Megan Torgerson (narration): A good conversation has the ability to help us understand ourselves more intimately. It can help us make sense of how our story fits into an oscillating world. And it can aid us in envisioning the future we wish to help create.
Good journalism can do the same thing. At the beginning of the new year I read a thought piece in Bitterroot Magazine, called “Rethinking my hometown,” by founding editor, Jake Bullinger. I had read his work about bison, the American Prairie Reserve and Bears Ears National Monument in High Country News, Outside Magazine and Bitterroot, but “Rethinking my hometown” struck me in that special way that leads you to message a favorite author. I could see myself in Jake’s story.
Part personal narrative, part cultural analysis, the article featured Jake’s homeplace of Mountain View, Wyoming, population 1,300 . Split by the Smith’s Fork of the Green River and bordered by badlands and the craggy Uintas mountains, Mountain View, he wrote, is a place where leaving is both a marker of and a prerequisite for success. Jake connected this get-out logic to the enduring history of boom and bust in the colonized West, while expressing a desire for rootedness. This is where my conversation with him began. In the basement of my local Sunset Hill Community Center, we talked about identity, transience and a shared love for the American West.
Jake Bullinger: Instead of just sports, I found that I was interested in environmental stories. I was interested in travel, I was interested in politics, and what forced all these things to intersect for me was I just found that I cared about a way more in the West.
Torgerson (narrating): I’m Megan Torgerson and this is Reframing Rural. Today’s conversation with journalist Jake Bullinger tracks his life as a freelance writer and new father who found his way to environmental journalism by way of a passion for skiing. In 2019 Jake and fellow journalist, Maggie Mertens, founded Bitterroot Magazine, a publication that for two years chronicled the politics, culture, economy and environment of the West. During our conversation Jake mapped the interconnectedness of social and ecological challenges in the Western U.S., while breaking down red state and blue state binaries. He also helped me appreciate how having a personal understanding of and stake in rural and urban places is really a strength and not something that dilutes either experience. In this episode we’ll touch on “Rethinking my hometown,” his 2020 article “With Buffalo, Native Americans are Restoring a Wildlife Economy” and Jake’s philosophies on creating and consuming place-based solutions journalism.
Torgerson: You no longer live in Wyoming but I'm wondering how that rural Wyoming experience colors the way that you look at things today and informs like how you walk through the world and the work that you do.
Bullinger: Very significantly, I think it's worth mentioning that both my parents grew up in rural Wyoming. My dad grew up in the Bighorn basin in Northern Wyoming. And then my mom grew up on a farm in Southeast Wyoming and pine bluffs. So rural culture was pretty well ingrained in us. Not just from where we grew up, but also from generations back. And you don't realize it until you start getting to bigger places. So upon moving to Salt Lake City, and then out here in Tacoma and Seattle, it's just a different perspective on the way that people interact with each other and with the land around them. I think one common example that you see that I think kind of holds firm is in Seattle, a lot of people interact with the land from a recreational and a preservationist perspective. We want to preserve these beautiful wilderness areas leaving quote, unquote, untouched, so that when we go out there and hike, it's still pristine and beautiful, and all those types of things. I found that in the rural communities that I've been in, and in Mountain View included, there's more of a, a bit stronger symbiotic connection with the land in terms of actually working it. Like obviously, if you're a rancher, you're getting you're living off the land. If you're a miner you're giving you're living from the land. It's not a different level of appreciation. I would not say that urban people are rural people, which I understand that that's a big catch all phrase and either regards, but those two categories, people don't love the land more or less. They just love it in different ways. And so having lived in both, I feel like I'm able to empathize with both of those viewpoints when you're talking about a place or a geography.
Torgerson: Yeah, do you when you return home, do you see some of the people who might have just stayed in Mountain View that they kind of lacked that other preservation perspective that you've kind of gained living in more urban places? Or like, it seems like you have the best of both worlds, because you've experienced both understandings. And I wonder if there's something that both contexts can learn from one another too.
Bullinger: I went home a few years back and was talking to a buddy from high school, and his family has one of the bigger sheep operations in Wyoming. And around that time, they were having some issues with disease transmission to bighorn sheep. And so he was getting some heat - I don't know. I don't know the specifics. So I won't dive into the specifics on this. - But he was getting some heat from regulators in terms of where they're putting their sheep and trying to protect wild species. And that's one area where that different viewpoint on nature and living off of nature versus visiting nature and things like that shows up. And I think that it's nice being able to go into those types of conversations, instead of just being like, yeah, those damn environmentalists. Why did they give a shit about bighorn sheep or anything like that you need to be able to run your sheep and make a living. It's nice being able to come at those things from both perspectives, because there are people who just as much as that individual cares about his family's sheep herd, there are people who care about the bighorn sheep just as much. And so it's nice being able to kind of thread that divide a little bit.
Torgerson: Yeah, yeah. And I personally like growing up, my relationship with the land was moving cattle or like being with my dad as he was farming wheat. And then when I got to college at the University of Montana, I learned like how to go camping because I never, ever took camping. My relationship outside was always kind of working or being with animals, or, you know, going with my dad as he went hunting. And I'm really grateful that I have kind of both of those relationships, too. From the trail, and yeah, from the pasture. So yeah, I was curious to learn more about your story, after reading Rethinking my Hometown, I love the other articles that you wrote, but when I read that article, I was like, I have to reach out to Jake. And yeah, I was wondering if you could tell me more about the personal dynamics at play when you decided to skip down. And that was, of course, like when you graduated high school, and I left for college. But,
Bullinger: I kind of alluded to it a bit in the piece. But growing up, it was never explicitly said by anybody in my family. But there was kind of this unspoken understanding that if you were going to, you know, quote, unquote, make it or quote unquote, succeed, we were going to leave. When we were looking at colleges, it was the University of Wyoming, of course, was always an option. But other than that, it was exclusively places out of state. And so I just never, ever had a vision of sticking around in Mountain View. And it was only years and years and years later that I have started looking back and even still, the interrogation process is ongoing. I'm asking myself why is that the case. And I think there's certainly a cultural aspect of it. My family is not the only family that was like that. And this is a problem, you see, not just in Mountain View, but in other small towns around the West. You get kids who if they want to get a four year degree and go into, you know, some sort of professional services career, they leave town. If you're going to be a lawyer, there's more work in Los Angeles than there is in Mountain View, Wyoming, and those types of things. And so I think a lot of it was that unspoken, cultural aspect of it, a lot of it was just kind of the vision that my family had. And like I say, in the story, upon reflection, I wasn't as connected to the place, to the land, looking back at some of my peers were. The folks who stuck around, you know, they have big ranching or sheep herding operations out there. Or they just lived and died for the amazing hunting, the amazing snowmobiling, those types of things that are uniquely great to that area, I hunted, I enjoyed those types of things, but it wasn't, you know, life or death for me. It wasn't the biggest thing that my family did every year. And so it was always just natural, never explicitly said, but yeah, once I go to college, I'm going to start pursuing a career that will take me somewhere else, wherever that may be.
Torgerson: I kind of sometimes think of it as a bit of a loss. I also was never, explicitly told that you need to leave, but I knew in my heart that I had to leave in order to, to kind of make my own way in the world. And I wish that both options for me personally, we're kind of more explicitly presented, like you can both leave and go to college or you can come back and have a career in agriculture, if that's something that you want. And I'm really hopeful in kind of this resurgence of homecomers that both see the option and coming home if they want to. Because I think it's it really enriches your experience if you're able to go away but yeah, what is it about - you and I both graduated high school in 2009. So I wonder if that what was it about that time, or our parents upbringing that there was this unspoken assumption that that we would leave? And yeah, and your parents were both teachers right sure I’m sure yeah, education and that next step was very important to them.
Bullinger: And it's, you know, one thing that was spoken and I would imagine you heard something similar growing up in a small town, there was always - if you're going into, you know, my chosen career was journalism - but you could substitute journalism for any number of industries. If you're going into X, there's no work for you. There's nothing for you to do here. And I wonder, I wonder how valid that notion is. One, the internet makes you available to all sorts of clients and all sorts of industries and things like that. And two, there are always ways to work your talents or your passions in a way that can fit the place that you choose to be. And so part of me thinks that that notion might be kind of ridiculous, like, we're looking at things a little bit too narrow minded when it comes to the potential of small towns. And if I really, really, really wanted to be a tort lawyer, or something like that, but I wanted to stay in Mountain View, Wyoming, people are creative, like you can find a way to make those types of things work. But I never had that creative Inkling. I never had the desire to stick around and be a sports journalist, which is what I initially wanted to be a sports journalist based out of Mountain View, Wyoming. It is possible it could have been done. But I just never really thought about it. That wasn't the common narrative by any stretch of the imagination.
Torgerson: Yeah, yeah. This brings to mind the, the article that you wrote about tech in Bozeman, and it was a few years back. But you were also kind of saying that people who might move to Bozeman for a tech kind of job are also probably going to be a certain type of person. And then that although like the internet has made it so that we can work anywhere, that doesn't mean that it's necessarily diversifying some of these towns.
Bullinger: Well, and that's, it's funny, because during the pandemic, of course, there's been all the Zoom boomtowns. And I think that Bozeman story illustrates that. That it’s more of a continuation of a trend as opposed to some brand new sparkling thing. I think, from an economic perspective, you know, if I was the mayor of Bozeman, or any small town, because there's a lot of them that are pushing for this - we want tech workers or you know, people who can work remotely to come here. Bozeman has illustrated this really nicely in that the people who have the ability to work those jobs, typically command a pretty high wage. So if you get an influx of those, if you get exactly what you want, you're asking people in service industries to come out and work remotely and live in your small town. What you're going to get is a bunch of relatively affluent people moving into your town. There's going to be upward pressure on land prices on home prices. They're just going to be increasing demand for space. And with those people, you'll get income taxes and property taxes and those types of things. But the halo of economic impact that surrounds those people is often jobs that just serve them that really don't pay worth a damn. And so there's a lot of people who really don't like Bozeman. You're a Montana native, you're well aware of the reputation that Bozeman has around the state. And I think that's in part because you get wealthy out of towners coming in, and the opportunities created for people who were living there previously, or currently isn't proportional to the amount of growing pains that come with it. I don't think that small towns in the West have figured this out. I don't think that small states in the West have figured this out. It's similar to state policy to Wyoming wanting corporations to move offices and headquarters and things like that to the state. When we ask for outside things to come into small communities, that typically doesn't create a whole lot of opportunities for the folks who were there to begin with, and that's something that we need to grapple with.
Torgerson: Have you ever seen any examples of economic equality occurring within these kinds of tech economic booms? Or like other types of industries? Like, where are you seeing equality, or hopes for it?
Bullinger: You know, I had a conversation a while back with the director of the Tacoma Housing Authority, and he was asking me why I was interested - they had set up a program for homeless students at the community college, they we've set them up with housing. And so after our formal interview, we were chatting and he asked me why I was interested in those things. And I said, I'm interested in cities trying to find ways to boost equality as they’re rapidly changing. Tacoma just like Bozeman and all these other hot cities in the West are changing quickly and quickly becoming more affluent and more unequal in the process. So I said I'm looking for examples of this. And I said “Not any great ones, have you.” And it was just crickets from both of us. I think you see little examples of it, Walla Resources and other community resource organizations are doing those things at a smaller scale. But that's kind of in reshaping economies that are currently struggling, as opposed to making booming economies work for the people who are currently there. You know, you're seeing some communities in Colorado that are focusing more so on like local regional tourism, as opposed to just attracting folks from all over the country to big luxury glitzy places. Communities that focus on manufacturing, like specialized manufacturing. I think if you look up in the Kalispell area, you've got, like, specialized manufacturers of high end, rifle stocks and barrels, I believe is what they build up there. Those are the types of things that can provide jobs for locals, you're starting to see timber communities, really buying into mass timber products, cross laminated timber, those types of things. So if you're bringing in innovation to fields that a community is already good at, that's where you can start to see that kind of equitable growth, I think. But yeah, you're I mean, that's the exception, not the norm, unfortunately.
Torgerson: Yeah, yeah. And I think like the Flathead Valley Community College is sourcing people to work in the firearm industry. And it's kind of this local cycle. So I kind of feel like it's the reverse of the boom economy and kind of a slower, more localized potential.
Bullinger: When you're able to get buy-in from different areas, public and private sector on those types of things. But it's got to be adaptable buy-in. I think that what you're talking about with the Flathead Community College aspect, if you've got people who are skilled at designing rifle stocks and barrels, and things like that, if the economy changes, or if the character and the makeup of the people who live there changes in the business climate changes, they can build other things like those are adaptable skills, adaptable businesses. You can retool factories and manufacturing facilities. And so I see that as a little bit more resilient than some other economic development methods that you see out there. So yeah, I think that's a great example,
Torgerson: When we spoke previously, you like kind of the idea of retraining, maybe miners to do a tech job kind of sounds a little ludicrous. It's like, quite the jump. But I like that idea of taking the skills that you already have, or the industry and the history that's kind of existed in that area, and then just reinventing it - like plugging oil wells, or some of the or some of these jobs that yeah, if you're a geographer working in the oil industry, maybe you do some, some more economic and climate resilient work.
Bullinger: Well, I think that's going to be one of the defining economic stories of the rural West in the coming decades. I mean, look at the coal industry up in Northern Wyoming and areas like that. Assuming that the globe takes climate change seriously and assuming that Wyoming continues to have struggles exporting its coal, that's an entire region of the state that previously was the moneymaker, and now needs a complete facelift. And so I think if you're going to have, you know - to bring up that much touted example of teaching Appalachian miners to code, I don't think that's going to work widespread. You're not going to turn Gillette Wyoming into a mini Silicon Valley. And the people in Gillette, Wyoming don't want it to be in mini Silicon Valley. What they want is good, hard work that's connected to the land that taps into their expertise a little bit and pays well. And so if we're thinking about how to fix the mistakes we've made, when it comes to like a climate perspective, and things like that, and also pay homage to these communities that kept the lights on for decades and decades and decades, we've got to figure out ways to craft industries and create jobs that tap into their expertise and allow them to stay in the places that they want to stay in. Like if we if we just abandoned Gillette, Wyoming, as we're trying to decarbonize the economy. That's a bad thing for more than just Gillette.
Torgerson: Yeah, yeah. And to kind of tie it back into your Rethinking my Hometown article and how the West has glorified mobility. And, and that's kind of based off of that boom economy, and people who might work in Gillette and then go toward to another western town. So I'm wondering, yeah, I guess, could you talk a little bit about kind of the cultural forces of glorifying mobility and and a boom tendency? Sure.
Bullinger: Yeah. Yeah. So Mountain View is interesting in that regard, because like I said, the big moneymaker is trona mines out there. But trona is very, very different from oil or natural gas or something like that. But you’ve got a lot of people who work in oil and natural gas out there too, but trona is a very stable mineral. It's used in everything from baking soda to glass, all sorts of stuff like that. And so these trona mines out there have been providing very, very good, very high paying jobs for quite some time. God, I could go on and on talking about the number of people who I went to school with, who are working out at the trona mines now, and their moms or dads currently work out there as well. This is very much a generational wealth generating force in the area. And so from that regard, where I grew up is a little bit different from a lot of resource based economies in the West. The ranchers aren't moving anywhere, they've got their family ranch, the trona mines are remarkably stable. But still, you've got this broader regional context.
I mean, when you think about the entire history of white people coming to the West, it was move around, get money, go somewhere else, where you can get more money and do so pretty damn quickly. I think farmers and ranchers are different from that. But the majority of folks in the West aren't farmers, ranchers. And you know, I don't have many friends back East or in other communities that I could compare this to. But I think that among Anglo families in the West, it's pretty well understood and accepted that you're going to move around. And it's, you know, I would notice it with my parents or talking to relatives and things like that. “How is Johnny doing?” It's almost like a marker of prestige, like, “Oh, he's in Denver now. Oh, Johnny's in Los Angeles. And then he's headed up to Sacramento after that.” It's like, the more places you've been, and the bigger that place is, and the farther away it is, it's like, wow, that person's doing something. And I have to think that that has some connection with the historical roots of the United States expansion into the West, and how so much of that was based on resource extraction that required people to bounce around quickly between places. And then just the lingering travel-oriented culture. Everybody has cars, all the cities are very far away. I mean, if you grew up in a small town anywhere, and you go to college, you're taking a long trip to get there. Yeah. Even though my hometown wasn't like, as big of a boom bust economy as Williston, North Dakota or anything like that. We still had elements of that. And I mean, I'm evident of that. I was expected to go. So yeah, that's just such an interesting dynamic that pervades in the West. And I was getting little inklings of questioning it through my reporting as I was talking to people who have sense of place stronger than what I had earlier. Farmers ranchers, of course, are among them. But in the story, I mentioned a conversation I had with a woman named Ellie Kinley. She's a member of the Lummi Nation up in Northwest Washington. And the Salish Sea out there and the area around the San Juan Islands is so viscerally home for her. Of course, her family has been there for thousands of years, my family has not been in Mountain View, Wyoming for thousands of years. Very different timescale there. But I left that conversation with her envious and honestly a little embarrassed that I had never formed even a remote connection like that with any sort of place. And that really got me asking why, you know, why is it that I've been so itinerant in this region that I love. But the places have been, you know - if you look at the numbers and the places that I've lived, it's been kind of fleeting.
Torgerson: I think there's a great value and in the rootedness that, like Ellie, who you interviewed has a generational understanding of place. But I think even yeah, some of my classmates who might have stayed in Eastern Montana or Western North Dakota, and they have like, an understanding of the climate that's greater than I have, because I left over 10 years ago. And I was wondering if you could tell me the downsides of not living in one place for an extended period of time on individual, community and ecological levels?
Bullinger: Oh my gosh, okay. So from an individual level, I guess I would just focus on me because I'm the only individual who I can, you know, explicitly speak for. I don't think you can discount the notion of not having a firm place to call home. I would say that Tacoma is becoming that place for me. I'm not gonna say it's there yet. But Salt Lake was that more so than Mountain View. I was able to develop an attachment to Salt Lake during the four years I was at the University of Utah that was pretty visceral. When my wife and I moved out to Washington, I teared up. It was an agreed upon decision there was no controversy there whatsoever. But I loved and I still love Salt Lake City. It's a fantastic place. And I was only there for four years. If you are in place for decades, and you have family that has been in that place for generations. One, you've got a timescale that I think is important.
Out here in Seattle, we just lived through an ungodly heat wave. And if I had grown up in Seattle and had family members that were here, you know, dating back generations, I believe I would have a firmer understanding of how abnormal that is. If you're a fleeting guest in towns, instead of a resident who has been rooted in a place for a long period of time, you're not going to be getting involved in local politics, which is the number one force that shapes our lives well more than national politics. And you're not going to have an understanding of the historical connections that bind your place together. You know, you can live your life, doing your day to day stuff, and going to the grocery store when needed and buying stuff from Amazon and having fun on your local trails or whatever. But if you don't really understand a deeper history of where you live, I think you're missing out on something. I think you're lacking a sense of place that for me, as an individual, I'm starting to build up more of an identity for myself, as I'm becoming more connected with Tacoma. To consider ourselves separate from the places where we live or were raised, I think, is a foolish exercise.
So that's at the individual level. From a community perspective, one, it's hard to govern for an ever changing populace, I would imagine. The mores and things that a culture considers significant, are constantly in flux if you're in a town that's just got people coming in and out. Those populations, I would surmise, have less of a connection with locally run businesses that can generate a little bit more wealth and keep dollars in the community as opposed to send to corporations outside of a community. Those populations have demands and desires and will vote and spend their money accordingly, in ways that further entrench a community's reliance on itinerant guests and residents. And so it can really be the self-perpetuating cycle I imagine of, if you've just got people moving in and out, you're going to be a city of U-hauls, and Red Robins and strip malls. Whereas if you've got a more stable population, you will get more investments of money, of time, of social energy in the people who live there, and I think that would form a stronger and more resilient community if you had more long timers. And if the people who did move in, at least have the intent to stay there for a long time, which I think a lot of people lack. And a good example of this is looking at any of the towns in the West, I mean, I would love to know what percentage of current Seattle residents lived in the city five years ago. I would imagine it's a small number, and it's getting smaller and smaller and smaller every coming year. The folks who just moved out here, don't understand what the timber economy meant to the northwest, they don't understand what the Gold Rush meant in terms of Seattle even existing in the size of it was. They don't understand the indigenous peoples that lived here. They don't understand how robust salmon runs used to be. All of these markers of place, are not understood, are not really cared about and are subject to just disappear. And then Seattle, and any other big city that has a constant flux of people coming in, is going to end up looking like any other big city. And so I don't know if that's what we want. Some people may want that just every city to be an equally cosmopolitan city. But if you want a sense of place, and really to embrace your geography, you got to stick around. And then the third thing, what was the third level ecology?
Bullinger: I think that people in general, particularly in the United States of America, protect the species and ecosystems that they care about. Hunting is a perfect example of this. We really like shooting deer and elk. There are robust populations of deer and elk around the West, we make sure of it. And so if you've got people moving around very, very quickly, or leaving small talents, you've got fewer people who are going to care or not even care, even know about the ecosystems in which they're living. I think the European-American settlements of the western United States is a perfect example of that. I mean, you drive through any downtown and look at the street trees, you're not seeing any native species. These are all species that we brought over either from the eastern United States or from Europe that we just love so much. So instead of embracing the place that we came to, we tried to turn it into the place that we wanted.
Torgerson: Just an idea there too, thinking about place attachment theory and how like immigrants, or even myself - like in my house, I have bones and scrap metal and like a quilt with a bunch of farmers denim that's patched together. I'm trying to recreate home in some ways and I've never thought about how immigrants tried to recreate home by maybe planting trees that were native to Europe or having their lawns. And so it's both like the interior and the exterior of their homes and their and their selves that they're trying to, to create this type of the sense of home. It just sounds so isolating and so lonely when you think about people who are moving, and I'm guilty of this, like I have moved on average every three years since I was 16. And like, it's just kind of a lonely experience to not have those roots and that understanding of the local political scene or the small businesses. And yeah, I don't know what the question is there.
Bullinger: It's interesting that you bring up the isolating element of it. Yeah, I think that I think you can experience that from an ecological standpoint as well. If somebody moves from the desert southwest to Western Washington, the trees can be terrifying. One of my first reporting gigs out here, I was with a woman from Colorado, and we were walking out in the Hoh Rainforest, which is as dense with foliage as anywhere in the world. And it can be claustrophobic. You know, if you're used to your big, wide open vistas from the Montana plains, it's, it's a lot. And she was telling me, and this, in hindsight, this little bit of advice has really changed my life, and really kind of fomented my desire to have a sense of place. She said “I had to learn what the plants were otherwise it's just a wall of grain.” And I think if you care about the place that you live enough to truly learn about and understand what you're looking at and seeing and experiencing, then you can be a quote unquote rooted resident, as opposed to somebody who's just passing by and doesn't really care what happens to that area of good or bad.
Torgerson: What relationship to mobility and rootedness do you hope that your son will have someday?
Bullinger: I'm so conflicted about this. I want him to be I want him to be more rooted in Tacoma than I was in Mountain View. I want him to go to Point Defiance Park and be able to name the trees that we’re walking by. I want him to know that even though we can't see them, there's a bunch of blacktail deer on there. I want him to understand the currents and that come through the Narrows channel. I want him to know everything there is to know about Mount Rainier and the rivers that come off of it. I want him to understand Tacoma’s history as a city and care about what is going on in city politics.
There still a part of me though, that is like, boy, it'd be cool if he went to college in Los Angeles. And I, I don't have a logical reason for that. I think if you're looking into your heart of hearts, and you want to be a person with a place that you call home, you should want your children to stay in town, work for a local firm, go to school at the University of Washington Tacoma, and stick around and be involved in your hometown. But that's also not a little bit hypocritical in that my hometown is not the one that I grew up in. I'm wanting my child to do this in a place that I hand selected out of other places that I've lived. And so there's certainly an ethical question to that. And I think this is a round about way of saying, I don't know. What I hope is that when he gets to a point in life, that he can make decisions about where he lives. And what he does, that he tears up a little bit when he leaves to comment if he chooses to do so. I hope that he says, I know a lot about this place and my time here was well spent, and I will continue to care for it.
Torgerson: Yeah, and you can continue to care about a place even when you don't live there. And what I I like hearing about your journey and story too, is after leaving Mountain View, you go to school in Salt Lake City, and at one point, you had an internship in New York City. And I really liked how all these places throughout the United States where you've lived and worked have, have really added value to your experience. And you're able to kind of have a more diverse perspective and empathize with people from different places. And so I think even though we're talking about how important it is to be rooted, I think it is so important potentially for your son to go to school in Los Angeles or somewhere outside of Washington.
Bullinger: This is what people say in terms of the value of travel and things, that being exposed to other places can change your perspective on things. There's something to that. And I don't know how to strike the right balance between exposure to outside realms and staying at home. Because sure, if you remain completely dedicated to one place, and you never leave, it can become insular. You could not be open to other ideas that emerged from other places. And that's not good either.
Torgerson: Yeah, you need to be open to change, I think and in order to do that you need to have changed and lived in different places and let other places change you.
Bullinger: Yeah, definitely something rural America is grappling with.
Torgerson: Yeah. Yeah, definitely. Definitely yeah.
Torgerson: So yeah, I'm wondering if you could just tell me a little bit about your journey entering journalism and, and then also, you're a sports journalist and then you created the Bitterroot Magazine, and were illuminating intersections of politics and the environment, culture and economy. And kind of how did this whole journey map on your interests and your your personal relationship and connection to the west?
Bullinger: Yeah, so I started off - my family was big into sports. I played basketball and football growing up. If the Red Sox were ever on television, we were watching Red Sox. It was a big sports family. That was what united us. And so going into college, immediately, I knew I wanted to be a sports journalist. And I had the very good fortune of covering the Utah Utes sports programs football, basketball, for the campus paper. And it just started to lose its charm for me over time. I think that when your hobby becomes your job that can happen. Also learning a little bit more about some of the unethical aspects of college sports can sully your view of those things a little bit. But then I also just started getting a broader understanding of things in the world that I felt mattered a little bit more than the score of a baseball game.
Honestly, one of the big transition forces for me was skiing. Once I started skiing, oh, boy. I started paying attention to the weather and snowfall, which then led me to pay attention to historical snowfall trends and climate. Even if I wasn't skiing there, I was paying attention to the weather in other mountain ranges around the West, which got me thinking about water. And in hindsight, skiing really became like - it was just a fun hobby, but it really became this kind of gateway drug for me to give a damn about the environment. And so of course, all those things lead to you thinking about climate change. And I remember when I was in New York City, I believe it was my junior year of college, the Waldo Canyon fires were going on. And so I'm sitting in an office in Manhattan writing about something sports related. And it's like, here's this huge wildfire right outside of an urban area, and then they had torrential rains and mudslides after that. And it's like, this is more important.
And so upon coming back from that internship, I started an outdoors-focused publication at the University of Utah called Wasatch magazine, which is still up and running. And I just started dabbling a little bit more in environmental writing. And then through taking certain college classes about urbanism and things like that, I started caring about how cities were constructed. So I started to realize that I wanted to be a general interest journalist. Instead of just sports, I found that I was interested in environmental stories. I was interested in travel, I was interested in politics. And what forced all of these things to intersect for me was I just found that I cared about it way more in the West. So I came out to Western Washington, my wife went to grad school at the University of Washington, so that's why we came out here. And I started working at the News Tribune, and was doing a little bit of reporting there, and then worked for a business magazine out here. And then I was a freelance journalist before starting Bitterroot. And that's the path I've taken. I cover everything that interests me, from politics, to environmental stories to race, but it's all got to be rooted in the West. I've got to be writing about something that I feel like it's affecting my friends and neighbors in the region that I consider home.
Torgerson: And there's where that place comes back into it in the rootedness. And that's Yeah, but one reason I'm drawn to your journalism too, is because I also am interested in in such a smattering of issues and to illuminate how they intersect, and maybe people weren't interested in outdoors but didn't really think too much about climate change or environmental issues. Like I think you're well positioned to kind of introduce different topics to new readers.
Bullinger: And I think it's important. I mean, one reason we wanted Bitterroot to be a general interest publication was to expose our readers to these various things because I think that's important when it comes to consuming journalism.
Let's pretend you're an affluent skier and you travel. If your home mountain is not getting good snowfall this year, you don't really care. You'll fly out to, you know, let's say the Front Range of Colorado is having a big winter, “I'll go out there and do my skiing out there this year.” But if you're rooted in what's going on close by, and are exposed to journalism or to stories that help put that into a broader context. You know, if the skiing at home sucks, your water supply is going to suck the next summer. And if you get six or eight winters like that back to back to back, there's going to be trouble. And it was important to us. We wrote Bitterroot from the perspective of what I call mobile Westerners because we like to bounce around so much. And so folks like myself and yourself who grew up in small towns, and now live in big cities, or vice versa, or people who move around the region for work or for recreation. We live in such a interconnected region, which I think people can forget, because everything is spread so far apart. But I mean, growing up in Mountain View, Wyoming, we'd go boating on the Flaming Gorge, part of the Colorado River system. What's going on in the lower basin states in Phoenix and Los Angeles, what's going on at Lake Mead and Lake Powell, matters. That it is going to affect those of us who recreate on or get drinking water from Flaming Gorge. And people need to understand that. And so we always tried with Bitterroot, we tried to have a roughly even mix of covering urban and rural set stories. And I say set because we were covering issues that would connect to people regardless of where they lived in the West. If we're writing a story about how Los Angeles is dealing with traffic or homelessness, I'll tell you what, Moab, Utah could use some help with traffic management. Small towns like to ignore homelessness problems, but lot of them could need to pay attention to what's going on in big cities, especially if you're growing small town, these things matter. And we would be remiss to not look at the lessons from other cities and towns in the region and what they're dealing.
Torgerson: Yeah, yeah that’s what I love so much about what you’re doing. You’re highlighting how this rural issue is going to affect this urban issue. It doesn’t really matter where you are on the map, all of our futures are interconnected and we need to be paying attention to not just the problems but also solutions that different institutions and communities are proposing. So yeah I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit more about how you thoughtfully center people who are working on solutions to these issues and then your approach and philosophies about consuming and creating place-based solutions journalism?
Bullinger: There's no shortage of coverage of problems. And for every problem, there's somebody somewhere who has either fixed that problem or has tried to fix it, and there are lessons to be learned from that experience. And so I think that solutions journalism should be an important part of the media mix for any journalistic organization. And it should be an important part of media consumption for every human being.
Because there's lessons in these experiments. You know, in the Seattle region, of course, homelessness is a huge issue. Housing affordability is a major problem, and so there are a lot of people who cannot afford to live out here. And it's a major political - it touches a lot of aspects of life in the greater Seattle region.
You can say the same thing about Los Angeles, you can say the same thing about Boise, you can say the same thing about Salt Lake City. And you are going to be able to say the same thing about Bozeman and Bend and the smaller cities that are starting to feel these growing pains. So the idea exchange needs to go both ways. Big cities need to look at - if there are small to midsize cities that have really made a dent in anything from combating homelessness togGreen space preservation, what have you - Steal those ideas! Good, God take other people's great thoughts and implement them in your hometown. And I think that's something that solutions journalism, at a regional scale, can do is help spread those ideas.
Torgerson: Yeah, yeah. I'm reading this book right now that's talking about the urban sprawl around Boise and how they're paving over some really pristine soil and agricultural lands. And it just makes me so sad for the loss of the farmers’ livelihood, and also the source of sustenance that could feed the newcomers. And so considering rapidly expanding towns like my college town of, Missoula, and then towns that begin with “b” like Boise, Bend, Bozeman – I’m wondering what these places can do to prepare for the influx of people and also maintain the affordability of the place.
Bullinger: Well, the first thing they need to do is look at cities that are bigger than them and learn from their mistakes. Seattle is tremendously unaffordable, San Francisco is tremendously unaffordable. The “b” towns shouldn't be looking at these places, and figuring out how it got there. Because I mean, people want to live there. It's not inconceivable that at some point in our lifetimes Bend, Oregon has a million people, is approximately the size of Portland. Do I think that'll happen? No, but it's possible. And to ignore what larger cities have gone through, would be foolish. I think that putting in place any sort of policy that allows denser, smaller home development is a good approach. You'll see Tacoma is currently considering such a measure and Portland and more broadly, the state of Oregon, have really liberalized the restrictions on mother in law apartments, duplexes, triplexes. And so, I mean, a thought experiment that I like to play is you can take Boise as it currently exists. It is a very, very sprawling metro area right now, if you take every single family parcel in the Boise area, and all of a sudden put a second home on there, make it a duplex, make it a triplex. I'm not talking big tall skyscrapers or anything like that, but moderate additions to density. One, you would have more and more affordable homes. And two, you would preserve this open space. We as Westerners love our open space. We love to get outside, but we're gobbling it up with a sprawling development, that there's a way you can have both. And I hope that these big fast growing cities, embrace alternative housing methods that make their city denser, make it more affordable, make it more livable, you'll build a stronger community and it will be a community that's not exclusively for rich people.
Torgerson: Yeah. My hope with Reframing Rural is to shift the focus from what divides us to the tide, the ties that bind, and I'm wondering how your reporting has done this. So in other words, how has your reporting embraced complexity and helped to bridge divides?
Bullinger: Well, Bitterroot first and foremost, existed to span those divides. The common divide that is often brought up in the West is the urban rural divide, which becomes a catch all phrase to highlight the political and social and economic differences between small towns, less populated states and their larger counterparts. I think it is important for people to know and for journalists like myself to report accordingly, that there are solutions and problems that are consistent to both small towns and large cities. We’re people and we have people problems. And it doesn't matter whether you're in a small town or a large city, a lot of the same issues come up. You know, the concept of the urban rural divide frustrates me a lot having lived in both sizes of cities, you know. You can look at how voting percentages when things like that there are certainly facts that you can present and those types of things. But I think that a lot of people in both cities and small towns alike, have taken the urban rural divide and ramped it up into this concept of good and bad.
I would imagine you have had people when you visit your hometown, who cast Seattle as a liberal, hippie kingdom, that is tremendously dangerous, because it's a big city. And vice versa. people out here probably think that the folks growing up in Wyoming or Montana, are podunk, you know, you name your stereotype. And it's just not true. And you can find conservative gun toting, Trump loving folks in Seattle and in the adjacent environs. And so it was important for us with Bitterroot, to focus on issues and solutions, as opposed to broad categorizations of states and communities and things like that. I would hope that if you were to go back through Bitterroot’s catalog, you would not find any stories talking about red states and blue states. I think that that very much type casts people. And it furthers this divide that we feel. And so if we can tell stories and report on ideas that people have, and strategies that they have tried, regardless of where they live, and have it more place based and rooted in geography than in political orientation, and things of that nature, that's helpful. I think that my reporting the American Prairie Reserve, touched on that a little bit. The ranchers who I spoke with out there are socially and politically conservative people, as we would typically understand that term. From a land management perspective, they're pretty damn liberal. I think that any environmentalist in Seattle could go out and look at Dale Veseth’s property south of Malta, Montana, and say, yeah, you've got something going on here. You've got migrating songbirds coming through in the thousands. You've got deer and raptors and every other sort of wildlife hanging out here. If they were to think about the typecast of a, or the stereotype of a rancher, they wouldn't think of that as somebody who is fostering biodiversity and doing good by the land. And so by telling stories that highlight those types of things, I hope to help bridge this value laden urban rural divide.
Torgerson: Yeah, yeah! And on an individual level, those narratives are just a dagger to the heart. Like when you read news headlines that just totally typecast, rural America and so that's why I really appreciate how you portray the diversity of thought and the cultural nuance that exists in both urban and rural places.
And in With buffalo, Native Americans are restoring a wildlife economy, the article that you wrote for Bitterroot Magazine, you parse out Wyoming's mythologized cowboy culture, memorialized by the iconic cowboy on your license plate, and you give a really rich history lesson on the wildlife economy and bison. And so I'm wondering if you could speak to the importance of elevating this history, and not only centering narratives that push back against the assumed whiteness of rural spaces, but explicitly calling out the racism of manifest destiny, the massacre of Native Americans, and how bison are sometimes seen today as an existential threat to some people's livelihoods and culture.
Bullinger: There's so much to unpack with, with the way that we think about entry buffalo in West. So the history of it, I spent a lot of time on in the story, one because I was embarrassingly ignorant of it. And I would imagine that some of my readers were as well. And so I think it's important to know. You know, I, as I was reporting that story, it wasn't until after I had met with Jason Baldes, who was the central character in the story. He's working on bringing bison back to the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming and elsewhere around Indian country. It wasn't until after I had talked to him and all these types of things that I learned that Fort Bridger, where I grew up, Southwest Wyoming, was an Eastern Shoshone trading hub. Like they ran the show out there. And we didn't learn that growing up or anything like that it was - history began with Jim Bridger. And that's where it all started, like, where Jim Bridgers famed rendezvous site is, was a Shoshone trading hub for years and years and years. And that's how they were among the first Plains tribes to get access to the horse because of those international connections that they have, like, these big intricate trade networks that exist. And I just had no idea. I grew up next to it. And it had never even been whispered to me. And so one, it's fascinating to learn about the pre-white people economies of the American West, but also I think we need to know about it.
The historical aspect of that really became important to me from a journalistic perspective. When I came across Donna Fier’s research, she's an economist at the University of Victoria. And she parsed through health data, and determined in her research, which it's it at the time that I saw it, it was a working paper, and so it hasn't been peer reviewed yet. But she was looking at health data, which is a common proxy for wealth in times back then. And the Plains Indians, tribes that had access to buffalo were among the healthiest and wealthiest people in the world. That American settlers could come west and that the United States of America with government sanction actions could take what was already a towering economy - that was struggling, there was disease and things like that that had tarnished Native nations significantly by the time major westward expansion was going on - but even still, to wipe out this bison economy was just incredible. Donna in talking to her she was like, “imagine if we went in and we just took all of Texas's oil and two years and said you have to be farmers now. It doesn't matter where you live, or what you know how to do. You cannot drill for oil, and you must become a farmer.”
Torgerson: And don't speak your native language.
Bullinger: And don't speak your native language. Yeah. And for bison, people, it was even more severe than that, because they ate the buffalo. Buffalo were their shelter. It really was almost a single source economy, which is not the greatest thing when you're looking for economic diversification. But it symbolizes just how devastating the loss of the Buffalo was. And so with that story, I didn't know any of that stuff and I really wanted to elevate it. And I think that understanding that, and the resilience of native people. All the buffalo you see today, are very, very closely connected to actions by Native people to preserve this species back when white folks were wiping them out. You know, everybody gives Teddy Roosevelt and all of them credit for saving the buffalo. It was native people that were spearheading that well beforehand. And so I think that understanding that history makes what Jason Baldes, and the Intertribal Buffalo Council, and all of these other organizations, it makes what they're doing in Indian country, even more significant, not just from an ecological and social perspective, but from a historical one as well. It's among the most amazing conservation stories that's happening in the United States right now, and that we're not talking about on national level every day is shocking to me. That native people could experience the subjugation that they did, and still not just have their people stick around, but also start bringing back this centerpiece of their culture and economy, that was all but wiped out, it's incredible. It's absolutely incredible.
You know, when I was talking to Jason and other members of the Intertribal Buffalo Council,
the term that kept popping up was buffalo people. And when they say buffalo people, they don't just mean people who are interested in Buffalo or who are working in Buffalo restoration. They're talking about people who, through this vehicle of an animal that was so important to them culturally, religiously, economically - they're able to build back and enhance their people's resiliency. And so, in that story, one reason I lean so heavily on the history was, as a white person, I can only empathize so much with Jason, and how he views bison and buffalo, because he's got, like you said, he's got those thousands of years of generational history, coloring his viewpoint when he looks at a buffalo. I don't have that. But if we can all better understand the history of what buffalo meant to Plains Indians tribes, and how they were utilized, I think we can get a little bit closer to understanding why people are doing this and be more open to the various ways that people are viewing buffalo. I mean, within the Intertribal Buffalo Council, you've got tribes - Wind River is a special case because it's a damn big reservation, you could have wild buffalo there - there are tribes that they just don't have the land base to do that.
And so early in my reporting I was talking with Arnell Abold, the executive director of the Intertribal Buffalo Council, and I was talking about, quote unquote wild buffalo. My thought being if they're roaming free on a big reservation, like Wind River then they are wild. And if they are in a pen destined for slaughter in the very near future, on a smaller reservation, that's something else. And they disabused me of that notion very, very quickly. To them. Every buffalo is wild. If it's genetically pure, it's a buffalo. And that's that. And I think that's a healthy way to view our connection with every living organism. We're critters just like everything else. And we eat buffalo just like we elk, and cattle. And to think that things are organisms that we should just set behind fences, just to look at exclusively, is befuddling from an evolutionary standpoint, at the very least. But it also ignores the history of our interactions as human beings with these animals.
Torgerson: Yeah. And I love how you reframe conservation, and the return of the bison as an inherent element of societal renewal. And you're really it's not just a conservation issue. It's not just a sustenance issue of the tribes having the buffalo, but it's cultural as well. And I think it's a really beautiful invocation of hope.
Bullinger: To be around an animal that inspires reverence of any sort. And I don't think that that is just buffalo or big creatures, that can be a song bird that can be anything like that. But to both witness yourself and see other people having that reverence for another living creature, that's a special experience. That's something that changed the way that I think about buffalo that I think about species reintroductions, that I think about wildlife management. And it starts with moments like that.
Torgerson: To wrap up, and to kind of bring us back to the beginning of the conversation and how you're growing roots in Tacoma and the hopes that you have for your future and your son's future. I guess, like, could you paint a picture of just like -what do you want to see for the rural and urban West?
Bullinger: I want to see equitable towns of all size, with economic opportunity, both for newcomers and people who have been there for years or generations, with ample ample care taken for our green spaces and habitat. We're not the West if we lose the habitat, we're just we're just a completely different place entirely. And if we can construct towns and cities and economies in a way that revolves around that, it'll be special. It'll be a very, very special place to live and play and work.
Torgerson (narrating): Thank you to Jake Bullinger for joining me in-person for our conversation and for sharing your hope-provoking insights into what is possible for the American West. To read Jake’s work, visit bitterrootmag.com or jakebullinger.com.
Our next full episode, airing November 24, features Miranda Moen, an architectural designer from rural Minnesota. Calling in from Hedmark, Norway where Miranda is a Fulbright Fellow, we will explore the intersections of rural cultural heritage and rural architecture, and the nineteenth century immigration path of her ancestors.
I produced and edited today’s story on Duwamish aboriginal territory with recordings captured on Duwamish lands. Reframing Rural’s episode and theme music is composed and recorded by Andrew Drinnan. Season Two: Sowing Possibility is funded in part by the Greater Montana Foundation, Humanities Montana, and listeners like you.
Visit reframingrural.org to find links to resources referenced in this episode, full transcripts and to make a donation. Reframing Rural is a fiscally sponsored project of the Montana History Foundation, an original series by Tree Rings Records, LLC and a member of the Rural Radio Collective.
Thank you for listening!
Rethinking my Hometown, Jake Bullinger
With Buffalo, Native Americans are Restoring a Wildlife Economy, Jake Bullinger, Bitterroot Magazine
How Tiny Bozeman, Montana Became A Booming Tech Town, Jake Bullinger, Fast Company
The concept of place attachment in environmental psychology, Mina Najafi, et. al
Housing Authorities Look Beyond Housing to Address Homelessness and Instability, Jake Bullinger, Bitterroot Magazine
Uprooted: Recovering the legacy of the Places We've Left Behind, Grace Olmstead
Guest: Jake Bullinger
Host, creator, producer, editor and mixer: Megan Torgerson
Episode Music: Andrew Drinnan
SEASON 2 FUNDING PARTNERS:
[3:15]: Jake Bullinger’s rural Wyoming origins
[4:00]: Living off of the land versus recreating on the land
[7:30]: Get-out logic and rural youth
[11:40]: Tech boom towns in the West and economic inequality
[14:00]: Boosting equality in popular cities in the west
[17:45]: The future of climate resilient work within resource-based economies
[19:40]: Cultural forces glorifying mobility in the West
[23:30]: Downsides of mobility on individual, community and ecological levels
[29:30]: Place attachment theory and ecological isolation
[31:55]: Jake’s hope for his son's relationship to rootedness
[35:45]: Jake’s journey into environmental journalism
[40:30]: Bitterroot Magazine and illuminating an interconnected West
[42:30] Consuming and creating place-based solutions journalism
[44:45]: Maintaining the affordability of small cities in the West
[47:00]: Urban-rural divide as catch all for political, social and economic differences
[51:30]: Buffalo restoration as inherent element of societal renewal
[52:30]: Pre-white people economies of the American West
[56:00]: The term "buffalo people"
[59:30]: Jake’s hope for the future of the urban and rural West