Stanford’s Bill Lane Center hosts conference on rural Western issues

Stanford’s Bill Lane Center for the American West recently held its fourth annual scholarly conference on rural Western issues.

The Eccles Rural West Conference took place March 17-19 in Missoula, Montana, bringing together more than 70 scholars, journalists, lawyers, and policymakers from across the western United States. Stanford political scientists BRUCE E. CAIN, DAVID BRADY, postdoctoral scholars DAN REINEMAN, NICOLA ULIBARRI, TODD HOLMES, and KATHRYNE YOUNG, were among those who participated on panels.

Bruce E. Cain, director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West, at the Eccles Family Rural West Conference in Missoula, Montana. (Photo credit: Geoff McGhee)
Bruce E. Cain, director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West, at the Eccles Family Rural West Conference in Missoula, Montana. (Photo credit: Geoff McGhee)

The state of Western communities was a prime issue. Montana Gov. STEVE BULLOCK, a speaker, said, “People don’t come for our Walmarts; they are coming to enjoy what we have here.”

The governor described how his state’s spectacular natural setting serves as a prime economic asset, bringing 11 million tourists to the sparsely populated state – the nation’s fifth largest. In that sense, Montana is emblematic of an emerging “amenity West” that draws tourists and migrants from afar. It also brings investment and development – but rapid change to once-remote communities as well.

The Bill Lane Center’s Rural West Initiative was inspired by U.S. President THEODORE ROOSEVELT’s 1909 Country Life Commission, which sought answers to numerous “deficiencies” of rural life in the early 20th century – a lack of educational and employment opportunities, shrinking populations and generally poorer roads and services.

More than a hundred years later, many parts of the rural West are booming, but development is unevenly distributed and many obstacles remain to improving the quality of rural life. The conference convened a number of panels on important rural issues: housing and homelessness; access to health care; the jurisdictional complexity of lands managed by by the state, sovereign Indian nations and numerous federal agencies; and the iconic but changing image of rural Western life.

Hosted by the University of Montana on its campus in Missoula, the conference saw the release of a public opinion survey of Montanans whose questions hewed closely to issues on the conference agenda.

Designed by the University of Montana political scientist CHRISTOPHER MUSTE, the survey revealed nuanced, almost contradictory attitudes. For example, 59 percent of Montanans surveyed favored handing over federal lands to the state, but a majority wanted these lands to be used for wilderness and recreation more than development, and supported renewable energy over fossil fuels (even in a coal-rich state). Also, a majority were concerned about climate change.

The conference was the fourth in a series of annual events that have previously been held in Ogden, Utah, Troutdale, Oregon and at Stanford. More information is available at the Rural West Initiative website.