Friday, February 16, 2024

The Institute for Rural Journalism thrives at the University of Kentucky; its outreach is for rural news nationwide

Benjy Hamm
Twenty years ago, some forward-thinking journalists began discussing the future of news in rural America. One of the more vibrant and committed conversations would take center stage at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, where the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues was created and thrives, with a continuing passion for helping "journalism work in rural areas and to provide training and other resources for small news organizations," reports Bob Miller for Editor & Publisher magazine.

Benjy Hamm serves as the new director of the IRJCI, succeeding Al Cross, who had spent 20 years developing the Institute's foundations. Hamm told Miller: "We have a mission that spreads across the country. The people who developed it at the time were well ahead of the curve and anticipated where we are today. They were interested in supporting and sustaining rural journalists and rural communities because of concerns about how things were going in those communities for local newspapers. Local newspapers were the only local news and information source in many areas."
In July 2023, The Institute's summit hosted live
and remote participants from across the country.

IRJ has hosted three national rural journalism summits, bringing reporters, editors, stakeholders and philanthropy representatives together to focus on problem-solving and share success stories while promoting a sense of community for people who are often hundreds of miles from each other.

Craig Garnett
The Institute also honors the courage, tenacity and integrity needed to do important reporting in rural communities through the Tom and Pat Gish Award. This year's award is going to Craig Garnett, the publisher of the Uvalde Leader-News newspaper in Uvalde, Texas. "The rural newspaper pushed for answers in the wake of the mass shooting at Uvalde Elementary School," Miller reports. "Hamm said the award recognizes that investigative and watchdog journalism can be more difficult in smaller communities where resources are spread thinner and the journalists may have to hold to account the very community members they see and interact with."

Why focus on rural journalism? Hamm told Miller: "One of the main reasons for that, historically and what led to the origin of the Institute, was the belief that there's a lot of great work being done in rural communities, but they don't always have the same support staff. They don't always have the same training opportunities, and they don't always have the same issues that are taking place in larger cities. So, for example, agriculture is huge in many rural communities in Eastern Kentucky and Western Kentucky."

Erika Engstrom
The Institute benefits from UK's vital campus and a growing School of Journalism. Miller writes, "Of the 30,000 students on campus, 719 are enrolled in journalism classes. That's larger than many small towns dotted across America. Of those, 204 are majors or pre-majors in the journalism program. . . ." Dr. Erika Engstrom, director of the School of Journalism and Media in the College of Communication and Information, told Miller that some of the program's entry-level courses have exceeded capacity.

While many news organizations across the nation have suffered setbacks and financial woes, the future for rural journalism is full of challenges and opportunities. Hamm told Miller: "With the state of local news and just how many of these smaller newspapers have gone out of business, that's one of the main reasons we're creating a new emphasis on helping us sustain the journalism in these communities. We work with newspapers, radio and online news sites, but it's still true that, in most rural communities, the primary if not the only source of independent news coverage is a newspaper."

The number of U.S. farms has shrunk to the smallest level since 1850; many of the remaining farmers are over 65

Treehugger photo by Dan Amos via SF
The decreasing number of U.S. farms and the increasing age of the country's farmers are concerning factors for a country considered an agricultural powerhouse. U.S. farmers feed America and their exports support the country's trade surpluses with other nations. "The United States has the smallest number of farms — 1.9 million — since 1850, when there were only 31 states and four territories, said the USDA Census of Agriculture," reports Chuck Abbott of Successful Farming. "Nearly four of every 10 farmers were over 65 in 2022, when the data was collected, an abrupt surge from the 2017 census, when one in three farmers was retirement age."

During the Great Depression, there were 6.8 million farms, but "mechanization, hybrid seeds, synthetic fertilizers, and pesticides allowed vast increases in productivity while reducing the need for labor," Abbott explains. "Farm output is so large that one-fifth of production is exported."

While many Americans may think that farm families simply pass down land to their progeny, that is more a myth than a reality. As it becomes harder for farmers to turn a profit due to regulations, labor shortages and extreme weather, fewer of the next generation view farming as a viable profession. Abbott reports, "'The number of producers [age] 65 and over increased 12%, continuing the trend of an aging producer population,' said a highlight sheet for the census, describing changes since 2017. There was a 9 percent decline in the number of farmers aged 35-65 years."

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told Abbott: "The hope would be that we would continue to encourage people to get in and remain in the farming business and that we would be able to preserve our farmland. But survey after survey continues to show a decline in the number of farms and farmland." 

The Census of Agriculture is available here.
A USDA chart of farm numbers over the years is available here.

Uvalde editor, honored for his work, wishes he had done more before tragedy struck

Craig Garnett will receive the Tom and Pat Gish
Award Feb. 29. (Oklahoma Press Association photo)
By Al Cross
Director Emeritus, Institute for Rural Journalism 

The town of Uvalde, Texas, pop. 15,000, and its same-named county of 25,000 were very unlucky in May 2022. That’s when an 18-year-old with an assault rifle at an elementary school killed 19 students and two teachers – a toll that probably would have been less had police not botched the response.

But Uvalde was also lucky – that it had a newspaper with an editor-publisher, Craig Garnett, who had long been willing to tell hard truths about things that matter, and who kept doing that in the aftermath of the tragedy.

The day after the shooting, the twice-weekly Leader-News published a black front page, with “MAY 24, 2022” in reverse type. The next front page had portraits of the 19 children and the start of a story with biographies of each one. Inside was a column from Garnett, addressing the police delay in confronting the shooter.

He said a regional police official "could not answer why it took an hour to end the attack," quoted him as saying police were “measuring," and wrote; "The question is how much measuring is permissible, while children are being murdered. Or perhaps they were already gone. It pains to write these words of criticism about law enforcement, but parents and the community have the right to know. They must be told why police, whom parents at the scene begged to go in and save their children, failed to act. They have to know, to ever begin to heal."

In an editorial a month later, Garnett named names and was blunt: “No mass school shooting in the United States has ended with such glaring failures in both the law enforcement response and school district security. . . . Neither [school] Police Chief Pete Arredondo, acting city chief Mariano Pargas, Uvalde County Sheriff Ruben Nolasco nor any state or federal officer among the 376 responders to the scene was willing to take the helm of what was clearly a rudderless ship cast into a hurricane.” That didn’t sit well with local law enforcers and their supporters, but Garnett’s initial reporting and commentary had already spoiled his good relationship with the school district and police agencies.

Meanwhile, Garnett spent much time “sitting with families who lost children, siblings, friends; interviewing survivors, teachers and students, about their experience,” Leader-News Managing Editor Meghann Garcia said in nominating him for the 2023 Tom and Pat Gish Award from the Institute for Rural Journalism at the University of Kentucky, which I ran at the time. Garnett wasn’t able to attend our awards banquet in October, but in a recorded video for it, he reflected on his experience – and offered some advice for community editors and publishers:

“What happened in Uvalde was crushing. It continues to be an enormous weight on many of our shoulders, especially the families of victims. And we have endeavored to cover every aspect of that shooting. We still are working for information, accountability from various institutions, particularly our city and our school district and our law enforcement officials. We plan to follow that to its conclusion, whatever time it may take.

“But being successful at that and community journalism, as most publishers know, depends on your people. And I happen to have a group of journalists who are beyond amazing. None of us graduated from elite universities, some of us don’t have college degrees, but after the tragedy on May 24, each one of them brought something extremely important to our coverage. And our grand total [is] five of us, so there wasn’t a lot. It didn’t take long to have our discussions with each other and to plan our day. And it’s true in most of the newsrooms across this country and community journalism. But it brings you together in a way that nothing else can, I don’t suppose, unless it would be a foxhole. We learned from that. And one of the things we’ve taken away from May 24 is that we didn’t do enough before.

“We have a wall full of plaques from the South Texas Press Association, the Texas Press Association, but we didn’t do enough. We didn’t ask enough questions. We didn’t hold people running for elected office to account like we should have. We didn’t question people who wanted to run our institutions closely enough. What motivated them? What experience do they have? What would they do in a crisis? And we certainly didn’t hold our law enforcement to a high enough standard, the people who swore to protect us.

“So, we will work harder in the future to do that, to make sure that we know as much as we can about people who intend to lead our community, especially in the aftermath of a tragedy. We want to know how they’ll react. It’s not entirely possible. There are all kinds of things that pop up that you can’t plan for, but you can get a sense of where people’s souls lie and what their commitment is to your community. And that’s what I would advise to my fellow publishers in small towns. Pay attention. Pay attention to everything, to those people who run institutions, to the kid who’s slipping between the cracks, who might one day become the same school shooter we had. Be invested beyond what you are now, if that’s possible. I know most of you work your hearts out. But if there’s one thing we would like to do better, it would’ve been that.”

Garnett will share more of his experiences and receive the Tom and Pat Gish Award Feb. 29 at the University of Texas during a symposium, “Courage, Tenacity, Integrity and Innovation in Rural Journalism,” sponsored by the Institute for Rural Journalism, the Texas Center for Community Journalism at Tarleton State University, and the Center for Ethical Leadership in Media in the University of Texas School of Journalism and Media. He will be joined by fellow Texans Laurie Ezzell Brown of The Canadian Record, Randy Keck of The Community News in Aledo, Tara Huff of The Eagle Press in Fritch, John Starkey of Rambler Texas Media and Daniel Walker of the Vernon Daily Record, the Burkburnett Informer Star and the Clay County Leader. For more information about the event, go to The event is free, but registration is required; here’s the link:

Al Cross edited and managed rural newspapers before covering politics for the Louisville Courier Journal and serving as president of the Society of Professional Journalists. He is director emeritus of the Institute for Rural Journalism and a professor at the University of Kentucky.

Private equity-owned health care is guided by expansion and profits; many are calling for more regulation

As Americans age, the home health care sector will
continue to grow. (Photo by G.A. Pflueger, Unsplash)
Home health care businesses may go by nurturing names, such as "Senior Helpers" or "At Home Angels," but the much industry is funded by private equity investors looking to make hefty profits, reports Anna Claire Vollers of Stateline. "Proponents of private equity investment in health care say the infusion of capital helps smaller companies expand into new markets." But skeptics point to places where care companies suddenly pulled out of entire regions when profits waned, leaving elderly people at home with no care.

Private equity-owned health care companies exist to make money for investors. "Private equity firms pool investments from pension funds, endowments, sovereign wealth funds and wealthy individuals to buy controlling stakes in companies," Voller explains. "In health care, critics say, that business model can diminish the quality of care, increase costs and narrow access for patients — particularly in more lightly regulated industries such as home care and hospice care."

Home health care is an appealing business venture because it doesn't face the same level of scrutiny as hospitals and nursing homes, the profit margins are robust, and there's an aging population where "around 10,000 baby boomers turn 65 every day," Voller reports. There will be "millions of people who will need care in the coming years," which will guarantee strong business growth. Plus, insurance companies encourage their customers to use home health care, which again, bolsters profits.

Even with all those benefits, private equity firms tend to pile debt on their companies to fund expansion. "Private equity firms typically aim to acquire a company and boost profits before selling it within five to seven years," Voller reports. "They often purchase companies with borrowed money, using the company's assets as collateral for the loans."

Mary Bugbee, senior research and campaign coordinator for health care at the Private Equity Stakeholder Project, a research and advocacy group, told Voller, "We leave a lot to the whims of the market and allow private players to dictate access to and quality of health care."

State policy and lawmakers are looking at home health care companies as businesses needing more regulatory oversight. "Improving transparency, requiring certain health care staff-to-patient ratios and boosting wages for health care workers can also help protect patients and communities," Voller reports. 

Quick hits: Film explores Christian nationalism; human brain limits; sun activity and the eclipse; Marvel & HBO go rural

'Christianity is about the values of inclusion,' one of the
film's interviewees says. (God + Country photo)

A new documentary that explores the rise of American Christian nationalism and the threat its increasing influence poses to democracy has been released in select theaters, reports Russell Contreras of Axios. Directed by Robert Reiner, the film, "God + Country" features interviews with Black evangelicals, religious leaders and scholars, as well as Charlie Sykes of The Bulwark, a conservative anti-Trump website, and Russell Moore, a theologian who "resigned from the Southern Baptist Convention amid a backlash over his criticism of Trump." The film asks interviewees from all walks of life if/how the movement is based on Christian principles and what are the risks to the democratic process when Christianity becomes a political ideology.

For many Americans, maybe the post-pandemic "new normal" could be best described as "living with constant uncertainty," which is not a comfortable position for humans. "To stay motivated as we encounter unprecedented levels of uncertainty in every aspect of our lives, we should understand that the human brain simply was not built for this," report Heidi Grant and Tal Goldhamer of Harvard Business Review. "Knowing what your brain does well — and what it does surprisingly poorly — can give you a much clearer sense of the strategies you need not just to endure but to thrive." Read some comforting and helpful coping strategies here.

A NASA satellite captured this image
of sunspots. (NASA image via WP)
Greeting Earthlings! The sun is putting on some incredible shows this year. "Solar flares, eruptions on the sun's surface and sunspots are expected to multiply and intensify throughout this year, as our yellow star enters its most active period in two decades," reports Kasha Patel of The Washington Post. "That could lead to more beautiful dancing aurora far and wide, but also radio blackouts and satellite disruptions."

From outlawing gender discrimination in federally funded programs to bolstering cleaner air to reducing child poverty, the U.S. government has achieved some landmark policy successes, writes Darrell M. West in his opinion for Brookings. Read here for all 10 success stories.

The path of the total solar eclipse on April 8, 2024. (NASA Science Visualization Studio graphic via Mashable)
Unusual, dark and spectacular -- the solar eclipse is coming this spring. "Witnessing a total solar eclipse — wherein the moon completely blocks out the sun — is a rare opportunity," reports Mark Kaufman of Mashable. "But on April 8, 2024, millions of Americans will be in the 'path of totality,' allowing many to experience something that's at once astonishing, unsettling, and thrilling."

Alaqua Cox as Maya Lopez in 'Echo' (Photo
by Chuck Zlotnick, Marvel Studios via DY)
New films featuring remote places are getting noticed. Even Marvel Studios left New York City to stage its new mini-series "Echo" in Tamaha, Oklahoma, where a Choctaw Nation adventure unfolds. Adam B. Giorgi of The Daily Yonder writes, "It follows Maya Lopez, a closely held associate of a New York-based criminal magnate, as she returns to her Oklahoma hometown after a violent falling out with her boss."

Night Country detectives face
unending darkness. (HBO photo)

For those who love rural and seek darker twists, HBO's newest "True Detective" season, Night Country, is set in Alaskan's northernmost place, the North Slope Borough, which is 150 miles north of the Arctic Circle. The story "follows the disappearance of eight men from a research station and how it might be linked to the unsolved murder of an indigenous woman," reports Kristian Bert of NBC Today.

North Slope Borough, Alaska
(Wikipedia map)
"The show gets its name from the concept of a Polar Night, a phenomenon that occurs at the north and south poles, where night lasts all day during the winter."

The plot involves two detectives -- Liz Danvers (Jodie Foster) and Evangeline Navarro (Kali Reis) -- who must work together to solve the crimes without the help of Anchorage police.

Grist offers webinar for journalists who want to report on "land-grab" data involving universities in 14 states

Fourteen public universities were founded with land taken from
Indigenous nations. (Illustration by Marty Two Bulls Jr., Grist)
Grist is offering a free webinar on Feb. 21 for reporters who are interested in reporting on state trust land data involving public universities in 14 states. 

The webinar will be held from 1 to 2 p.m. Eastern time. Webinar participants will learn how to use Grist's "land grab" data set from Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming to see how institutions got their land and money.

Using state data on land grant universities, Grist's data report examined how these entities established their provenance and how much revenue those lands produce for their associated colleges. The data shows how states use these lands in to generate income, such as timber harvesting, oil and gas extraction, and agriculture.

Grist's investigation explains how about 8.1 million acres of land, which produces income for 14 land-grant universities, was taken from 123 Indigenous nations through more than 100 violence-backed land cessions. Grist's editor at large Tristan Ahtone and spatial data analyst Maria Parazo Rose will explain how journalists can use the data for their own stories.

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Nonprofit news outlets collaborate to produce series with localized stories about rural impact of nursing home rules

The Maine Monitor's package shows whether each nursing
home meets staffing standards or not. (Map adapted by TRB) 
By Alana Rocha
Editor, Rural News Network
Institute for Nonprofit News

Residents of some rural areas across the country have a more nuanced understanding of local nursing homes’ staffing struggles — and how proposed federal requirements may worsen them — thanks to a collaboration led by INN’s Rural News Network and other partners.

The project, “Falling Short: Rebuilding elderly care in rural America,” combined on-the-ground reporting from seven rural newsrooms with data analysis, support and visualizations from USA Today and Big Local News at Stanford University. Support from the National Institute for Health Care Management made the project possible.

If implemented, rural nursing homes across the country would have about two years to comply with proposed federal rules. But, as the “Falling Short” collaborators found, many of those facilities already struggle to recruit and retain skilled workers. Most are nowhere near able to comply with the new staffing minimums.

The collaboration provided essential resources for nuanced storytelling. Big Local News and USA Today investigative data reporter Jayme Fraser worked together to clean the data and developed a “story recipe” the journalists followed to write articles and get ideas for local sources.

Newsroom collaborations like this are a win-win, Sophia Paffenroth, community health reporter at Mississippi Today, said in a post-series survey: “For us, they generate more reach, offer some extra funding, and connect us to valuable networking and resources.”

Other nonprofit newsrooms in the project were the Barn Raiser in Kansas, Carolina Public Press, the Door County Knock in Wisconsin, JOLT (Journal of Olympia, Lacey and Tumwater) in Washington, and Maine Monitor.

Economic downturn and the opioid epidemic hurt this town, but it is growing again on its own terms

New restaurants and food trucks provide gathering
spaces in Hazard, Kentucky. (The Free Press photo)
In Hazard, Kentucky, opioid addictions ravage the town, which had once been part of Appalachia's bustling coal mining region. "After the collapse of coal mining and the rise of the opioid epidemic, Hazard, Kentucky, seemed finished. Then locals started to rescue it," reports Sam Quinones for The Free Press in Los Angeles. "In early 2020, Mandi Fugate Sheffel, 42, opened a tiny bookstore in her hometown of Hazard, in eastern Kentucky. Everyone thought she was crazy."

The Read Spotted Newt is a thriving
small business. (RPN logo)

Despite a complicated personal story and the area's economic stress, Sheffel saw a community worth lifting up. "She loved to read — particularly contemporary Appalachian authors like Silas House, James Still, and Gurney Norman, who told stories that felt real to her," Quinones writes. "She figured others in town were tired, like her, of driving two hours to Lexington to buy books. So, on January 30, she opened Read Spotted Newt in a 250-square-foot space — the size of a small bedroom."

Hazard had once been prosperous, but in the 1990s, coal declined, and as jobs and people left the region, the use of opioids spread in the region. Quinones reports, "About the only new local businesses were 'pill mills'—clinics that prescribed huge quantities of prescription painkillers."

"But then, weirdly and unexpectedly, at the same time that everything was falling apart, things started to get better — and that old world started, very tentatively, to build itself back up," Quinones writes. "In the past few years, some 43 businesses have opened in Hazard, creating 171 new jobs, said Bailey Richards, the town's coordinator of downtown development. . . In Hazard, about a quarter of the new jobs are held by recovering people with an addiction."
Despite the loss of coal, eastern Kentucky is growing in other ways.
(The Free Press photo)

Places like Hazard aren't waiting for big business or industry to save them. "In Prestonsburg, an hour north of Hazard, there are now five locally owned restaurants, all but one of which opened in the last five years," Quinones reports. "Instead of trying to lure massive out-of-state companies with tax incentives, [communities are] thinking about beautification projects and homeowners and places where people could congregate."

While drug problems are still real and regional progress ebbs and flows, "people here have stopped waiting for outsiders — coal companies, big-box retailers, Frankfort, Washington — to save them," Quinones writes. Stephanie Callahan, a former addict and current business owner in Hazard, told him: "When somebody gets clean, they want to change the world. . . . You do something just to prove you can do it."

Investigative report examines where fentanyl comes from, how it's made and how it is spread throughout the U.S.

Fentanyl ingredients travel thousands of miles before
crossing into the U.S. (El País graphic)
In trying to encapsulate how much harm fentanyl has done to Americans, the Spanish daily newspaper El País has produced a detailed report, "Fentanyl: The Portrait of a mass murderer," by Iker Seisdedos, David Marcial, Pérez Carlos Rosillo, and Guillermo Abril. Their investigation looks at where fentanyl ingredients come from, where it is made and how it enters the United States.

They write, "It's a big threat. A cheap, white powder — 50 times more powerful than heroin — which kills more than 70,000 people each year in the United States and countless others across the rest of the Western Hemisphere. El País, in a long-term investigation that spanned two continents and included interviews with anti-drug czars in the U.S. and China, visited the clandestine laboratories in Sinaloa, Mexico, where fentanyl is manufactured."

They use as an example how the crisis has affected people in Philadephia. El País reports, "Hundreds of people who are addicted to the powerful opioid live and die on these streets. . . .The fate of all of them begins about 2,500 miles away, next to a different set of train tracks: those that cross Culiacán, in the heart of Mexican drug trafficking territory."

State of Sinaloa within Mexico
(Wikipedia map)
In Culiacán, the capital of the Mexican state of Sinaloa, a drug cartel makes "cuts" of fentanyl, which is tested on human "guinea pigs" until it is deemed potent enough to ship to the U.S. But while a "cook" in Mexico has created the batch of fentanyl, its chief ingredients, called precursors, were made in China. "A kilo of Chinese precursors costs the cartel — about $800," El País reports. "From there, four kilos of fentanyl come out. The profit can be between 200 and 800 times what they paid. That is, from $160,000 to $640,000 per kilo."

El País reports, "Fentanyl that enters the United States from Mexico comes in powder or, increasingly, in the form of fake pills, which are camouflaged as commercial brands such as Xanax, Vicodin or OxyContin. Drug traffickers press them with machines that they also buy from China."

The point of entry is the hardest for fentanyl traffickers. "According to U.S. authorities, more than 90% of fentanyl enters the country via official ports of entry, hidden in private vehicles or cargo trucks, In 2018 — according to data from Customs and Border Protection — 600 kilos of the substance were intercepted. In 2022, the amount rose to 7,200 kilos."

To read more in-depth about how cartels infiltrate the U.S., and China's involvement in fentanyl trade, click here.

Federal court bans use of dicamba weedkiller on crops; ruling says EPA broke the law when it reapproved it in 2020

Dicamba can cause stunted growth and yield
reduction in plants. (Farm Progress photo)
Dicamba, a weedkiller used to eradicate broadleaf, brush, vines and woody plants in agricultural crops, was banned by an Arizona federal court, which ruled that "The Environmental Protection Agency broke the law in allowing them to be on the market," reports Johnathan Hettinger of The Guardian. "The ruling is specific to three dicamba-based weedkillers manufactured by Bayer (Monsanto), BASF and Syngenta, which have been blamed for millions of acres of crop damage and harm to endangered species and natural areas across the Midwest and South."

The three companies dominate the agrochemical sector, and this ruling is the second to outlaw their dicamba-based herbicides, which are sold on shelves as Banvel, Trimec, Vanquish and Q4 Plus. "In 2020, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its own ban, but months later, the Trump administration re-approved the weedkilling products," Hettinger explains. "In this ruling, an Arizona federal court found the EPA "made a crucial error in re-approving dicamba, finding the agency did not post it for public notice and comment as required by law."

Dicamba was introduced in the United States in the late 1960s, but remained unpopular because of how the chemical interacts with the environment. For instance, it "can volatilize and move long distances when temperatures climb," Hettingger reports. "It is also prone to drifting on the wind far from where it is applied. And it can move into drainage ditches and bodies of water as runoff during rain events."

To address the chemical's harmful elements, "Monsanto, along with the chemical giant BASF, introduced new formulations of dicamba herbicides they said would not be as volatile, and they encouraged farmers to buy Monsanto's newly created dicamba-tolerant crops," Hettering notes. "The EPA first approved Monsanto and BASF versions of dicamba for the 2017 growing season. Since then, dicamba has caused millions of acres of crop damage and has been the subject of several lawsuits."

Rhonda Brooks reports for Farm Journal: The "EPA has not said when it will respond to the court's decision. The ruling, for now, means U.S. farmers will not be able to use dicamba for weed control this season."

Dude ranches offer guests 'authentic Western experiences' and support local communities

Dude ranches teach city folk about Western living and promote
land conservation. (Nine Quarter Circle Ranch photo)
Windswept, vast and timeless, the American dude ranch is where guests learn to be cowboys and explore the  outdoors while supporting a Western business that has gained popularity over the past century.

"The very first 'dudes,' as visitors were called, were mostly folks from East Coast cities enamored with the Western lifestyle. They felt drawn to the romantic image of the cowboy, a figure somehow unchanged by the quickening urban sprawl of eastern cities," reports Graham Marema for Western Confluence. "While some forms of outdoor recreation balance negative and positive impacts on local systems by introducing something new — dude ranches contend with all three pillars of sustainability by embracing something old, traditional, and relatively unchanged."

Bryce Albright, director of the Dude Ranchers' Association, which provides membership to more than 90 dude ranches across the West, told Marema, "It's a different type of vacation. They're more of an authentic Western experience, which you can't get anywhere else. When people come out West, yes, you'll see the cowboys, and you'll see the rodeos, but until you get immersed in that kind of culture, you won't really have respect for it."

Dude ranch visitors come away with a different sense of why these parts are worth saving or may need protection. Sally Kelsey of Nine Quarter Circle Ranch, a Montana dude ranch near Yellowstone National Park, told Marema, "Something that is undervalued when it comes to our impact on conservation is our guests get to take rides in the country and learn to value a place that's very different from where they come from."

Over the past few decades, dude ranching has become a growing sector in ranching communities. Marema explains, "For some ranches, opening their doors to guests has provided an economically viable alternative or supplement to raising cattle. 'Agritourism,' which invites guests to vacation on farms and ranches, has grown in popularity among tourists and their hosts with revenue tripling in the U.S. between 2002 and 2017."

Marema writes, "Dude ranch guests spend most of their time on private land, partaking in low-impact activities like horseback riding or branding their initials into leather belts. They aren't as likely to leave trash on public trails or overburden the infrastructure of small mountain towns to the extent of other industries that rely on those towns to house, feed, and sustain their guests."