Clockwise from top left: hills behind University of Montana campus; Bill Lane Center researcher Nicola Ulibarri; Bill Lane Center co-founder David M. Kennedy; U Montana psychologist Gyda Swaney; audience at keynote lunch; Kenneth Smoker of the Fort Peck Tribes and Indian Health Service; Barbara Creel, University of New Mexico; Hope Eccles, Bill Lane Center advisory council member; keynote speaker Lisa Pruitt, University of California, Davis; panel on housing and homelessness; Montana Gov. Steve Bullock; Center: Panel on Rural West Conference Montana Survey with Bruce E. Cain, Bill Lane Center for the American West; David Brady, Stanford University; Christopher Muste, University of Montana; and Sally Mauk, Montana Public Radio.
The fourth annual Eccles Rural West Conference is in the books, after a day and a half of wide-ranging conversation and debate about the past, present, and future of the rural American West. As we prepare a full report with audio and video of the sessions, a quick review of the event follows below.
Panelists and the assembled audience members heard about Montanans' pride of place, which University of South Dakota historian Jon Lauck called "the most western part of the West." A the same time, scholars like the Washington State University sociologist Jennifer Sherman talked about challenges like the rising cost of living in increasingly affluent rural western communities, and limits of public service delivery in rural areas, a topic discussed by a number of researchers and scholars.
The historian Jen Corrine Brown, author of "Trout Culture," spoke about how Montanans adapted 40-millennia-old angling practices to turn fly fishing into an emblem of the mountain West. The University of Montana psychology professor Gyda Swaney described research connecting past conflicts – including a mass starvation faced by the Blackfoot tribe – to multigenerational health and psychological problems faced by indian populations today. The legal scholar Anthony Johnston touted Montana's 1972 state constitution – the youngest in the West – as a paragon of progressive ideals and inclusiveness towards women and minorities.
Attendees also pondered the future of federal land management in the West, particularly in the wake of the Malheur wildlife preserve standoff in Oregon. A poll of Montana citizens administered for the Eccles Rural West Conference found that Montanans were largely split between passionately held support and condemnation of the Oregon protestors – the survey's designer, University of Montana political scientist Christopher Muste, called this the "most polarizing question in the survey.". But the poll also found that a solid majority of of Montanans felt that the federal government owns too much land and should transfer some of it to the state (59% agreed).
The poll also showed a strong majority of Montanans strongly valuing the natural environment of the vast and beautiful rocky mountain state, a position that Gov. Steve Bullock reflected in his keynote address on the conference's second day. The 11 million tourists who come to visit the state each year, the governor said, "don't come for our Walmarts."
The conference, "People and Place in the Rural American West," was organized by the Bill Lane Center for the American West in association with the University of Montana, which hosted the event on its campus in Missoula, where blizzard-like conditions gave way to sunny and springlike weather as the conference panels convened.
In all, the event brought together over 70 scholars, journalists, lawyers, and policymakers, and was capped by keynote addresses by Gov. Bullock and the eminent legal scholar Lisa Pruitt of the University of California, Davis. The conference convened six panels altogether, and opened with a rousing address by Bill Lane Center for the American West co-founder David M. Kennedy, who took attendees on a virtual flyover tour of the emerging Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail (video), which will stretch from Glacier National Park (just 130 miles north of the conference), to Cape Alava on Washington's Olympic Peninsula, 1,200 miles away. Prof. Kennedy is on the US Forest Service's advisory board for the trail, and he spoke about the challenges of stitching together public access across a vast and topographically challenging region.
"The gathering proved to be an engaging and interdisciplinary conversation," said John Dougherty, a postdoctoral scholar at the Bill Lane Center for the American West, who was the primary organizer of the conference. "The rural public opinion survey was a major highlight of this year's conference, as it provided us with critical quantitative data from rural residents about how the region is being managed, and how we can work to improve the quality of life in rural communities. It's my hope that we've begun to establish an effective forum to both identify the issues and work toward solutions."
The Missoulian newspaper has a wrap-up of Governor Bullock's speech from its March 22 edition, while Missoula's KPAX television posted reports about the conference on March 19 and 21. Montana Public Radio has published a report on the Montana survey's questions on health care.
On this site, we will soon be publishing more reports and materials from the event, including a preliminary analysis of the Rural West Conference Montana Survey, and photos, presentation decks and panel session video and audio from the conference.
Please watch this page for more news, and follow @RuralWest on Twitter for details.
The Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University will be hosting the Spence and Cleone Eccles Family Rural West Conference from March 17-19, 2016 at the University of Montana in Missoula.
The Rural West Conference is interdisciplinary, bringing together academics, lawyers, journalists, and policymakers to share knowledge and ideas about the Rural West. Many of us are one of a small handful of people at our universities and organizations who work on rural issues, and the Rural West Conference has become a forum for engaging and energizing work. And we are excited to be holding this year's conference in the scenic Rocky Mountain West.
This year's conference theme will be “People and Place in the Rural American West.” The interconnected relationship between people and place is a defining characteristic of the rural American West. The way people experience the American West is closely connected to their sense of the West as a physical place: large coastal cities, small mountain towns, agricultural valleys, and vast stretches of uninhabited terrain. And this relationship continues to shape our understanding of the region’s past, present, and future. Through panels addressing rural public opinion, housing and homelessness, health care and access, tribal law and policy, and public lands and natural resources, the conference seeks to revisit this basic question: how has the relationship between people and place continued to define the rural American West and its communities?
We look forward to seeing you at Rural West 2016!