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The Rurals of Nevada - Note the Plural (art. 01)
"All of Nevada is divided into three parts. The first is named Washoe, the second is called Clark (but really means Las Vegas), and those counties which remain are the third, known as Rural Nevada."
In common usage, rural Nevada comprises the parts of the state which are neither Washoe nor Clark counties (the location of Reno and Las Vegas, respectively, for our non-Nevadan readers). If Julius Caesar visited Nevada today, he might write something like the fake quote above as reflecting this general understanding.
With the grudging inclusion of Carson City (the independent state capital municipality), these other counties are assumed to share a certain essential unity. They are sparsely inhabited, with hardy populations living amongst Nevada’s gloriously rugged scenery, working ranches, mines, and the services supporting these. In 2020, they comprised just under 11% of the population (spread over 86% of Nevada’s land area) but almost 14% of the state’s Gross Domestic Product. Love it or try to ignore it, everyone has a clear idea of what rural Nevada is.
But what if this vision of unity is incorrect? The more I work on projects in rural communities throughout the state, the more I am struck by the variety of rural Nevada. I am coming to believe that our frequent use of the phrase “the rurals”—note the plural—is more accurate than we would readily admit.
There are three separate “rural Nevadas”: Western Rural, I-80 Corridor, and Central Rural. While all share some characteristics, in others they are diverging on key measures that reflect their distinctive situations and necessitate different policies.
In my opinion, there are three separate “rural Nevadas” developing. While all Nevada rural counties continue to share some characteristics, in others they are beginning to diverge on key measures that reflect their distinctive histories and situations. These divergences, I argue, are becoming pronounced enough that policy discussions that fail to take them into account run the risk of misinterpreting what is happening in the rural counties. It also raises the possibility that “common knowledge” about rural Nevada (and perhaps rural America) is misleading policy analyses and worsening conditions rather than improving them.
The larger white paper project on which I am working analyzes these differences and their policy impacts. My working hypothesis is that the “Three Rurals of Nevada” divided by county are as follows:
Western Rural: Churchill, Douglas, Lyon, and Storey
I-80 Corridor: Elko, Eureka, Humboldt, Lander, and Pershing
Central Rural: Esmeralda, Lincoln, Mineral, Nye, White Pine
Note Carson City is missing. Being an independent city, its characteristics are much closer to neighboring Washoe and should not really be considered “rural” at all. Indeed, it might be better to consider Washoe (Reno)/Carson City as a singular urban complex with Clark County (Las Vegas), but I digress. It does knock the Three Rurals’ share of the population down to less than 10% and the GDP share to just under 12% as of 2020.
For Nevadans, there appear to be some discrepancies in this arrangement. Surely Churchill County with its large open spaces is closer to Pershing and Nye than the smaller counties to the west? Are not Elko and White Pine Counties closely connected by the importance of the mining industry? And why is Eureka County defined as the “I-80 Corridor” when the interstate only travels for about 20 miles across it? Eureka’s population is much further south along US 50, and there is not even an I-80 exit with services in Eureka County!
The simple answer to all these objections is “Yes, but . . .”.
The goal of this (hopefully) weekly article series is to share the information being developed about the three Rurals of Nevada to invite feedback and spark discussion.
The more detailed explanation is the purpose of this article series. The goal is to share some of this information as I develop it, both to invite feedback and to spark discussion. Some general points, however. Since this series is aimed at a general audience, I promise not to make it too statistically heavy—although number-phobic types should be warned. And because I probably will have readers from outside Nevada, it might appear at times that I am making rather obvious points about the state that Nevadans might find superfluous. Let the non-Nevadans catch up. Finally, if it is not apparent, another purpose of this series is to get my puckish irreverence out of the white paper itself. Please bear with the jokes.
Two final thoughts before moving on to the meatier articles. First, nothing I argue here should be construed to mean that the thousands of previous studies of rural Nevada are somehow “missing the point.” There are many ways to divide the state and even more reasons to do statistical analyses. I work with a number of organizations committed to helping “rural Nevada” in different ways. And if the goal is to analyze the stock of senior-citizen housing in a county or how many teachers are going to be needed two years from now for a school (to take two recent issues I have been involved with), the larger idea of rural Nevada is rather meaningless. Likewise, some other organizations are defining their analysis around other divisions such as regional transportation or economic networks that bear little resemblance to what I am discussing here. Each of these approaches is “alright, alright, alright,” as a certain Texan actor with a toothy grin might say.
Second, I am focusing on counties here because they represent a functional dividing point for public, private, and economic policies (although certainly not perfect). I am quite aware that there are sections of northern Washoe County or eastern Clark County which are every bit as rugged, sparsely populated, and isolated as northeastern Elko or central Nye Counties. Likewise, political districts cut across the state and are becoming the focal point of analyses (for some reason, even though Gerry Mander works in mysterious ways). And let’s just set aside the problem of using postal zip codes as a basis for policy analysis; frequent change is the least of their problems. At the end of the day, many policy decisions are made at and for the county level, so I am concentrating there.
For the next article, I am going to look at what exactly is meant by the term rural—which is more complicated than you might think.
I hope you will join me on this journey. Consider sharing “Rurals of Nevada” with colleagues who may be interested and subscribe to get the latest articles free. And do feel free to leave a comment.