[imgcontainer] [img:far50000.gif] [source]ERS[/source] This map shows the counties that would be considered “frontier and remote” level 1 — which means they are more than an hour’s drive from a city of 50,000 or more. [/imgcontainer]

The federal government is considering how to define the most rural of rural, and you can help. 

The question is how do we capture a more accurate picture of “frontier and remote” areas? If we answer it properly, it will allow future government programs to target those areas more effectively.

Comments on a new method for determining “frontier and remote” areas are due on January 4, and while this new method is not linked to specific programs yet, it very well could be in the future. 

Rural areas are notoriously hard to define, and the most rural areas can be particularly difficult to describe in objective, useful terms. 

Nevertheless, the way we define a rural area determines which communities are eligible to apply for rural water improvements, what businesses can apply for low-interest loans, which areas are entitled to special Medicare reimbursements for their health services, and many other program issues.

Now, the Economic Research Service of USDA has teamed up with the Office of Rural Health Policy from the Department of Health and Human Services to put forward information about the country’s “frontier” areas, specifically those considered “frontier and remote” (FAR). 

Such areas are located a good distance from urban areas. In the past such frontier areas were defined by population density (fewer than six people per square mile) and classified by counties (as opposed to zip codes or census tracts).  Both distance from cities and population density are pretty blunt tools since a more dense population might still be located far from an urban center. And counties vary greatly in size. Some parts of a large county can be much closer to a city than more remote areas of the same county.  

The new method (the onefor which ERS is now seeking comments) tries to get a more accurate view by a) using square kilometers as the measurement of population density, and b) defining remoteness by travel time (NOT distance) from various population centers. 

Such a change would make many areas of Kentucky and Mississippi, which are listed in the notice as being in the top ten for “frontier” populations, more likely to qualify as frontier than if the old standard of population density were used.  

The proposed definition has created different zones of remoteness, so that future programs could use a particular zone for whatever issue or problem were being targeted.

For example, to be Zone 1 Frontier and Remote (FAR) under the new definition, a place has to be 60 minutes or more from an urban area of 50,000 or more. The links on the ERS site have some helpful maps to see if your area would qualify as “FAR” using different levels of population as criteria. 

Also, the National Center for Frontier Communities has an information page on the FAR methodology here

Changes like this are difficult to get right, especially with the diversity of our rural communities. The federal government is therefore seeking feedback on many issues. 

For example:  Is the 50,000-population threshold the right one?  Is 60 minutes travel time a good measure for someone to be considered remote from that urban center?  When does an area become truly remote?  Are there other measures that do a better job?  

Take a look at the maps, consider your own rural area, and think about whether these questions make sense for the rural situation you see around you. Then send in your comments.

While this new method of calculating frontier and remote areas is not tied to particular programs at this time, providing feedback now helps put concerns into consideration should such methods be used for programs in the future.

Comments may be submitted via email to shirsch@hrsa.gov; mail to Office of Rural Health Policy, Health Resources and Services Administration, 5600 Fishers Lane, Parklawn Building, 5A–05, Rockville, MD 20857; or fax to (301) 443–2803. 

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