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 »

Audio: Listen to David Danbom's Remarks from the Conference on the Rural West
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In Summit County, the state and environmentalists are struggling with the problems presented by the Pennsylvania Mine, one of 450 abandoned mines in the state that leak toxic substances into ground and surface waters.  The Pennsylvania Mine, which operated between 1879 and 1940, is the source of copper, cadmium, manganese, mercury, zinc, and lead, which leak into Peru Creek at the rate of 181 pounds per day.  As a result, Peru Creek is dead, and much of the Snake River into which it empties is also devoid of aquatic life.  It gets worse.  The Snake empties into Dillon Reservoir, which supplies some of Denver’s water, and what flows out of Dillon runs into the Blue and ultimately the Colorado.  The state and Trout Unlimited would like to plug the shaft from which most of the pollution appears to flow, but the Environmental Protection Agency has warned that states and “good Samaritans” attempting partial remediation at toxic sites can be held liable for the cost of a full-scale clean-up.  For its part, the EPA lacks the resources to clean up the Pennsylvania Mine, so it continues to poison water courses 72 years after the last miner walked out of the main shaft. 

I recount these three stories arising in the past few months from a piece of the rural West because I believe they illustrate a number of the themes in the presentations we have heard this weekend—that the rural West is a place of constant change, sometimes subtle and sometimes dramatic; that what the rural West is and what it should be is contested, sometimes among several different interests; that some of the problems confronting the rural West, while perhaps not intractable, are wicked difficult; and that decisions made about the rural West and actions taken there often live far beyond the decision-makers and actors.

Commentators on the problems of the rural West have traditionally emphasized economic difficulties, and in many parts of the region low incomes, a stagnant private sector, and outmigration remain serious challenges.  Indeed, a number of the problems we have heard about this weekend—inadequate healthcare, especially for minority populations, insufficient social services, even substance abuse—are related to economic decline and the loss of hope for a better future.  Not all of these problems are caused solely by economic underperformance, and behaviors such as substance abuse will not evaporate just because paychecks get fatter, but a stronger economy is essential to mitigating them.

Historically, the economy of much of the rural West has depended largely on extractive industries, and to a significant degree it still does.  Important as “amenity” or “experience” tourism are and as the New Natural Resource Economy might become, it is worth noting that such boom areas of the rural West as Wyoming and western North Dakota are booming because of good old-fashioned natural resource extraction in the form of gas and oil drilling. 

Development is generally welcomed in these areas in which the agricultural economy historically has been marginal and incomes have been chronically depressed.  At the same time, established residents complain of the disruption of local society that has come with the influx of outsiders, mostly young males, and the bars, strip clubs, drug dealers, and prostitutes that serve them.  They worry about the strain on local infrastructure and rising prices, rents, and wages.  They are beset by new community divisions, particularly between those who have subsoil mineral rights and those who don’t.  Farmers worry about petroleum and chemical spills and leaks, complain about access roads across their fields, and fear having to compete with frackers for water.  And everybody wonders what will happen to localities when the one-time harvest is completed.  Will the energy economy be replaced with one as lucrative, or will dependence on farming and ranching be the rule once again?  Will people living high on the hog be able to adjust to reduced circumstances?  Will depopulation resume?  Mark and Julie Haggerty have laid out an impressive road map for states undergoing energy development, suggesting how they can manage the boom to the advantage of themselves and their localities in both the short and long terms.  But even if states take their sound advice, the social and cultural challenges accompanying energy development will almost certainly remain. 

One natural resource on which all Western communities depend, whether they are rural or urban, is water, and it appears that the long-term challenge of finding adequate water to meet Western needs is reaching a crisis point.  For well over a century Westerners have carefully managed their water, passing elaborate codes of laws regarding its ownership, parceling it out to users, building impressive impoundments and transfer systems to meet the needs of irrigators and urban consumers, and negotiating interstate compacts to divide river waters among states within drainages.  Now it appears that these prudent steps have merely delayed the day of reckoning.  On the western Plains, as Burke Griggs so effectively demonstrates, farmers tapping the Ogallala Aquifer are not only depleting it rapidly, they are also diminishing the stream flows on which surface water users depend.  As April Summit indicates, the problems of salinization brought on by continuous irrigation using Colorado River water have become severe.  In addition, farmers are increasingly tempted to lease or sell their rights to Colorado River water to urban water systems.  That helps meet cities’ water needs, but it will increase social and economic stress on rural communities.  And if all of this isn’t challenging enough, we also face the looming specter of global climate change, which might further heat and dry the already desiccated West. 

It is a hopeful sign that some rural communities in the West have charted a path to economic health that does not involve the depletion of natural resources.  As explained by Michael Hibbard, Susan Lurie, Heather Scofield, and April Summit, the New Natural Resource Economy promises to utilize natural resources differently from the way in which they have traditionally been used.  Instead of emphasizing the harvest and exhaustion of natural resources, the New Natural Resource Economy proposes using them in a sustainable way.  This might involve a more prudent or imaginative utilization regime for such resources as water and timber, or it might involve the development of new enterprises such as alternative energy production or amenity or experience tourism.  These developments are well underway in some areas of the rural West and have been for some time.  They are attractive because they tie natural sustainability to economic sustainability, promising a brighter future to many communities.

The New Natural Resource Economy is a promising road for communities that can take it, though not all communities can.  However, it is not necessarily a win-win approach, good for both the natural and the human environments.  As J. Dwight Hines points out in his study of southwest Montana and northwest Wyoming, tourists and new residents seeking a wilderness experience have strengthened the local economy overall, but the decisions they have made have imperiled the livelihoods of ranchers and farmers with deeper local roots.  Likewise, while the designation of central Nevada as a multiple-use area will make it more attractive to tourists seeking experiences and to the businesses that serve them, it threatens the livelihood and the way of life of cattle-ranching families such as the Fallinis, explored so sensitively by Leisl Childers.

While achieving economic viability in a manner that does not divide the community, and recognizes the interests of most community members, is a challenge in many parts of the rural West, it is perhaps most intense and most poignant on Indian reservations.  Beset by high rates of unemployment and poverty, elevated levels of infant mortality, diabetes, tuberculosis, and substance abuse, and often overpopulated, reservations struggle to provide a better life for residents while maintaining as much of their traditional culture as possible.  Some reservation communities have stressed amenity or experience tourism.  Others are deriving income from mineral leases or the development of alternative energy.  Those proximate to major population centers have sometimes been able to turn casino gambling into a source of employment and capital for economic development.  A few groups, such as the Southern Utes of southwestern Colorado, have been able to develop a diversified economy that promises a bright future in the long term.  Others, like the Skull Valley Goshutes examined by David Rich Lewis, struggle to find any economic resources in a distinctly unpromising environment.  For the Goshutes, the answer to declining population and the prospect of cultural extinction was to welcome on-reservation storage of nuclear waste.  This plan drew the hypocritical opposition of the state of Utah, as well as the opposition of tribal members who argued that nuclear waste was antithetical to traditional Goshute reverence for nature.  Ironically, supporters of the proposal saw it as a way to preserve the very cultural traditions opponents believed were being threatened. 

The New Natural Resource Economy and reservation-based economic development programs are attractive in part because these are ostensibly community-based.  Local people—not outside corporate or governmental entities—make the key decisions.  As attractive as it is in theory, community-based decision making has its own shortcomings in practice.  I lived for nearly forty years in North Dakota, where rural communities were engaged in a more-or-less continuous effort at economic development and civic improvement.  The communities that enjoyed success in that endeavor—indeed, the communities that seriously undertook it in the first place—were those that had strong leadership.  Of all of your community resources, the most valuable are citizens willing to take the lead, to explore possibilities, and to organize their fellow citizens on behalf of change.  When I was reading Judy Muller’s paper on the Norwood hazing controversy it struck me that Norwood’s major problem wasn’t a timid press, or even a culture of bullying, it was a lack of community leadership.  Sometimes that leadership can come from the outside—Julie Brugger and Michael Crimmins see the Cooperative Extension Service in that role—but change will be longest lasting and most fully embraced if it comes out of the community itself. 

As I suggested earlier, even in communities with strong leadership there are divisions that must be overcome.  The word “community” suggests a commonality of thought and purpose that is seldom present.  People are divided on issues even if they have lived together for a long time—sometimes because they have lived together a long time.  They divide on the basis of class, race, religion, and economic interest.  Even tiny and seemingly homogenous communities such as the Skull Valley Goshutes can and do divide sharply over paths to be taken.  In many cases communities are divided by ideology, with each side upholding a different American ideal.  Consider those western Plains irrigators studied by Burke Davis.  Surface water users embrace a cooperative, community-oriented ideal, while groundwater users express an atomistic individualism.  If they are unable to reconcile their divergent positions both may ultimately fail, along with the communities that depend on them.

Finally, there is the reality that even when communities can agree on a course of action they are frequently countered by larger and more powerful governmental and corporate entities.  The Skull Valley Goshutes were stymied by the state of Utah.  Overlapping jurisdictions with divergent missions hamper the Hoopa Reservation’s efforts to get ahead of the methamphetamine epidemic.  Oregon communities trying to develop a more sustainable economy find federal policies in the way.  Colorado municipalities trying to enact rules limiting fracking are stopped by state regulators, backed by drillers.  I could go on and on, but I expect most of us are ready to go home now and, anyway, you get the idea.

What all of the foregoing is meant to suggest is not that the problems of the rural West are intractable, just that they are devilishly challenging.  They are being addressed, by people who care about the region and its people, and they must be addressed for the good of the West and the nation.  But this will be a long process, by people feeling their way along, hoping that two steps forward will be followed by only one back.  This conference demonstrates that the process of defining and solving the problems of the rural West is well-launched.  Godspeed.  

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