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Rural West Initiative

Summary of the Seventh Annual Eccles Family Rural West Conference

The Rural West Conference is an annual interdisciplinary gathering workshop that brings together academics, practitioners, and policymakers to share knowledge and ideas about the rural West, catalyzing scholarship and solutions to this region’s pressing problems. Each spring, the Lane Center travels to a different location in the West, growing the network of individuals and organizations invested in identifying solutions to challenges of rural policy, health and environment.

The 7th Annual Eccles Family Rural West Conference was held on April 5 & 6 in Park City, Utah. The gathering proved to be an engaging and interdisciplinary dialogue on the critical issues facing rural communities in the American West. Under the banner of Destination: West, this year’s conference focused on the legacies and contemporary implications of amenity migration in the rural American West. Over the two days in Park City, panels and keynote speakers addressed the topics of economics, politics, culture, and environment. 

Each year, people from across the country and the world venture into the rural parts of the American West to visit the region’s iconic mountains, valleys, rivers, and deserts. For most visitors, the West’s rural communities serve only as a gateway for outdoor recreation and tourism. And for others who wish to stay, it becomes a place for retirement or purchasing a second home. For many rural Western communities, amenity tourism and migration has come to shape and define the local economy. But some will argue that the economic benefits of amenity tourism and migration have not come without their own set of unique local challenges. Amenity migration disproportionately affects middle and low-income residents, who call these special places home. Faced with rising rents and increased costs of living, amenity tourism is not only an economic issue, but also a cultural issue as these small, rural communities grapple with maintaining their identity while hosting a growing influx of outsiders. 

Utah was the ideal context to host this year’s conversation about tourism and amenity migration. As a state known for its abundance of outdoor recreation opportunities, Utah offered an opportunity to examine this issue from both a historical and contemporary context. While destinations like Park City have established a thriving amenity tourism industry over several generations, other destination communities, like Moab and San Juan County more broadly, are only recently dealing with the demands of expanding tourism. Situated between several national parks and world-renowned recreation areas, Moab is now trying to balance the needs of a growing tourist industry with the concerns of local, rural residents. Recently, The Moab Sun News published a series of op-ed’s about the growing amenity tourism demands. One resident put it simply: “A healthy, stable tourism industry is an asset to our community. An out-of-control, rapidly expanding tourism industry is a threat to our quality of life.” 

David M. Kennedy, Co-Founding Director of The Bill Lane Center for the American West, welcomes conferences attendees at the opening lunch.

David M. Kennedy, Co-Founding Director of The Bill Lane Center for the American West, welcomes conferences attendees at the opening lunch.

Issues in the rural West: old and new (and many of the same)

The gathering was kicked off by David M. Kennedy , Co-Founding Director of The Bill Lane Center for the American West, who helped launch the Center’s Rural West Initiative in 2012. In his opening remarks, Kennedy described how many of the same issues that were present in the rural American West over 100 years ago, still haven’t been resolved today, particularly in regards to access to transportation, education, communications, and healthcare. Kennedy argued, “many of these so-called deficiencies are still present today.” 

Kennedy then introduced the opening keynote speaker, Kirk Siegler , Correspondent for National Public Radio. In his reporting for NPR, Siegler has gained notoriety for his detailed coverage of topics Western issues, ranging from wildfires to the Malheur occupation to housing and affordability. In his talk, “Reporters Notebook: Covering the Rural West,” Siegler reflected on the disconnect when trying to understand issues in rural communities of the West, when the news cycle is dominated by national headlines. Siegler argued that while the national media attempts to simplify issues in the rural West, “what’s actually happening on the ground are some very festering issues, many of which were the same one-hundred years ago.” Siegler specifically showcased his reporting on San Juan County, Utah and his coverage of Bears Ears National Monument, which highlighted the tensions between local community members and state or federal officials on the issue of land preservation. 

Demographic and economic shifts in the amenity West

The opening panel provided an overview of the broad demographic and economic shifts in the rural American West. Amenity migration, that is, people who are retiring or purchasing a second home, has created new economic opportunities for communities in the rural American West. But the influx of new income has also introduced a unique set of local economic challenges, such as rising costs of living and only seasonal availability of employment. This panel explores the economic considerations of amenity migration and how new residents are impacting different communities in the rural West. The panelists provided a regional, state and local perspective on this issue. 

Megan Nelson introduces the audience to the amenity community of Midway, Utah.

Megan Nelson introduces the audience to the amenity community of Midway, Utah. 

Don Albrecht , director of the Western Rural Development Center at Utah State University, discussed his work in helping to enhance community development efforts for rural Western communities. Albrecht provided an economic diagnosis of rural communities and explained the impact of an ever-changing national economy in the region. Albrecht argued, “the economy in the rural West is changing, and these changes are having a more significant impact on rural America than urban America.” 

Jennifer Leaver , a Senior Research Analyst at the University of Utah's Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, addressed the old and new economies of rural communities in Utah. Referencing specific community examples of rural Utah, Leaver showed how local economies range from a continued reliance on the coal industry to establishing small-scale amenity sites, like local coffee shops and rock climbing gear rentals. According to Leaver, 1 of 10 jobs in Utah are based on visitor spending. 

Megan Nelson , of the Utah Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, focused her comments on the nearby community of Midway, Utah. Nelson, born and raised in Midway, believes it was a community that effectively planned for amenity migration. According to Nelson, Midway had established local development and environmental protections a generation before amenity migrants began arriving in the community. Nelson argues that the negative impacts of amenity migration can prevented with effective early planning. 

The panel was moderated by Pat Shea , a professor at the University of Utah and visiting lecturer at Stanford University. 

Elizabeth Kitchens from The Nature Conservancy talks with Carl Fisher of the non-profit Save Our Canyons.

Elizabeth Kitchens from The Nature Conservancy talks with Carl Fisher of the non-profit Save Our Canyons.

Cultural divides in rural destinations

The arrival of amenity migrants to rural destinations across the West has created several cultural divides and this issue was the focus of the second panel. How does a community balance long-standing local values with those of amenity newcomers, or do they even want to? This panel examined the cultural rifts created by amenity migration in different parts of the rural West. This panel featured the perspectives of a journalist, an academic, and a non-profit director.  

Amy Joi O’Donaghue , an award-winning environmental reporter for Deseret News, reflected on a career covering rural communities in Utah. O’Donaghue notes that a deep divide has been created in rural communities with the seasonal influx of amenity migrants. While many in these communities oppose the growing dependence on tourism, with the loss of traditional jobs like ranching, mining, or agriculture, these local economies are increasingly dependent on amenity migration. O’Donaghue shared a series of stories about how local communities are dealing with these changes. 

Justin Farrell , a professor at Yale University, provided an overview of his forthcoming book, Billionaire Wilderness, which chronicles the impact of new wealth moving into rural communities. In particular, Farrell provided insights into how he researched the issue of cultural clash. Farrell described the series of interviews he conducted with wealthy amenity migrants, in which he asks about their reasons for relocating to rural communities. Farrell argues, “the romanticization of frontier life and what they means to them, is almost as appealing as being able to go skiing,” as being a primary contributing factor in wealthy amenity migration.  

Carl Fisher , the Executive Director of Save Our Canyons, chronicled the efforts of his organization in advocating for the protection of recreation areas in the Wasatch Mountains. Fisher noted his organization, like many of environmental advocacy groups in Utah, were started in response to amenity migration. But the challenge of protection, says Fisher, is making sure rural or wild areas are still available for human enjoyment. Like many previous panelists, Fisher advocates for early planning in amenity destinations.  

This panel was moderated by Katie Eccles , a partner at Ray, Quinney & Nebeker in Salt Lake City. 

Greg Thompson explores the history of outdoor recreation in the Park City

Greg Thompson provides a dinnertime talk on the history of amenity tourism in the Wasatch Mountains.


Greg Thompson provides a dinnertime talk on the history of amenity tourism in the Wasatch Mountains.

University of Utah Dean and historical archivist, Greg Thompson , provided an engaging and sweeping dinnertime lecture on the history of outdoor recreation in the Wasatch Mountains. With a specific focus on Park City, Thompson highlighted how the area was transformed from a rough-and-tumble mining community to a world-class ski destination. Thompson then discussed the importance of historical archives in piecing together the history of Park City. As the dean of the Willard Marriott Library at the University of Utah, Thompson founded the extensive Ski Archives housed at the library. Thompson was introduced by longtime friend, Hope Eccles.  

David Brady on the changing political landscape of the rural West

David Brady , renowned professor of political science at Stanford University, opened day two of the conference with a breakfast discussion on politics in the American West. Specifically, Brady presented recent trends in voting data for Western states and significant changes over time. Brady also addresses the possible influence of amenity migration on future voting outcomes in Western states. When asked about the recent demographic growth in the Intermountain states, namely by amenity migrants, and how this might influence elections, Brady responded, “we don’t really know quite yet...with a survey and focus groups, by next year we’ll have a better sense as to what those answers are.”

Governance and policy-making in the amenity West

The conversation in the third panel was the complexity of the political and policy-making landscape in the amenity West. The arrival of urban amenity migrants and their political beliefs to rural spaces has created a unique governance issue: who’s in charge here? Who teaches what to whom? This panel highlighted the local political divides created by amenity migration, changing norms (or not), and possible solutions. Also, the panel debated best practices for collaborative decision-making in rural and amenity communities. 

Danya Rumore , Director of the Environmental Dispute Resolution Program at the Wallace Stegner Center and Research Associate Professor of Law at the University of Utah, introduced the GNAR initiative, which refers to planning for Gateway, National, Amenity Regions. The GNAR initiative seeks to provide rural communities with a  toolkit of policies from other communities that can help  address issues ranging from affordability, infrastructure, and environmental change. Rumore refers to GNAR initiative as “a hub for connecting people” and “proactive planning.”  

Nan Groves Anderson , of the Utah Rural Development Office, discussed how many of the flagship economic development characteristics of Utah aren’t necessarily representative of the state’s rural communities. While Utah ranks number one nationally in both fiscal stability and upward mobility, according to Groves Anderson, “rural Utah is lagging behind the rest of the state in this tremendous economic growth.” She concludes her comments by emphasizing the need for diverse economies in rural communities, not strictly dependent on amenity tourism. 

Flint Timmins , Destination Development Specialist for the Utah Office of Tourism, echoed Groves Anderson’s comments about need for diverse economies and provided practical insights into how economic planning works best in rural communities. Timmins observed how the economic challenges of rural Utah have plagued state policymakers for generations. “It highlights the unique challenges when it comes to these places,” said Timmins. 

The panel was moderated by Bruce Cain , the Eccles Family Director of The Bill Lane Center for the American West. 

Danya Rumore discusses the GNAR Initiative, a toolkit for amenity communities.

Danya Rumore discusses the GNAR Initiative, a toolkit for amenity communities. 

Environmental considerations of amenity migration

The final panel addressed the impact of amenity migration on the environment. While many migrants travel to rural destinations to enjoy the natural beauty, increased development and growing traffic in these areas could put the environment at greater risk. This panel delved into the environmental, both water and land management issues, associated with amenity migration.  

Steve Odell , Assistant U.S. Attorney for the District of Oregon, referenced his legal work on a series of high-profile environmental protection cases in the Pacific Northwest to address the challenge of land management. Specifically, Odell described how environmental planning requires a complicated navigation of local, state and federal channels, and an overwhelming case file of existing laws. Odell concluded by stating that amenity migration is creating an environmental urgency for many small communities that aren’t prepared for rapid growth, especially to local access to water and other natural resources.  

Elizabeth Kitchens , Director of Conservation Programs for the The Nature Conservancy, opened with a background of the Conservancy’s role in protection nearly 1.2 million acres of wildlands in Utah. Kitchens suggests that while amenity migration is certainly having an environmental impact, it is only one of many issues related to a further need for conservation. “Amenity migration is only one factor,” says Kitchens, “it’s the cumulative effect of multiple factors that has the potential to create severe damage to nature.”  

Brianna Swette , PhD candidate at Stanford University, presented on the social and ecological transitions of rangelands in the amenity West. Swette positions rangelands as a gateway to discuss broader social, political and economic questions about amenity migration in rural areas. Swette concludes, “amenity migration really does impact us, while we might think these discussions of public lands are happening at national scales, amenity migrants are the ones showing up in the forest service offices to complain.”

The panel was moderated by Craig Thomas , a professor of Public Policy & Governance at the University of Washington. 

Group Tour of Alf Engen Ski Museum

At the conclusion of the conference, conference attendees joined Greg Thompson for a guided tour of the Alf Engen Ski Museum in Park City . The museum sits at the picturesque Olympic Park, site of the 2002 Winter Games. The museum showcases the wide-ranging history of downhill skiing and the role of Park City in the 2002 Olympic Games. Thompson was a founding charter member of the museum.

Bronze statues of Park City ski icons, Alf M. Engen and S. Joe Quinney, at the Olympic Park.

Bronze statues of Park City ski icons, Alf M. Engen and S. Joe Quinney, at the Olympic Park. 

Looking Ahead to Rural West 2020

The Bill Lane Center for the American West is already moving forward with many of the issues addressed in Park City, and we’ll keep you posted on our research. We thank all those who contributed to our agenda this year and look forward to advancing the academic and public understanding of issues confronting rural communities in the American West.