agency, the Department of Agriculture.
Asia’s insatiable appetite for energy is beginning to gnaw into the American West’s huge cache of carbon. China’s energy giant, the Chinese National Offshore Oil Corporation, having learned the hard way, is just nibbling right now. In 2005 it tried to take a large bite by bidding $18.5 billion for Unocal and stirred up a congressional hornet’s nest. Recently CNOOC invested a modest $1.3 billion in Chesapeake Energy, which is drilling on the Niobrara, a shale oil field that spreads across sections of Wyoming, Colorado and Kansas. CNOOC invested another billion in Chesapeake’s Texas operation. Both plays involve shale oil, and China is looking to acquire the technology to exploit its own large deposits. Experts expect China to make more investments, but to keep them small enough to avoid arousing national security hawks.