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.
The Rural West, Through a Rocky Mountain Lens
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.
Rural West Conference Poll Explores Attitudes Toward Land Management, State's Leaders
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).
Keynote Address by Montana Governor
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.
Broad-Based Event Gets off to a Flying Start
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, 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."
Materials and Reports to Come
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 confernece on March 19 and 21. Montana Public Radio has published a report on the Montana survey's questions on health care.
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.