Rural Lifestyles In Transition

The people of the Upper Missouri River Basin are adapting to new landscapes and new lifestyles

The landscapes of the Upper Missouri River Basin have changed dramatically in the last decade. Oil and gas production has expanded, small farms continue to consolidate into large agribusinesses, grassland has been converted to cropland, and urban development has rapidly increased. As these changes occur, the way people live, work, and recreate in the region changes too.

The Upper Missouri River Basin, a large watershed in the north-central US, encompasses most of Montana and South Dakota, portions of Wyoming and North Dakota, as well as corners of Nebraska, Minnesota, and Iowa.

The implications of these changes was the subject of Morgan Carnes’ research when she was a graduate student at the University of South Dakota. She set out to discover how changing landscapes influence the lifestyles, traditions, and values of the residents of the Upper Missouri River Basin.

Morgan focused her research on “micropolitan communities”—small cities with populations between ten and fifty thousand people. Micropolitan communities have become increasing important hubs in the region as they provide surrounding rural communities with access to resources and services. The four micropolitan communities where Morgan conducted her interviews were: Williston, North Dakota, Bozeman, Montana, Mitchell, South Dakota, and Gillette, Wyoming.

The four communities in the Upper Missouri River Basin where Morgan Carnes conducted interviews: Williston, ND, Bozeman, MT, Mitchell, SD, and Gillette, WY

Morgan found that the people of the Upper Missouri River Basin value the landscapes around them for the lifestyle they represent—a lifestyle characterized by family farms, well-paying energy industry jobs, small towns, and access to open spaces. And that they want to preserve this lifestyle.

Residents of all four communities strongly identify with the rural, agrarian traditions. They value agriculture for both the economic opportunities it provides and the way of life if represents—working and recreating on the lands right outside their doorsteps and knowing all their neighbors (even if those neighbors are miles away on the next farm).

Their appreciation of the landscapes extend beyond agriculture, as well. They value the resources hidden beneath the surface of these lands that have attracted energy industries to the region and brought well-paying jobs and economic growth. They value the small towns that dot the countryside and inspire a sense of belonging, community engagement, responsibility, and security. And they value the large swaths of open spaces that can still be found here in the West, displaying the beauty of the untamed and the possibility of getting away from society and out into the wilderness.

But, as small family farms give way to industrial agriculture, as oil and gas pads pop up on previously unplowed prairie, as coal markets decline, and as people move off the family farm, this lifestyle is under threat. It is increasingly difficult to make a living as a farmer or rancher, open-spaces are being developed, and people are moving from rural to urban areas.

While residents fear that more changes are inevitable and could fundamentally change what they love most about living here, people also acknowledged that some changes have been positive.

As micropolitan communities grow, they bring access to resources and services. As new industries move in, they bring with them new jobs that allow people to continue living and working here. And as people move to urban centers, they gain connections to new trade and business opportunities.

The landscapes and the lifestyles in the Upper Missouri River Basin have never been static. While change is difficult, the people here are adept at learning to adapt an thrive through challenges—a survival skill that will serve them well as more changes seem inevitable.

To learn more about Morgan's research, check out the StoryMap 'Changing Landscapes, Changing Communities".

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