In Ojo Sarco, an unincorporated village in northern New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains, residents say the pandemic amplified the challenges of living in a place that’s both rural and remote. An hour’s drive from Santa Fe, community members had difficulty accessing supplies like food, masks, and toilet paper during the early months of lockdown. The local community center stepped up when the government didn’t, transitioning from its regular services as a food pantry to delivering emergency meals twice a month and distributing thousands of masks. Yet even as residents leaned on one another for resources, the pandemic underscored the village’s precarious access to health care, economic markets, and crucial necessities like broadband.
Ojo Sarco is defined as a frontier community: a place that’s rural, sparsely populated, and remote, distant from urban centers. The frontier is diverse, ranging from Native American reservations to ranching communities to mining towns. But activists for rural, remote spaces say that they share several challenges in common, including aging populations, the outmigration of youth, a lack of job opportunities, and a chronic lack of recognition from the federal government. That lack of recognition is an old story that activists have been fighting since the ’80s, when the contemporary frontier movement first kicked off.
The Frontier Myth
The word “frontier” is probably most closely associated with myth. In 1893, historian Frederick Jackson Turner helped launch the term into the popular imagination. Frontier areas, defined by their sparse populations, were characterized by Turner as spaces where “dominant individualism,” the conquest of the natural world, and American culture would prevail. Critically, Turner also argued that the frontier had closed. As western settlement continued, the most remote, low-density American spaces had apparently become a national memory.
But nearly a century later, land-use professor Frank Popper re-examined the 19th-century historian’s claim. Using Turner’s own criteria for what defined the frontier, Popper argued that rural, remote areas hadn’t disappeared at all. “We were basically saying that Turner, this huge figure in American history and American historiography and American regionalism, had misread his own data,” Popper explained. “And provably.”
Popper’s research aimed to prove not only that the frontier existed, but that it continued to be politically significant. A far cry from Turner’s nationalistic, white-dominated depiction, the remote spaces that Popper mapped were culturally and racially diverse, with economies that often relied on interdependence with — not conquest over — the environment. Although these communities had unique economic and demographic makeups, Popper found that their position as both remote and rural meant they dealt with similar challenges.
A 1985 trip to the Great Plains would bring those challenges into sharp relief for Frank and his wife and colleague, Deborah Popper. Recounting the journey west, Deborah described talking with folks about the exodus of young people in their towns, an absence of diverse job opportunities, and the distance from schools and critical health services. “What does it mean to be in a place that loses population?” Deborah recalled herself asking. “How do you reinvent it? How do you make it viable?”
The Outlook in Ojo Sarco
In northern New Mexico, Carol Miller was asking the same questions. After studying public health in California, Miller had moved in the late ’70s to Ojo Sarco. As she recalled what drew her to the village, Miller spoke not only about the area’s natural beauty, but also about the strong sense of community. “These three older women kind of adopted me,” she marveled, “I came when their kids were leaving, because there were no jobs. So these three women in our village were just so kind, teaching me how to deliver milk, how to do canning, what crops to grow.”
Yet even as Miller felt herself becoming “adopted” into life in Ojo Sarco, she was also cognizant of the village’s challenges, like the lack of job opportunities that had caused her friends’ children to move. When she was appointed executive director of a local health care clinic in 1982, Miller encountered political barriers to the community’s well-being: the small clinic was expected to reimburse the federal government for a share of its costs or close. “The Reagan administration was closing clinics,” she said, “Our clinic was made up of activists, so we decided to fight. We did our first lobbying trip to save our clinic and we ended up getting legislation passed.”
When Miller heard about the Poppers’ research, she said it felt like remote communities were finally being recognized as distinct from rural areas, which generally have higher population densities and easier access to urban centers. “We aren’t just rural,” Miller explained. “We’re frontier. It’s different. [Hearing about their work] was amazing, it was great. And so a whole movement came together.”
“Carol called me up out of the blue,” Frank Popper remembered. “I was really pleased that somebody was using our work. Here was somebody agreeing with me that the frontier exists and it matters.” Deborah Popper noted that Carol’s background in rural health added another dimension to their work, explaining, “She wasn’t using Turner as her definition. She wasn’t just using density. She was using things like how long it would take to get to a good hospital if you were injured or sick.”
In 1997, Miller helped found the Frontier Education Center, later renamed the National Center for Frontier Communities (NCFC), enlisting Frank and Deborah Popper, as well as tribal leaders, ranchers, and rural health activists from around the country as board members. Together the organization developed a definition of frontier that took distance from health services into consideration. They also created maps that correlated communities’ economies with their access to health services. “We began promoting that economic health was really the indicator of community success,” Carol recalled.
Over the years, the center helped raise awareness about federal programs that had inadvertently created structural barriers for small, remote communities; for instance, to apply for Welfare to Work funds, an organization has to be able to create 25 jobs, a number that could be unfeasible in very small communities. Today, the NCFC continues advocacy on the legislative level and coordinates local programs that promote access to healthy food, connect local farmers to markets, and report on health outcomes in southwestern New Mexico. Just a few months ago, the organization had one of their biggest wins yet, when they helped draft and pass a bill that created an official government position to advocate for rural and frontier communities in the state.
And yet, when asked how frontier issues have changed since her work began in the ’80s, Miller says that in some ways, “things are a lot worse.” In Ojo Sarco, those issues include high poverty rates, an aging population, rising housing prices, and chronic underinvestment by the federal government. Miller remembered a story from the early days of the center, when a public health official called her community “flyover country.” “The idea was,” she said, “you don’t have enough votes for us to care about you.” According to Miller, that oversight has manifested in a number of issues — most recently, in the community’s fight to have a post office. “The Postal Service told us that we cost them fifteen hundred a year more than we spent on stamps and money orders, and so we couldn’t keep our post office open,” she said. “I mean, how is that fair?”
Professors Frank and Deborah Popper agreed that in some cases, issues in rural and remote communities have persisted or worsened in recent years. One trend common to many remote communities is the outmigration of youth. From 2010 to 2016, rural areas “lost population in absolute terms for the first time.” A 2015 study by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) found that certain remote communities lost 20-to-24-year-olds at a rate nearly twice that of rural communities as a whole. Many frontier communities are resource-dependent, which may partially explain why, as the country transitions away from fossil fuels, job opportunities are declining.
Globalization is also affecting frontier communities. Jed Drolet is an NCFC board member who grew up in northwestern New Mexico. He described leaving his hometown for Albuquerque as his family’s trading post, on the outskirts of the Navajo reservation, began to see less economic traffic.“It was no longer as doable as it had been,” Drolet explained. “In previous decades, there had been increasing roads and connections to town and competition from Walmart and Safeway so that trading posts out in the sticks, like us, couldn’t really compete. And so a lot of traders around that time did give up.”
Drolet now works in Alaska, where he says that reliance on traditional, local food systems is paramount to communities’ success. “There are larger grocery stores in hub communities like Bethel,” Drolet said, “But [many communities] are in really remote places, and the food that’s brought in is really expensive. So subsistence hunting, gathering, fishing is not just cultural. It really is an economic necessity.”
The Future of the Frontier
Despite continuing challenges, residents of frontier areas continue to fight to preserve their communities. The same USDA study that described high rates of outmigration in 20-to-24-year-olds had much higher rates of in-migration in 30-to-34-year-olds who sought to return home to raise families or bring back skills and knowledge. “Small-town social life … bolster[ed] their decisions to move home,” the authors write, “including opportunities in the community to volunteer and take on leadership roles.” Meanwhile, a report that centered on a healthcare center in southwestern New Mexico described “community interconnectedness” as one of the “greatest assets of the frontier.” The report demonstrated that when people have critical infrastructure like health clinics, they use these spaces to gather, unify, and strategize about the future of their towns.
Talking with Carol, it’s not difficult to see why people continue to love living in frontier spaces. Although she worked for several years as a lobbyist and public health official on the east coast, Miller said that she kept returning to Ojo Sarco for the sense of belonging she experienced there, beginning with the three women who had shown her how to work the land decades back and extending to the way that residents leaned on one another to help distribute resources this past year. “There’s a reality here,” she laughed, “I might not like you, but we both have to dig this ditch.”
In Ojo Sarco, that sense of community is literal; in many cases, residents share communal land grants and water rights. As new, more affluent residents have tried to privatize the land, Miller said that she has seen her neighbors step up to defend their communal land and acequias. “It’s not history,” she said, “It’s an ongoing fight.”
Stories of community, local democracy, and love for the land show that frontier spaces are neither “flyover country” nor the wellspring of American mythology that Turner had famously described in 1893. Instead, frontier communities are diverse, resilient spaces home to over twelve million people — spaces deserving of recognition, which Miller says, “is a lot.” She says that recognition of the frontier is what the leaders of the NCFC have been fighting for since the beginning: “I see you. You’re not invisible.”
Noa Greenspan enjoys writing environmental non-fiction and short stories. You can follow her Instagram at @noagreenspan.