Center Convenes First Conference on the Rural West

The Center's Rural West Initiative hosted its first Conference on the Rural West over the weekend of October 13-14 at the Ogden Eccles Conference Center in Ogden, Utah. Bringing together almost 50 scholars, researchers, journalists, policymakers and community members, the event sought to assess the state of rural western communities and frame possible solutions to critical issues like energy and natural resource management, economic development, health care, environmental stewardship, and the sometimes fraught relationship between locals and the federal government.

Conference-goers heard keynote speaker Jon Lauck call for a new rural regionalism to balance what he characterized as urbanites' "provincial" view of rural life. Robert Abbey, until recently the chief of the Bureau of Land Management, argued passionately for the importance of federal land ownership. And in remarks at the conference's closing luncheon, the rural historian David Danbom provided a sweeping overview of the issues, tying together exurbanites threatened by wildfires in Colorado, the city of Aurora's fears of water contamination from hydraulic fracking, and the bureaucratic obstacles that prevent a rural county from cleaning up a contaminated mine site. Said Danbom,

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.

David Kennedy, Stanford History Professor and Director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West, said that the conference created a unique forum for scholars from many disciplines, and stakeholders and public officials from many points of the economic and fiscal compasses, to come together and share their perspectives on the rural West. “The conference confirmed the value of the work we have been doing for the last two years,” said Kennedy, “and provided a powerful reminder of how important it is for us to continue to focus scholarly and public attention on rural issues, which are so poorly understood in the regions cities and suburbs.”

Organized 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 produced a number of papers that will be edited and compiled for later publication. The full audio of the conference speeches and sessions is available at the Rural West Initiative website.