All of us depend on its agriculture, energy, mining and timber. But in important ways it remains invisible, not truly seen, its special needs overlooked.
Absorbing its Western frontier gave 19th century America a core task. In 1890 the Census Bureau, which tracked frontier settlement, declared the job done.
Yet the American frontier persists, its needs largely invisible. Today’s task is to recognize its survival and ensure its people and places get fair treatment.
The 19th-century Census defined the frontier by population density. A place with under six people per square mile was frontier. Anywhere over that density was settled land. In its reporting, the Census mapped a north-south line separating the two zones that steadily moved westward.
The 1880 line mostly ran along the 98th meridian and bulged west in Nebraska halfway across the state. But the 1890 Census found no clear edge: settlement mission accomplished. Contemporary understandings of progress meant the frontier would be sure to fill.
Yet the American frontier stayed mostly intact after 1890. Most of the land from the country’s midsection to the Sierra-Cascades still has less than six people per square mile. Nearly all of Alaska and parts of the Appalachian Mountains and the North Woods from Maine to Minnesota also remain at frontier density.
Low income, elderly residents
This vast remnant frontier has never drawn the national attention that the pre-1890 one got. The New Mexico-based National Center for Frontier Communities (on whose board we serve) estimates that the frontier has approximately 5.6 million people, about 1.8 percent of the population on 46.7 percent of the land area.
The NCFC definition, which depends on both density and distance from metropolitan areas, shows that people living in small, remote places with poor transportation and communication links to the rest of the country are disproportionately poor and elderly.
Many Americans visit the frontier. It has the country’s best outdoor adventure and ecotourism — glorious national parks and inspiriting fly-fishing. All of us depend on its agriculture, energy, mining and timber. But in important ways it remains invisible, not truly seen, its special needs overlooked.
Many essential services urban/suburban Americans take for granted are costly and hard to deliver in isolated Western desert, plains, mountain or forest settings that may have five-month winters or 115-degree summers.
Frontier communities have trouble attracting or retaining doctors, nurses, teachers and clergy. Their few professionals suffer from limited equipment, scant back-up and meager pay. Frontier places need telemedicine, yet their broadband capacity and cell reception are frequently spotty.
Frontier places often lack the resources for adequate law enforcement and fire protection, which have to cover vast areas with bad, hard-to-navigate roads. The frontier is a prime spot for meth labs, supremacist groups and militias. It has space for waste-disposal services, but few resources to ensure safe disposal.
Many frontier tourist and second-home areas experience big seasonal population swings that increase demands on their small public sectors. They must handle upticks in accidents or illnesses, rescue lost or overconfident hikers, and restrain hard-partying groups. They must satisfy visitors who put money into the local economy, but often less than they take from it. Longer-term population swings — say, for energy boomtowns — also strain local resources and finances. Housing, health, library, school, water, road, electric and waste services must suddenly accommodate transients and newcomers.
Frontier communities tend to have a small tax base, but many lack control of it because often they are tiny enclaves amid vast federal land holdings like national forests and parks. They must rely on a complex federal in-lieu-of-payment system with rates set in Washington.
Frontier communities have difficulty seeking public- or private-sector funds. They have small staffs, few grant-writing skills, and some lack the computer capacity to submit their applications as demanded.
Frontier justice once meant gunslingers and local lawmen, vigilantes and posses. It was often rough, terrible. Today we need a new kind of frontier justice, fairer national treatment for a vital but overlooked American place.
Deborah E. Popper teaches geography at the City University of New York. Frank J. Popper teaches land-use planning at Rutgers University. They teach together at Princeton University and originated the Buffalo Commons concept. They can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected] They write as members of the American Geographical Society.