Tuesday, February 28, 2023

The ongoing "right to repair" battle in rural America

In agricultural communities, farming equipment owners have long been battling companies such as John Deere for their “right to repair”- essentially, the right for farmers to make necessary repairs to equipment they own, instead of all repairs being handled by the company itself. This would allow farmers to avoid the hassle and expense of professional repairs, as these services are often unnecessarily costly and time-consuming.

While people unfamiliar with agriculture may assume that repairing a tractor is just a matter of fixing a tire or tinkering with an engine, the reality is far more complicated. Modern tractors run software owned by the companies that build them, and without privileged access to this software, farmers are left to wait for a company-authorized technician to reach their often remote location in order to make repairs.

Over the course of this conflict, agricultural machinery manufacturer John Deere has been at the forefront of public scrutiny involving the right to repair. In 2017, eight states introduced right to repair legislation, with John Deere and other companies citing the potential dangers associated with a lack of professional expertise as justification to keep the status quo intact. More information on those proposed bills can be found in this blog post here.

Small amounts of progress have been made since then. On July 9th, 2021, President Biden signed an executive order aimed at helping the FTC create rules to crack down on companies that have completely integrated their product repairs, thus thwarting the right to repair. The FTC responded by declaring it would commit more resources into the matter, but it remains to be seen whether this commitment will have any large effects. 

During the same year, 25 states introduced right-to-repair bills. Many were spurred on by the diminishing availability of repair services due to the COVID-19 pandemic. These pieces of legislation have encountered massive amounts of pushback and lobbying from companies that prefer all repairs to their products be done through their own services instead of through third party shops. Although many bills addressing this issue are being considered, only one has been successful- New York's Digital Fair Repair Act, which will only impact electronic products made or sold in-state after July 1, 2023. 

Since 2017, the right to repair has become an increasingly hot topic. While the agricultural industry is a main target, these bills would also give consumers and hospitals the ability to make third-party repairs on a variety of electronic equipment ranging from phones to medical devices. As a result, right-to-repair legislation is overwhelmingly supported by a bipartisan majority. A study conducted of California residents in 2022 found that 75% of those surveyed were in favor of the right to repair- 76% of Democrats, 61% of Republicans, and 81% of independents. More reading on right to repair advocacy done by legislators such as Marie Gluesenkamp Perez and Jon Tester can be found here.

Faced with the widespread popularity of the right-to-repair movement, some large agricultural companies are reconsidering their stances on the topic. In January of 2023, the American Farm Bureau Federation entered into a memorandum of understanding with John Deere to recognize a right for farmers to repair all John Deere farming equipment. The memorandum represents a commitment by John Deere to give farmers access to the tools and software of their purchased equipment. It also encourages the growth of third party repair services in the process. On its face, this memorandum appears to represent a huge shift in the agricultural industry, empowering owners to better deal with their own equipment in a way that best suits their individual situation. 

However, skepticism of John Deere's earnestness in this process remains. An article posted by NPR shortly after the memorandum was announced underscores concerns from those in the agricultural field who worry the agreement didn't ensure actual follow-through from John Deere. In fact, detractors claim the memorandum may simply be an attempt to further delay the passage of right-to-repair laws currently under consideration. Ultimately, the agreement is only between the AFBF and John Deere, raising concerns that the memorandum merely represents an empty promise. The article offers this quote from Walter Schweitzer, President of the Montana Farmers Union:

If they truly, honestly wanted to give farmers and ranchers and independent repair shops the right to repair equipment, why are they so afraid of legislation that authorizes that?

If John Deere's memorandum fails to make any meaningful headway into resolving the right to repair issue, the best way to enact instant, sweeping fixes to the system would be through legislation passed by the federal government. While many states are considering bills on an individual basis, change is coming too slowly to offer meaningful relief to farmworkers on a short-term basis. 

Just last month, legislation was introduced in the House of Representatives to both increase access to third party repairs and change copyright law to avoid legal issues for consumer repairs. While these bills are likely far away from becoming reality, they represent perhaps the best chance farmers have in receiving the change necessary for agricultural workers to retain more control over the products they own. 

The aftermath of the toxic spill in East Palestine, Ohio.

On February 3, 2023, a Norfolk Southern train carrying a toxic chemical derailed in a small Ohio town of 4,718 called East Palestine. The chemical, namely vinyl chloride, was released into the immediate vicinity of the small town. To prevent a potentially deadly explosion, officials decided a few days later to burn off the rest of the vinyl chloride, causing a huge plume of black smoke that case a pall over area.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) identified four other chemicals (so far) that leaked into the air, water, and soil: butyl acrylate, ethylhexyl acrylate, ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, and isobutylene. If it isn't apparent from their names, all these chemicals are also toxic.

Despite all this, Ohio EPA and Ohio officials claim that the water in East Palestine is safe. Specifically, preliminary studies found that there was "no evidence of contamination." (If you want to look at the water samplings yourself, click here.) The federal EPA similarly claims that the air in East Palestine is safe, although an article published by the Yale School of Medicine warns more data still needs to be collected.

Residents are unconvinced about the safety of the water and air. Videos on TikTok show that the local waterways have a very concerning rainbow sheen. One refers to it as a "chemical shine." Some residents are nervous about adverse health effects, reporting new symptoms of rashes, sore throats, nausea, and headaches. Small farmers in the area are similarly concerned about the effects of the chemicals on their farms and livelihoods.

Fears of contamination have spread across the nation. Giant Eagle, a grocery chain, pulled bottled water off its shelves in five states including Ohio and Pennsylvania because the water was bottled 25 miles from the train derailment. Two Ohio high school basketball teams forfeited games rather than enter the region to play. The wastewater from firefighting efforts in East Palestine are being shipped to the Houston area in Texas, causing concern and uproar among Texas residents and politicians.

Humans aren't the only ones that have been harmed. USA Today reported that more than 43,000 fish and animals have been killed. (Officials say that none of the species were threatened or endangered if that makes you feel any better.) A lawsuit against Norfolk Southern claims that fish and animals are dying up to 20 miles from the derailment site.

So what is being done to remedy this environmental disaster or ensure it doesn't happen again? The short answer: not enough.

The EPA ordered Norfolk Southern to clean up the toxic spill and announced that it will fine the company $70,000 a day for everyday that it doesn't comply. It did so under its authority granted by the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA).

If you're asking yourself: how in the world do you clean up liquid chemicals that have seeped into water supplies? Or, can they even clean it up before it causes more damage? Or even, who decides when the spill is cleaned up "enough?" These are great questions with depressingly unclear answers. The fact is that a massive amount of damage has been done, and a massive of damage is still to come.

Not to mention, what legal recourse is there for people who have already been exposed to the toxic chemicals? Unfortunately, toxic tort injury law is thorny and rarely results in compensation to individual victims. This is only exacerbated by the fact that we still don't know all the health effects of these toxic chemicals which could make it even more difficult to link them back to the East Palestine spill. While it's great that the EPA is attempting to hold Norfolk Southern accountable, it is unlikely that any benefits or remedies will make their way to residents most impacted by the spill.

In the bigger picture, it is highly problematic that almost all environmental laws in this country provide legal bases to stop destruction retroactively rather than enforce measures to prospectively prevent environmental catastrophe. As with the East Palestine spill, by the time an environmental disaster has started, it is usually too late.

I want to suggest legal reforms that prioritize forward-thinking stewardship and sustainability. We cannot continue glorifying profits and endless economic growth at the expense of our environment. We need to accept that some environmental risks are not worth it, and some freedoms need to be restricted. This toxic spill in East Palestine should be a wake up call for everyone, everywhere—not only in a relatively rural place.

Monday, February 27, 2023

The digital divide in rural Arizona

Amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, our relationship with space and buildings has changed. As going outside became dangerous, school and work shifted to at home. Businesses shifted online, court proceedings switched over to Teams, and students were now part of Zoom school, sometimes without a reliable home connection. This work-from-home shift sheds light on an important phenomenon: the digital divide.

 The digital divide refers to the growing gap that exists between certain marginalized communities in the U.S. such as low-income, elderly, rural, and differently-abled folks who don't have access to computers or the internet. The gap continues to grow and widens along economic and racial lines. Broadband refers to high-speed internet access and is crucial not only to education in rural areas but to almost every other facet of life- healthcare, civic engagement, and public safety. 

One state that lags in broadband access is my home state of Arizona. In 8 out of 15 counties, no more than 32% of households actually have high-speed internet access. It is no coincidence that many of these areas are low-income, rural, and/or indigenous communities. According to Verge's 2021 map of America's broadband problem, only 5% of people in Arizona's Apache County are actually using broadband speed at 25 Mbps. To put this in perspective, Apache County is 11,000 square miles with 65,000 people, 74.5% of who are indigenous. In southern Arizona's Santa Cruz County, with 47,000 people across 600 square miles, only 11% have access to broadband. The internet has been deeply engrained into our daily lives. From accessing telehealth and medical records online to simply being able to do Zoom calls and connect with people who live in different states or countries, the Internet is a basic need. 

With special attention on Arizona and broadband federally there has been a new effort to provide high-speed internet in impacted communities. In late 2022, Biden announced commitments from communication companies several of which have been operating in Arizona to limit internet bills to $30 a month for some eligible households. Termed the Affordable Connectivity Program, eligible households will receive a discount, with those on tribal lands receiving up to $75 off. But, how much does this program really do? Arizona, the sixth largest state in the U.S. is served only by seven major internet providers, a majority of which aren't even available in most counties or capable of providing high-speed internet. This leaves only a few actual service providers that people can choose from. 

Are discounts enough to provide rural areas with broadband access? Companies with near-monopolies such as Cox which provides service to 69% of the state are not incentivized to build millions of dollars of broadband infrastructure in places like Apache or Santa Cruz County because no profit is to be made due to diseconomies of scale. Removing the profit incentive could ensure equal and efficient access to rural communities. 

Other sources of money such as federally funded grants like the Arizona Broadband Development Grant Program has specific allocations for rural communities enabling local communities to build their own or improve broadband infrastructure in rural and urban areas of the state. $75 million for 14 projects will go to 10 rural counties which goes towards "increasing connections for homes, business, public safety agencies, medical facilities, schools, and libraries" Apache County has received $9.7 million in funding to connect homes and businesses to fiber optic infrastructure. What if, instead of putting the onus on individuals or specific colleges and institutions to provide internet to their communities which are nothing more than temporary solutions, the government ensured high-speed access to all? Where you live should not determine whether you have access to basic human rights such as shelter, food, transportation, and good education and this includes the internet. The digital divide disproportionately impacts communities of color, especially those located in rural areas. As the gap widens along economic and racial lines, a reconception of broadband access is crucial to bridging the gap and delivering equity to rural communities. 

Queer Exile, and looking back at those left behind

After wrapping up our discussion on LGBTQ+ people in rural contexts, I wanted to take a step back and identify with Eli Clare's Exile & Pride. 

Looking back on his queer development in rural Oregon, Eli says, "I would never walk down Main Street holding hands with a [same-sex ] lover. That simple act would be too much." Eli's fear of being identified as queer by those in his community is not an experience limited to rural lives. 

Growing up in densely populated Miami, I, too, feared holding hands with my same-sex partner as we walked the malls in my hometown. Despite Eli's claim that urban life offers a deeper level of anonymity, I still believed that someone who knew my family could be lurking around and quickly reveal my queerness. 

As a result of some of this identity suppression, and in seeking to move into the middle class, Eli decided to leave his rural hometown. I also identify with Eli on his reasoning for leaving his hometown. As he stated, "simply put, my desire for [queer] community, for physical safety, for emotional well-being, and psychological comfort compelled me to leave."

I, too, found that despite living in a city, I was surrounded by emotional instability and lacked a free connection with the queer community. My unsupportive and openly homophobic family turned the big city away from anonymity into a place of anxiety and discomfort. Like Eli, I wanted to move out to a place where there was no one who had participated in my abuse. 

It is interesting how similar mine and Eli's experiences were despite our differences in upbringing. I often wonder if the rural-urban divide represented much of a difference at all. This made me wonder about the many barriers the queer experience can transcend.  

Despite deeply identifying with Eli's "exile," I think back mostly to what Eli says when discussing queerness as urban-centered. In embracing an urban lifestyle... " Have we collectively turned our backs on the small towns?...  that one by one are passing local anti-gay ordinances." 

Recently, Florida has become infamous for trailblazing anti-LGBT+ legislation. This makes me think back on the queer friends I have left behind. Florida is becoming hostile to LGBT+ people, regardless of whether they are rural or urban.  

Most recently, Florida's newest bill HB991, makes it a per se defamation claim to accuse people of transphobia or transphobic discrimination. This bill entitled those "defamed" to damages of at least $35,000. On its face, this bill will lead to chilling speech for those critical of Florida's anti-LGBT+ bills. This law may be targeted against those who pinpoint and criticize the transphobia inherent in Florida's, also recent, banning of gender-affirming care for minors

However, this is only the beginning of Florida's hostility towards the trans community, with another anti-LGBT bill recently proposed in Florida. The "reverse woke" act is seemingly a sequel to the stop-woke bill that passed in Florida last year. This reverse woke act attempts to influence insurance companies to stop providing any gender-affirming care. The act states that any employer or insurance company providing gender-affirming care will be forced to, in perpetuity,  provide care that "reverses gender dysphoria treatment."

The confusion and ambiguity brought on by the "reverse woke" bill is not a new strategy for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Last year, Florida's "Don't say gay" bill used similar ambiguity to ban discussions of LGBT identity in Florida classrooms. The bill's vague language led to the adoption of a wide range of different and often discriminatory school policies. 

For starters, less populated counties like Alachua County now mandate their students use bathrooms according to their “biological sex” to better align with the law. Similarly, the more populated Orange County School District in Orlando verbally warned all its teachers not to wear rainbows, to remove all pictures of same-sex spouses, and to remove all LGBTQ+ safe space stickers from classroom doors. Further, the Miami-Dade school district preemptively stripped all its schools of LGBT+ protections and banned discussions of the Supreme Court's same-sex marriage decision, Obergafell.

In going back to Eli's words, I find that, like those from rural communities, I sometimes struggle with whether to return to my hometown, despite the contrast in population. In light of Florida's antics, the question has become harder to answer. It seems like some experiences from the rural-urban divide aren't so different after all. 

Sunday, February 26, 2023

Reconciling rural aversion to environmental policy with reverence for the environment

American political polarization on the issue of climate change, specifically the predominant notion that environmental protection is a left-wing cause, has never felt intuitive to me. The people in my life who were most integrated with, knowledgable about, and invested in caring for the natural world – hunters, fishers, and farmers – were all also life-long conservatives. Knowing first-hand the extent to which these individuals revered the natural landscape that surrounded us in rural Virginia, I reconciled this perceived disconnect by presuming their commitment to the environment, which I witnessed as implicit in their rural ways of life, took a back seat to other political preferences and agendas. I had never considered, however, that rural existence and identity could, in-and-of-itself, be constructive of an ideology opposed to climate change policy.

A December 2022 Associated Press news report, "Rural voters 'in the trenches on climate, leery of Biden," complicated my understanding of rural Americans' relationship to climate policy. The story focuses on Raquel Krach, a rice farmer in a rural area of the Sacramento Valley, who has been unable to grow full crop yields due to ongoing drought. Despite confidently attributing the increasing prevalence of such adverse natural phenomena to the effects of climate change, Krach feels she cannot even discuss the issue of climate change policy with her rural neighbors given its deeply divisive nature within her community. The report contextualizes Krach's rural neighbors' antagonistic relationship to climate policy within a broader trend by which rural communities are less supportive of federal climate change mitigation action relative to their urban counterparts, even when analyzed internally within political parties. 

The existence of an urban-rural divide with regards to attitudes towards climate policy is particularly surprising given the ways in which rural communities are on the forefront of many climate issues. As the U.S. Global Change Research Program's Third National Climate Assessment highlights: 

Warming, climate volatility, extreme weather events, and environmental change are already affecting the economies and cultures of rural areas.

More specifically, because rural socioeconomic ways of life are heavily dependent on natural resources that are being impacted by climate change and less diversified in terms of sources of socioeconomic stability, the livelihoods, infrastructure, and quality of life of many rural communities across the country are being jeopardized by climate shifts we are already seeing.  

Drought and lack of available water, such as that posing challenges to Krach's farm, provide just one illustration of climate change's many iterations and corresponding implications for rural communities. Other ways in which climate change-influenced disasters continue to have an outsized impact on Rural America include increasingly frequent wildfires (previously discussed on this blog here, here, here, and here), flooding (here and here), and coastal erosion

A 2020 study, "Understanding Rural Attitudes Towards the Environment and Conservation in America," produced by the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, confirmed both the existence of an urban-rural divide with regards to attitudes towards climate policy, as well as what I knew from personal interactions: this divide was not the product of rural Americans caring less for the environment. To the contrary, the study found that rural Americans definitively do value environmental protection and have strong place-oriented values embodied by environmental stewardship and an ongoing connection to nature. 

Instead, the Nicholas Institute study posits the divide is largely the result of rural Americans' negative attitudes towards the government and, particularly, their distrust of federal environmental policy and regulation they feel has not taken into account the needs of rural constituencies and, consequently, led to bad outcomes for their communities. Similarly, the study identifies rural Americans' anti-climate policy disposition as emerging from skepticism of large environmental advocacy groups they see as pushing top-down regulation that serves the agenda of global climate activists, but not necessarily their small towns. Thus, the study demonstrates the ways in which for rural Americans being pro-environment, but anti-environmental policy is not inherently contradictory.  

Understanding rural Americans' aversion to climate change mitigation policy, despite in many ways bearing the brunt of climate change's most tangible impacts, has import beyond just being of theoretical interest. Rural Americans are essential to the success or failure of much environmental policy implementation. More specifically, as spotlighted in a 2021 paper, "Understanding Rural Identities and Environmental Policy Attitudes in America," by Emily Diamond: 

Conservation of ecosystems, water, and wildlife, the production of energy – renewable and non-renewable – and many other environmental issues depend on the actions taken by rural residents; gaining rural buy-in for environmental regulations can lead to greater success in their implementation.

Given the critical importance of rural communities to climate policy implementation, policy-makers and activists should take seriously the recommendations of the Nicholas Institute study to: (1) collaborate with local constituents, particularly trusted community leaders, such that rural stakeholders are positioned to have an active voice in local resource management and the broader solution, (2) build state and local government partnerships into policy to mitigate federal distrust and bolster overall efficacy, and (3) leverage rural Americans' existing environmental values both by honing in on the importance of environmental stewardship for the purposes of acting on behalf of future generations, and by focusing on specific local issues, such as protecting clean water sources, rather than on climate change and global emission reduction more universally.

Saturday, February 25, 2023

The need to exempt poverty and financial instability from neglect in child welfare statutes is greatest in rural states: Montana as a case study.

The federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (“CAPTA”) defines abuse and neglect as an act, or omission, on the part of the caregiver which results in any of the following: death; serious physical or emotional harm; sexual abuse or exploitation; or which presents an imminent risk of serious harm. However, states have variations in their laws, especially when it comes to child welfare. As to neglect specifically:

· 27 states include a failure to educate a child per the legal standard as neglect.

· 12 states define medical neglect as failing to provide any special or mental health treatment for the child.

· 8 states include the withholding of medical treatment or nutrition of severely disabled children under that definition.

· 38 states include a failure to adequately supervise as neglect.

· Only 4 states do not include allowing children to do appropriate independent activities (such as walking to the bus stop alone) as neglect.

In 2020, the majority of child maltreatment cases (76%) and family separations due to entry into foster care (64%) were related to neglect. Unfortunately, families living in poverty are more likely to have CPS cases opened on them, specifically regarding neglect. The National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect found that, from 2004-2009, children coming from families of low economic status (“Low-SES”) experienced seven times higher rates of reports of neglect. Low-SES is defined as having an income below $15,000/yr, a parent whose highest level of education was below high school or having a family member receiving poverty-related assistance.

2019 data from the USDA showed that, for each racial and ethnic group, poverty rates were higher in rural areas than they were in urban areas. The differential, on average, was 4%. This inevitably means that rates of child neglect reports are higher in rural areas. The difference between rural and urban lives does not end there, however. Firstly, (counterintuitively) higher-income children in rural areas are substantially more likely to have substantiated reports than those in urban areas. Secondly, reports regarding older children are substantiated 35% of the time in rural areas and only 23% of the time in urban areas. Thirdly, children living in rural areas with parents who have experienced domestic violence or who have cognitive impairments are also more likely to have reports substantiated than their urban counterparts.

Poverty and neglect are not the same thing (for another post on the difference, look here), and some states have specified this in their child welfare laws. However, less than half of all U.S. states have noted this difference. The majority of states that have not articulated this distinction could be considered “rural.” These states are ignoring the fact that impoverished parents are oftentimes doing everything they can to ensure that their children have the basic necessities – while neglectful parents are not.

The conflation of the poverty and neglect leads to serious consequences for children. For instance, while 77% of children who received food assistance graduated high school by age 20, only 63% and 59% of their counterparts whose parents were investigated for neglect or abuse and neglect, respectively, did. Plus, children whose parents were investigated for neglect were three times more likely to end up in jail by age 20 than were those children who had received food stamps.

One of the rural states that has elected not to enumerate a difference between poverty and neglect is Montana. Montana has a poverty rate that is roughly average, 12.6% compared to the national average of 11.6%. The state is better than average regarding child neglect, the average nationally is 1 in 7, while in Montana, it is 15.4 in 1,000.

Montana’s definition of neglect includes: failing to provide basic necessities; failing to provide cleanliness and supervision; exposing (or allowing exposure of) the child to unreasonable risk; acts which cause malnutrition or failure to thrive. This same code section requires only knowledge, not intent, as it regards child maltreatment (which is inherently connected to allegations and substantiations of neglect).

It is easy to see how poverty could be confused with some of the definitions of neglect stated above, particularly the failure to provide basic necessities. Between the years 2016 and 2017, the monthly average number of individuals receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) in Montana rose 30%, and the number for families grew by 25%. Meanwhile, in the same period, there was an 89% increase in substantiated child neglect and abuse allegations. It should be noted that TANF caseloads fell while poverty rose, so the number of families which should have received assistance, but who did not, is likely higher.

Considering the information above regarding the correlation between poverty and neglect, it seems likely that the changes in these Montana statistics are connected. So, what should be done? First, and most obviously, the legislature should work to amend the relevant statutes in order to differentiate between poverty and neglect. California has attempted to do something of the sort: while their child welfare statutes regarding neglect have similar definitions, such as failure to provide adequate clothing, food, or shelter, their criminal statutes regarding maltreatment and neglect require intent. This shifts the burden from the impoverished parent, because when poverty is the “cause” of the neglect, the parent is not “willfully” neglecting the child. Instead, what is happening is simply a matter of circumstance.

Second, considering that many rural areas are deserts when it comes to services and supports, the state should work to create more housing, monetary assistance, and childcare resources for the impoverished. Third, and finally, the state legislature should raise the minimum wage, as about 44% of all workers in the United States qualify as “low-wage” workers (those earning two-thirds or less of the average hourly rate for full-time year-round work). Despite common arguments, this raise in minimum wage will not affect inflation.

For more information on the history of CPS and its workings in rural places, as a supplement to this post, look here.

Friday, February 24, 2023

California rural school officials go to Washington, DC looking for budget dust

Hailey Branson-Potts reported yesterday in the Los Angeles Times under the headline, "These rural schools face a financial ‘cliff.’ Will partisan bickering cut off a lifeline?"  The dateline is Washington, DC, where far northern California school administrators traveled to lobby for federal funds under the threatened Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act.  Here's a bit of the backstory on that Act, which has been funded only on a temporary basis since its inception in 2000:

Brianna Gallegos, the U.S. Forest Service program manager for Secure Rural Schools, said the program “is so politically driven.” Her agency is the funnel for the school money, but “we just have to wait for Congress to decide ... to reauthorize, extend deadlines, to add new things,” she said.

The amount at stake is what lawmakers call “budget dust” in a federal budget that is trillions of dollars. Last year, the Secure Rural Schools program gave $238 million to 742 counties in 41 states and Puerto Rico.

Calls for permanent funding abound. From Republicans and Democrats. From environmentalists and the timber industry.
A solution inevitably falls victim to partisan bickering. Liberals don’t want to cut down trees. Conservatives want to slash spending.

Just as interesting are the depictions of the places from whence these educators traveled, most in Trinity County, California, population 16,112.

Branson-Potts introduces us to Anmarie Swanstrom, principal for the Mountain Valley Unified School District in Hayfork, enrollment 340. 

Swanstrom’s district will lose a significant chunk of its budget if Congress does not renew the Secure Rural Schools Act, a long-standing program for schools in forested counties, by this fall. She would have to lay people off. 
In Hayfork — a boom-and-bust town of 2,300 where timber crashed and legal marijuana is now doing the same — students have little access to medical care. Mental health support comes through the schools, which are also evacuation centers when the mountains burn.

“We serve as the heart of the town, and if the schools go, the town will go completely,” Swanstrom said.

People in California’s rural northern reaches, where a conservative spirit reigns in opposition to the state’s famously liberal ethos, often feel forgotten in the halls of power in Sacramento and Washington.

Their towns are shrinking. Their forests are burning. And for their schools, a financial cliff could be coming.

Swanstrom and three other rural Northern California superintendents went to Washington this month to look their legislators in the eye and tell them just how desperate they are.

With the latest version of the Secure Rural Schools funding set to expire in October, the school administrators decided they could not "sit idly by.  A little budget dust goes a long way in a small town." 

Another interesting aspect of the story is just how hard it was for these administrators/educators to get the ear of their U.S. Congressman and Senators: 

In Washington, the superintendents’ first scheduled meeting was with staffers for Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon whose state gets the most money through the program.

Two hours beforehand, a staffer emailed Green: There were some scheduling issues. Couldn’t they meet virtually?

Green was crestfallen. They had traveled all this way. They’d been rescheduled repeatedly.

He had printed a short proposal asking Congress to consider several options for permanently funding the program, including selective logging or putting green energy sources like windmills or solar farms on federal land.

He just wanted to hand it to a real human being.

“It’s always a no if you don’t ask,” Sheree Beans, his district’s director of business services, reassured him.
* * *
On the second day of their trip, the superintendents squeezed into the Capitol Hill office of Rep. Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael). He gave them half an hour.

A Times reporter was not allowed inside. In a later phone interview, Huffman said Secure Rural Schools has “become a political football,” continually pushed to the brink before being reauthorized.

Rural schools, he said, “have kind of been used as a prop for folks with a different agenda, folks who want to roll back environmental protections, who want to do mandatory logging quotas in national forests.”
* * *
“I’d like to see the federal government just embrace this as an ongoing financial responsibility,” he said.

Are there such proposals in Congress?

“Not good ones,” Huffman said.

After meeting Huffman, the superintendents raced across Capitol Hill to the office of California Sen. Alex Padilla.

In Padilla’s front office, Green commented that their pitch should be a slam dunk because it involved kids’ education. But they weren’t the only ones with a sympathetic cause. Another group was there to discuss children’s hospitals.

The senator gave the superintendents about 90 seconds to snap a photo. A staffer listened for four minutes.

Outside, Swanstrom said that even a short interaction goes a long way.

“I think it’s important that they see our faces,” she said. “We’re caught in the crosshairs here. We need to change the narrative. We need to make this about supporting rural schools, separate from timber. If we don’t do that, we’re never going to get funding that’s equitable.”

On their final day in Washington, the superintendents scored a few minutes with one of Wyden’s staff members.

Then, Rep. Doug LaMalfa, chairman of the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Forestry, ushered them into his office, where shelves displayed a book titled “Woke, Inc.” and a collection of Rush Limbaugh on-air commentaries. The Republican from Richvale in Butte County gave them an hour of his time.

The conversation quickly turned to the heated debate over whether to increase logging in national forests, which LaMalfa supports.

Thursday, February 23, 2023

A story of youth and vitality among small-town loss

Rick Rojas reported last month for the New York Times from Earle, Arkansas, population 1,831, a town in the Mississippi Delta, which has just elected an 18-year-old African-American mayor, Jaylen Smith. The story is both inspiring (because of Smith's commitment to his community) and depressing because of details of the state that Earle is already in. The photos are particularly devastating in this regard. Here's the lede:
The shoe factory closed and the supermarket pulled out. So did neighbors whose old homes were now falling apart, overtaken by weeds and trees. Likewise, the best students at Earle High School often left for college and decided their hometown did not have enough to lure them back.

Jaylen Smith, 18, could have left, too. Instead, when he graduated from high school last spring he resolved to stay put in Earle, a small city surrounded by farmland in the Arkansas Delta, where his family has lived for generations.
I was especially struck by the discussion of the town's desire to attract a grocery store. Having and keeping a grocery store has come to be marker of survival among small towns, and have been a topic of many past posts here on Legal Ruralism.

Here is NPR's coverage of Jaylen Smith's election. It makes clear that the new mayor is simultaneously a college student.

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

How Jimmy Carter's roots in the rural south shaped his politics, and how his life and impending death shape his home town

As former President Jimmy Carter enters hospice care, his biographer, Kai Bird, writes in the New York Times:  

Mr. Carter remains the most misunderstood president of the last century. A Southern liberal, he knew racism was the nation’s original sin. He was a progressive on the issue of race, declaring in his first address as Georgia’s governor, in 1971, that “the time for racial discrimination is over,” to the extreme discomfort of many Americans, including a good number of his fellow Southerners. And yet, as someone who had grown up barefoot in the red soil of Archery, a tiny hamlet in south Georgia, he was steeped in a culture that had known defeat and occupation. This made him a pragmatist.

I'd like to know more about Bird's thinking regarding how growing up in the rural south makes one a pragmatist.  My instinct, however, is that Bird is correct.   

Rick Rojas for the New York Times filed this story about Plains, Georgia, Carter's hometown.  Not surprisingly, news organizations have poured in since the announcement of the 39th president's hospice care.  Here are some excerpts that depict small-town life: 

The appeal of Plains, Mr. Carter has said, was its promise of the kind of humble, small-town existence he desired after the presidency. 

* * *  

As much as Mr. Carter wanted a semblance of a regular life, the result of his living in Plains turned it into no ordinary town. The signs marking town limits boast that Plains is home to the 39th president. The farm where he was raised just outside of town is a National Park. His modest house is surrounded by black security fencing and guard posts.

Other small towns in this part of Georgia, linked together in a constellation of country roads, have withered or have streets lined with fast-food joints and convenience stores. The center of Plains has a cafe and a row of gift shops that bustle with tourists.

Without Mr. Carter, “you wouldn’t have the downtown atmosphere that you have,” said Jeff Clements, an owner of the Buffalo Peanut Company, a commercial peanut sheller and seed treater that owns what was once the Carter family’s warehouse.

Sunday, February 19, 2023

Wildfire in the west is pricing people out of housing markets, including rural ones

The Washington Post reported last week out of Santa Rosa, California, population 175,000 and not rural, about how wildfire in the West is destroying housing that can't be re-built for the same cost, thus aggravating the state's housing crunch, which has implications for rural places, too.  Scott Wilson reports under the headline, "Gentrification by Fire."  Here are some key paragraphs:  

The concerns arise everywhere, although much of the discussion centers on the areas where Siemering and many other builders are working now, known as the Wildland-Urban Interface. The zone skims the rural, oak-and-manzanita-edged limits of many built-out California cities. (Planners created an acronym, WUI, which slipped into the local vernacular as “woo-ee,” often used in everyday conversation.)

In rebuilding in fire-prone areas, new construction materials, “defensible” minimalist buffers around homes, and other sometimes-expensive new measures have been required, bumping up the costs to homeowners.

For the first time, the state announced last fall that it would begin requiring insurance companies to discount the premiums of homeowners who take such steps. But whether the discounts will be enough to make neighborhoods affordable is doubtful.

According to U.S. Census figures, Sonoma County’s population was 500,000 in 2015, two years before Tubbs tore through its largest city and surrounding land. Today 15,000 fewer people live in Sonoma — a result, at least in part, of a post-fire exodus. Many who left were the underinsured and the elderly, according to city and county officials here.

Saturday, February 18, 2023

Oregon moves to regulate paramilitaries while Vermont moves to regulate places where they're trained

Andrew Selsky reports for the Associated Press, leading with this background and a description of the proposed legislation.

Over the past decade, Oregon experienced the sixth-highest number of extremist incidents in the nation, despite being 27th in population, according to an Oregon Secretary of State report. Now, the state Legislature is considering a bill that, experts say, would create the nation’s most comprehensive law against paramilitary activity.
It would provide citizens and the state attorney general with civil remedies in court if armed members of a private paramilitary group interfere with, or intimidate, another person who is engaging in an activity they have a legal right to do, such as voting. A court could block paramilitary members from pursuing an activity if the state attorney general believed it would be illegal conduct.

All 50 states prohibit private paramilitary organizations and/or paramilitary activity, but no other law creates civil remedies, said Mary McCord, an expert on terrorism and domestic extremism who helped craft the bill. The Oregon bill is also unique because it would allow people injured by private, unauthorized paramilitary activity to sue, she said.

Opponents say the law would infringe on rights to freely associate and to bear arms.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Dacia Grayber, a Democrat from suburban Portland, said the proposed reforms “would make it harder for private paramilitaries to operate with impunity throughout Oregon, regardless of their ideology.”

But dozens of conservative Oregonians, in written testimony, have expressed suspicion that the Democrat-controlled Legislature aims to pass a bill restricting the right to assemble and that the legislation would target right-wing armed groups like the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer, but not black-clad anarchists who have vandalized downtown Portland and battled police.

“This bill would clearly put restrictions on who could gather in a group and for what reasons they chose to,” wrote Matthew Holman, a resident of Coos Bay, a town on Oregon’s southwest coast. 

* * * 
Oregon Department of Justice attorney Carson Whitehead said the proposed law would not sanction a person for openly carrying firearms, which is constitutionally permissible. But if a paramilitary group went to a park knowing their presence would be intimidating, anyone afraid of also going to the park could sue for damages, Whitehead said.

“This particular bill is not directed at individuals open-carrying. This is directed at armed, coordinated paramilitary activity,” added McCord, who is the executive director of Georgetown University Law Center’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection.
* * * 
Rep. Rick Lewis, a Republican from Silverton, asked pointedly during the committee hearing whether rocks and frozen water bottles, which Portland police said had been thrown at them during demonstrations in 2021, would fall under the proposed law.

* * * 

McCord, the terrorism expert, said the measure would mark a milestone in the U.S., where the FBI has warned of a rapidly growing threat of homegrown violent extremism.

“This bill as amended would be the most comprehensive statute to address unauthorized paramilitary activity that threatens civil rights,” she said. 

* * * 
On the other side of the country in Vermont, a bill making it a crime to operate a paramilitary training camp got final approval from the state Senate on Friday. The measure, which senators earlier approved by a 29-1 vote, also allows state prosecutors to seek an injunction to close such a facility.

“This bill gives the state the authority it needs to protect Vermonters from fringe actors looking to create civil disorder,” said state Sen. Philip Baruth, a Democrat and Progressive from Burlington.

Baruth introduced the measure in response to a firearms training facility built without permits in the town of Pawlet. Neighbors frequently complained about gunfire coming from the Slate Ridge facility, calling it a menace. Baruth’s bill now goes to the Vermont House.

Friday, February 17, 2023

Hardy's "Far from the Madding Crowd" draws trigger warning about "cruelty of ... rural life"

The Independent newspaper (United Kingdom) reported in August, 2022 in a story by Isobel Lewis.  An excerpt follows:

Students at the University of Warwick are being given content warnings about potentially “upsetting scenes” in Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd.

Released in 1874, the novel is set in the rural south-west of England and tells the story of a young woman, Bathsheba Everdene, living in the fictional countryside village of Wessex.

The novel is famed for its descriptions of agricultural life, including the graphic deaths of many animals. In one scene, a sheepdog drives an entire herd of sheep off a cliff.

Far from the Madding Crowd is taught as part of the English Literature course at Warwick, with students this year being warned in advance about the aforementioned moments in the story.

“Far from the Madding Crowd: Contains some potentially rather upsetting scenes concerning the cruelty of nature and the rural life,” the content warning reads (via The Telegraph).

I learned about the rise of trigger warnings in Britain from this column by Amna Khalid on Persuasion.   Khalid writes: 

Students across Britain seem to be in favor of trigger warnings. According to a survey published by the Higher Education Policy Institute last year, 86% of students support trigger warnings (up from 68% in 2016). More than a third think instructors should be fired if they “teach material that heavily offends some students” (up from just 15% in 2016).

Sadly, it appears that universities in Britain have fallen prey to the kind of corporate logic that is already firmly entrenched in the United States. This growing managerial approach with its customer-is-always-right imperative is increasingly evident in university policies.

Thursday, February 16, 2023

A theory on low numbers of rural women in graduate schools


Growing up, my answer to what I wanted to be when I was older was always, "a soccer mom." This answer wasn't met with laughter, as one might have expected, as being a stay-at-home mother was a common career path for women in my hometown. Many of these stay-at-home moms were a product of necessity, as their husbands were military men who could be deployed or re-stationed at any moment. Due to their husband's career choices, they were left with very few of their own. I theorize that the commonality of rural women marrying military men affects their graduate school enrollment rates. 

Women are enrolling in graduate school at a higher rate than men. In the fall of 2020, students who are biologically female accounted for 59.7% of incoming students, whereas students who are biologically male accounted for only 40.3%. This seems like a positive trend for women, who historically enrolled in post-secondary education at a rate much lower than their male counterparts. The bad news is that only 9% of rural women participate in this trend. 

A lack of access and resources in the primary education sector is not uncommon in rural areas. To assume these deficits don't account for low undergraduate and graduate enrollment for those from rural communities would be naive. A quick quote from a prior blog post about rural education illustrates:

According to a study by the National Center for Education Statistics, a larger percentage of public schools in rural areas reported being under-enrolled, reported a lack of instructional computers with internet access, and a lack of counselors, social workers, and special education teachers. Most rural schools face higher costs with lower revenues, and spend an average of 10 percent less per student than metropolitan communities. Teachers in rural communities often have less training, receive lower pay, and are overall less educated than teachers in non-rural communities.

Primary education in rural communities has much room for improvement. However, the issues in rural primary schools are not the only reason that rural women enroll in graduate school at a much lower rate than the American average. 

My theory that women choose to marry military men over enrolling in graduate schools is further evidenced by a common career path for rural teenagers. Instead of enrolling in post-secondary education, many rural teens enlist in the military. In 2011, rural residents made up 44% of the enlisted forces, even though they accounted for only 17% of the population. According to a 2005 Washington Post article, high rural enlistment rates are often due to the lack of economic opportunities afforded to young rural residents. The only options many rural youth see are to sign up for a lifetime of repaying student loans with the hope of making money in the future or to sign up for a guaranteed paycheck, job security, education benefits, 30 days of annual paid vacation, housing, food security, free health care, education plans, and many other enticing benefits. This could be a viable career option for teens of all gender identities but biological women make up only 16% of the total enlisted forces

Other benefits associated with military enrollment are the benefits that accrue by virtue of a soldier's marital status. From the spousal perspective, those include free health care (including births), free housing, and world travel. Service members also receive additional pay for their spouses and avoid living in the dorms on base. These benefits largely fuel the stereotype that military members marry quickly, and the stereotype is backed up by data. For example, 64.8% of those in the active duty Army are or have been married, in contrast to 45% of all Americans who are married. 

This correlates with the higher marriage rate in rural communities. This map shows that marriage rates in rural communities are above average: 


Many career paths that require higher education, especially those that require graduate school, require state-specific licensing and certification. These professions include lawyers, doctors, teachers, accountants, nurses and other medical technicians, veterinarians, and more. Furthermore, job markets vary from region to region. 

Military spouses are often limited in what careers they can pursue due to the constant moves. It is common for service members to change assignments, requiring them to move to a different base across the country (or even to another country). Frequent moves make it very difficult to get and retain jobs, especially with a career that requires post-secondary education. By the time a lawyer spouse would be able to study and pass the bar for the new state they moved to, they are likely packing up their house to move again. The same goes for most careers that require state certifications. Thus, it is easier and more cost-efficient to pursue a career that does not require any level of state certification, and therefore does not require a post-secondary degree. 

Although this is a working hypothesis, there seems to be a correlation between the anomalously high statistics for rural marriage and military enlistment and the low statistics for rural women pursuing graduate education. This theory, alongside the rural primary education systems and other socioeconomic factors, correlates and should be examined to reconcile the disparity between rurality and the graduate school enrollment rates for rural women in the United States.

Country music's insights into rural culture

I was born in northern Nevada and transplanted to Seattle, Washington early on. My mother, two sisters, and I would go back and forth during the holidays between the two, which meant we had hours to listen to music as we swerved through mountain passes and sprawling, beige fields of sage grass. There was a mix of 1990s Sade and Tracy Chapman, with a swing to The Chicks and Brooks & Dunn once we crossed the Nevada line. All in all, it was a musical whiplash that informed by spatial awareness as to what was urban and what was rural. 

As I matured and grew older, the road trips ceased, but my attachment to country music -- the sound, the vocals, the metaphors, and the lyrics -- remained strong. It was a refuge from the noise of Berkeley, and concocted vivid scenic images that evoked a sense of calm and peace amid the clamor of tightly wound college students and activists on megaphones. So, when reflecting on what "rural" means, the type of music that permeates across country music stations is an insight both to the pace and sound of rural America and the livelihoods of those that write and listen to it. 

Who country music speaks to has changed over time, as more and more artists try to break into the mainstream. This has meant that country music itself has changed to reach larger audiences. Taylor Swift is a recent example of an artist who has "ditched" her country roots and made a bee-line toward pop. From songs like "Tim McGraw" and "Our Song," to pop anthems like "Look What You Made Me Do" and "Style," Taylor Swift shows how country music is often viewed as a sound that cannot sustain popularity in larger, urban audiences. The stories, images, and rhythms don't resonate with listeners who are used to the hustle and bustle of city living and the musical rhythms it reflects. So, I would argue that music is a window into the distinct cultures of rural and urban communities, and country and bluegrass music informs the livelihoods of those in more remote rural spaces. 

History is important when considering what many would identify as "authentic" country music. Nostalgia plays a role in defining what country music is, as artists like Patsy Cline and Roy Orbison have vocals and instrumentalities that evoke a timeless yet aged reference for the kinds of songs that are associated with more rural spaces. Part of this is a result of the demographics of rural populations. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, 19 percent of U.S. rural areas are 65 years or older. Further, rural counties make up nearly 85 percent of the 1,104 "older-aged countries" (i.e., those with more than 20 percent of their population age 65 or older). As a result, country music both then and now tends to preserve the rhythms, beats, and vocals of the music from the 1960s and 1970s. This helps define the timelessness that is typically associated with rurality. 

Beyond time, the images artists in country music invoke are often exclusively understood and appreciated by those in rural spaces. It can speak to both the scenery and the personal experiences that individuals in rural areas navigate. Hits like "Boot Scootin' Boogie" and "Neon Moon" from Brooks & Dunn offer insights into this. In "Boot Scootin' Boogie," lines that "out in the country past the city limits sign" and "it's where all the cowboy folk go to boot scootin' boogie" speak to a reprieve from industrial and urban spaces. It also invokes the image and mythology of the "cowboy" that is frequently associated with rural and frontier areas completely removed from any form of urban life.

The image of a "cowboy" has been reinforced in other songs like "Cowboy Take Me Away" by The Chicks in which the iconic trio dream of life away from city living:

            I wanna walk and not run
            I wanna skip and not fall
            I wanna look at the horizon and not see a building standing tall
            I wanna be the only one for miles and miles
            Except for maybe you and your simple smile ...
            Cowboy take me away

To some, this reflects how the remoteness of idyllic, rural areas allow people space and security from the suffocation of city-scapes. The desire to retreat to what is known and safe is inherent in country music. It speaks to environments that allow people to unwind from the turbulence of urban settings. Overall, these songs and those like them suggests that what is fundamental to rurality is safety in the remote, and comfort in the scenic vistas. 

In contemporary country music, many artists have moved away from musing on scenic locations and have shifted focus to the archetypes of rurality. Kacey Musgraves' "Merry Go 'Round" demonstrates what many would suggest is stagnancy in rural living. In it she explores what some would term "white trash" living, often signified by trailer parks and the cycles of poverty and "tradition" that often trap people in rurality:

            We think the first time's good enough
            So we hold on to high school love
            Say we won't end up like our parents
            Tiny little boxes in a row
            Ain't what you want it's what you know

Musgraves offers a look into the realities of living in rural areas that are not defined by painted landscapes. It's where what is known and what is safe clash. She identifies the lack of choices available to people in rural communities who are trapped either by poverty or tradition. Overall, this song and others like it show how rurality is not always a resort of remoteness and security. It can be a confining space where the opportunity to leave is restricted, creating tension between wanting to retreat to rurality and being trapped in it. 

Conclusively, country music is a window into the stories and images that permeate throughout rural communities. From exalting idyllic scenic spaces to telling the stories that pervade rural communities, country music is something that resonates within the spaces that it originates. It is unique among genres in that it is one of the few that is immediately associated with a place and the people in that space. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

A crisis of homes and hope

"Young and Homeless in Rural America" by Samantha Shapiro pulls the curtain back on the growing issue of houselessness for students in rural communities.

The article follows a few high school students and their families. The story reveals how these rural folks navigate seriously precarious housing situations that often find them relegated to unsafe living conditions as the only alterative to a tent or a car parking lot.

One of the heroes of the story is Sandra Plantz, the homeless liaison for Gallia County Schools located in Ohio. While “homeless liason” is generally a position overlooked in many districts, it was created to bridge the gap in resources for students experiencing homelessness. After training herself on how to identify indicators that a student may be experiencing houselessness or house instability, Plantz reaches the conclusion that the problem is more pervasive than originally thought.

Often times, Plantz is able to detect that a student is experiencing house instability simply by looking at their truancy school records. She’s learned there is a correlation between spotty school attendance and house insecurity.

While the piece is harrowing all the way through, the story of T is particularly tragic. T makes it known that he wants to be the first in his family to graduate high school. Plantz spends two years trying to assist in this goal. In fact, it is written that, “Plantz absorbed T’s dream in all its urgency, as her own.” However, despite valiant efforts on both their parts, T’s houselessness renders him unable to see his dream through.

The article ends with T reflecting on his still ongoing desire to get a GED, despite having almost no support system. He is eager to change the trajectory of his life.

Yet, the odds are stacked against him.

According to the National Center for Homeless Education, there is an average annual increase of 5% in the number of students experiencing homelessness since 2004. While the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987 was designed to help offset this rapid increase, the federal law has failed in many respects.

Keith Alan Cunningham explores these failings in “A Question of Priorities: A Critical Investigation of the McKinney-Vento Act”. His article was published in the Academy for Educations Studies in 2014. In his paper, he identifies several core problems with the implementation of the Act. Despite almost 10 years since its publication, the problem identified with the McKinney-Vento Act remain the same.

For starters, there is no unified way of disseminating information regarding resources for houseless students. Because school districts are the administrative arms of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, the sole homeless liaison is often left with the task of servicing giant regions with little help, funding, or guidance. This creates discrepancies in who knows about resources and who benefits from them.

Similarly, with no system in place to educate teachers on houselessness, educators are frequently unaware of indicators that may signal a student is experiencing housing insecurity. Without this crucial system, more students fall through the cracks as concurring issues arising from houselessness, like truancy and issues with transportation to and from school, further alienate students from the possibility of successfully completing school.

This is especially true given that the main method of identifying if a student is house insecure is to self-report. Unfortunately, this leads to problems with under identification. Many times students do not know that they qualify as house insecure. Even if they are aware, many will not report what they are experiencing due to feelings of shame and the stigma associated with houselessness.

The real shame, however, is that we are collectively failing students across the country and especially in rural communities. In fact, “[i]n recent years… the highest rate of growth for student homelessness has been in rural America. For many of these students, a high school education is just a dream and not a feasible reality. By these metrics, higher education is not even in the sphere of possibility. If we do not equip school districts with the means to carry out the federal law as it was intended, it is quite literally useless. We will keep perpetuating the utter hopelessness of the type of poverty that robs students of dreams and aspirations.

Monday, February 13, 2023

The impact of national parks on rural spaces

The National Park system of the United States includes 423 unique sites spread across the country’s states and territories. A majority of these public parks border rural areas, resulting in unique opportunities and challenges for many small communities across America. 

National parks are often economic and social boons to rural areas. Whitefish is a town in Flathead County, Montana that attracts large crowds during summer months by virtue of its proximity to Glacier National Park. Previous posts involving Glacier can be found here. Despite having a population of roughly 8,000 permanent residents, the town features robust lodging and dining amenities to handle massive crowds, with an extensive downtown area and a ski resort to draw year-round visitation.

With roughly 73 percent of the surrounding Flathead County’s land owned by the federal government, Whitefish is one of the many small cities across the United States experiencing a period of strong economic growth due to its location adjacent to public lands and the natural amenities associated with them.

At the same time, closeness to public lands can strain rural communities past their realistic capacity for population and resources. The resulting gentrification prices locals out of their own communities, in the interests of the tourism industry and wealthy out-of-state residents. Posts from this blog about rural gentrification can be found here

However, an often overlooked issue facing rural communities comes from the internet. Social media can transform little-known corners of the country into viral sensations in an instant, overwhelming communities that lack the infrastructure to deal with such population surges. 

An article posted by The Guardian documents the struggles of Kanarraville, a town of only 350 residents located next to Kanarra Falls, a natural slot canyon river located on the same federal tract of land as Zion National Park. Once a relatively unknown destination, the area now sees an annual influx of 40,000 to 60,000 tourists due to the falls’ online notoriety.

Not only does the overwhelming number of visitors consistently overload the town’s resources, but the river itself is a watershed tapped by the town for drinking water. Tens of thousands of guests trek directly through the river on their hike up the canyon every year, leading to sanitation concerns from local residents.

The town of Estes Park sits at the gateway of Rocky Mountain National Park, with tourists flocking from across the country to visit the mountains (and the hotel from The Shining). The Guardian estimates that Estes Park accommodates up to 3 million people over the course of its peak summer months, despite its population of just 5,366. As a consequence, the area features a higher police funding per capita than 97 percent of departments across the country as it struggles to keep the swells of tourists under control.

In order to find a solution for this ever-growing problem, rural communities may want to turn to other countries for inspiration. A publication in the Journal of Rural Studies documents Norway’s efforts to balance nature conservation on public land with local concerns, opting to adopt a process that brings rural areas into the decision making process. Spurred by concerns over what tourism in the name of conservation efforts may mean for people’s livelihoods, Norway has opted to decentralize traditional land management operations in certain municipalities, giving rural voices more power to decide how these parks will be implemented and maintained. 

Breheimen National Park, located on the Skjåk Municipality, is one of the areas receiving this treatment. Breheimen has only been open since 2009, giving locals the unique opportunity to ensure the national park grows in a way that is as responsive to their needs as possible. While the long-term effects of this strategy are yet to be seen, handling such complex situations in this way could work wonders in the United States, giving more agency to rural communities in need.