The Future of the Frontier: Water, Energy & Climate Change in America’s Most Remote Communities

October 5, 2017


“The frontier has driven the American imagination and economy,” said Brian Kempf. “The frontier is as important as every other place if not more so, it’s geographically larger and it’s a place in of itself.”


Kempf, along with his classmates at Rutgers University Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, sought to shine a spotlight on select frontier counties last semester. Their efforts have been published in “The Future of the Frontier: Water, Energy & Climate Change in America’s Most Remote Communities.


Co-led by frontier advocates Dr. Frank Popper and Dr. Deborah Popper, the studio class created case studies for fifteen frontier counties to better understand the diverse issues facing the most remote areas of the nation regarding climate change, water availability and quality, as well as energy production and distribution.


The project, and subsequent published report, was in partnership with the National Center of Frontier Communities (NCFC), a research and advocacy organization dedicated to improving the health and quality of life in frontier America.


Over 46% of the United States land area is designated as level two of the Frontier and Remote Area Code (FAR2) methodology. FAR2 zip code areas have populations living at least 60 minutes away from urban areas of at least 50,000 people and at least 45 minutes from urban areas of 25,000 to 49,999 people. An estimated 5.6 million people live in these areas. The studio students focused their efforts on frontier counties with a FAR2 designation; typically, with fewer than seven people per square mile.


Deborah Popper said, “This project offers real-world experience for our students to see the way these frontier counties have develop and the policies that have shaped them. Our students learn the implication of the urban policies they will create can have a serious, and perhaps unintended, impact in frontier and remote areas.”


The seven students, who sought their Masters of City and Regional Planning, who authored the case study report included: Glen Davis, Michael Borsellino, Brian Kempf, Tian Ruan, Holly Sullinger, Sonia Szczesna, and Denis Teoman. The studio class, Exploring the American Frontier, was part of the required two semesters of real-world planning experience required for complete their degree.


NCFC Director, Susan Wilger said, “Frontier economies are often dependent on a handful of industries leaving them much more vulnerable to political, environmental and economic shifts. This report takes a close look at 15 frontier counties and unveils factors that contribute to their unique resiliency as well as their unique challenges. One challenge NCFC is particularly interested in is how climate change can impact frontier economies.”


“Water is the issue of the century,” said Caroline Ford, NCFC President who resides in the frontier community of Truckee, CA. “Water is the biggest driver of frontier issues, and the county reports on agriculture was the biggest theme, and that is driven by water and access to water.”


Each frontier county has specific issues with water, including availability, accessibility or management. Many counties’ water issues included water treaties, or state and Federal regulations that were beyond their control.


Colorado’s Costilla County had its wells run dry in 2006, but through planning, new regulations and incentives to agriculturists decreased overall water consumption and saw the wells replenished. Minnesota’s Aitkin County grappled with the water issue in a different way, dealing with invasive species which threaten its native fish population, the walleye, that the fishing and tourism industry depend. Numerous regulations and laws impact the sport fishing quotas that drive the local economy.


Other counties are confronting energy issues, like Arizona’s Navajo County seeking new economic opportunities as it largest employer, the Kayanta coal mine, closes this year. Some counties deal with access to energy, like Texas’ Presidio County where a single powerline that stretches 60 miles, and prone to frequent power outages, required the installation of the largest storage battery in the United States to assure the residents had stable access to electricity.


The students were asked to make suggestions on policy changes for the communities they studied, but ultimately declined, because, as Sonia Szczesna explained, “as a group we agreed that we could do all the research, but the people that know how to deal with the problems are the people that live in those communities.”


Frank Popper has hopes for the publication, “This study could help local and state governments to develop new approaches to the frontier.” He also added, “For any small errors we apologize for the misunderstanding and please contact NCFC as we are happy to update information”


Borsellino did offer one thought on his time in the studio class, “My only recommendation is for frontier counties to continue acting as incubators for new ideas, because that will keep bringing in investment into their region as they lead the nation in innovation, as they have always done.”


The FAR2 counties focused on in the report include: Aitkin County, MN; Bethal Census Area, AK; Costilla County, CO; Curry County, OR; Del Norte County, CA; Emery County, UT; Esmeralda County, NV; McKenzie, ND; Navajo County, AZ; Park County, WY; Presidio County, TX; Richland, MT; Rio Grande, CO; Wichita, KS; and Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area, AK.


Click here to download “The Future of the Frontier: Water, Energy & Climate Change in America’s Most Remote Communities”.


Stay Connected

Subscribe to the blog
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.