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Fourth Annual Eccles Family Rural West Conference

People and Place in the Rural American West

Missoula, Montana, March 17-19

Panel 1: Issues in the Rural West

« Opening Keynote

Panel 2: People and Place »


Discussions about issues and policy in the rural west are seldom informed by an understanding of the public's views on the issues. This panel presented the results of a unique statewide survey of Montana residents' opinions conducted by Stanford University and the University of Montana. The survey asked questions on the panel topics of the 2016 Rural West conference, including the distinct perspectives of rural residents on issues of health care, energy production, resource management, drug use, and tribal government.

Held March 18, 2016 at the University of Montana in Missoula, MT

Speakers Click to cue video

Panel Recap

Christopher Muste (video), an associate professor in the University of Montana’s Political Science Department, opened the first panel of the Rural West Conference by introducing conference attendees to a new term: “Hellgate winds.” He explained that these frigid winds, which had met conference-goers early that morning, originate in the adjacent Hellgate Canyon and sweep down through the streets of Missoula. After adding his welcoming sentiments, Muste kicked off the conference with a discussion and analysis of the recently completed Montana Issue Survey.

The survey represented a joint effort between the University of Montana and the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University. A total of 923 Montanans participated in the survey, and Muste took time in his talk to highlight a few interesting points in the data:

  • Montanans overall valued nature and environment highly, Muste related, although those living in rural areas tended to value jobs more and the environment less; 54 percent of respondents thought climate change was a serious problem and 71 percent thought the state should produce its own plan on carbon emissions.
  • On the subject of health care, a majority of those surveyed had unfavorable views of the Affordable Care Act, but were more positively disposed to the expansion of the state’s Medicaid coverage.
  • Regarding public lands, 59 percent of those polled supported the transfer of federal lands to state control  — a timely question given that the standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was making headlines while the survey was being conducted.

Survey topics ranged across a number of issues, many of which were drawn from the themes of the Rural West Conference. A more detailed look at the survey can be found on this site.

David Brady (video), a professor of political science at Stanford University, followed Muste’s comments with an analysis of his own.  He drilled into the topic of public lands and examined why citizens might want to transfer federal public lands to state control. Brady looked at two agencies that manage public lands, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS). These agencies are tasked with the management of timber, grazing, and state trust lands. Brady presented a handful of calculations suggesting that states can manage lands more cost-efficiently than the federal government. For the U.S. Forest Service’s $5 billion in expenses managing 571 million acres of land, Brady calculated that the revenue per dollar spent was 10 cents. The BLM came out at $3.11 in revenue per dollar spent, while lands managed by the state of Montana returned an estimated $8.65 in revenue per dollar spent. Brady’s calculations of per-acre revenue for grazing and timber also showed a much higher return for lands managed by the state of Montana. During the discussion following the panel, Brady speculated that one reason for higher efficiencies may be that the state doesn’t have to operate with as many regulations – as federal agencies are subject to. Federal lands face the encumbrance of many overlapping regulations, Brady said, and the incentives to cut cost are higher at the state level than the federal level.  

Sally Mauk (video) is a journalist at Montana Public Radio and has covered Montana for 50 years. In reference to some of the survey’s seemingly contradictory findings — such as wide support for both environmental protection and economic development – she said that she wasn’t at all surprised to see what she called “schizophrenic tendencies”. Mauk underscored that Montanans, albeit for differing reasons, all value the environment. They may believe in climate change, but still be pro-coal. “The real split,” she said, “is not whether they value the environment, but how much.” Mauk believes that the viewpoints of Montana residents on many issues are akin to the demand to “fix my potholes, but don’t raise my taxes.” In her conclusion, Mauk asserted that the issues faced in her state have not changed much over the past 30 years, but they way they in which they are addressed has changed–though not for the better, she said. Pointing to the divisions in leadership in the state legislature, Mauk emphasized the need for a more robust spirit of compromise among lawmakers.

Anthony Johnstone (video), an associate professor at the University of Montana School of Law, gave the panel’s final presentation, offering a view of Montana from the perspective of state law and politics. He discussed Montana’s ‘new’ constitution, which was adopted in 1972 and utilizes a different model of state politics than its fellow Western states whose constitutions remain unchanged from their original version. The Montana constitution sets itself apart from other states in the American West with its declaration of inalienable right to basic life necessities including social and rehabilitative services, in noting the importance of a clean environment and enshrining environmental protection, and recognizing tribal jurisdictions as a federal matter. The ratification of this new constitution was also notable for the atypically high number of women who were involved in its passage. However, Johnstone added that the new constitution reflected, rather than resolved, urban-rural tensions in the state, pointing out that rural areas voted strongly against ratification. Such a divide between urban and rural areas was a topic that would be discussed in numerous contexts throughout the remainder of the conference.

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« Opening Keynote

Panel 2: People and Place »




Rural West Conference Volume

Bridging the Distance

Common Issues of the Rural West

Edited by David B. Danbom
Foreword by David M. Kennedy

Published in cooperation with the Bill Lane Center for the American West, Stanford University
The University of Utah Press has published Bridging the Distance, a book by the Rural West Initiative of the Bill Lane Center for the American West. Edited by the distinguished historian David B. Danbom and with a foreword by Center co-founding director David M. Kennedy, the book explores the Rural West across four dimensions: Community, Land, Economics – and defining the Rural West itself. The book is the result of work presented at the first Conference on the Rural West, which took place in Ogden, Utah, in October 2012.