Life Begins With Land: A Note of Introduction

“Small Towns, Big Change” launches with tales of forests and water.

Photo by Katharine Egli

The Southwest’s rivers are its most precious features, the winding blue veins that convey life to the thirstiest corner of the United States. The Rio Grande, which rises from the mountains of Colorado and carves through New Mexico on its way to the sea, irrigates the region’s crops, supports its ecosystems, and sustain its residents. Without the river — and the vast tracts of public and private forests that surround and nurture it — existence here would be quite literally impossible.

Vital though the Southwest’s waters and forests may be, they’re also under threat. Unsustainable forms of agriculture and ill-conceived management have depleted surface and groundwater resources. Reflexive fire suppression has given rise to cluttered, unhealthy stands of trees and spawned even larger burns. Jobs in the farming and timber industries have evaporated, in part due to unwise stewardship.

Over the next six months, seven New Mexico- and Colorado-based news organizations, including newspapers, magazines, television channels and radio stations, will spearhead a project called “Small Towns, Big Change,” an initiative devoted to exploring challenges to rural Western communities — and examining promising responses. This initiative has received financial support from the LOR Foundation, which is concerned with the character of rural communities in the Mountain West.

You can expect stories on a broad array of topics, including education, health, substance abuse, food, and the economy. But our first package of stories begins at the place where life itself takes root: the water and the land.

The stories in this package are diverse in their subject matter and thorough in their treatment. Though we recommend starting with reporter Leah Todd’s narrative essay introducing the project, there’s no wrong way to navigate these pieces. You’ll read about a group of farmers in Colorado’s San Luis Valley who are voluntarily limiting their own groundwater consumption, as well as New Mexican landowners whose centuries-old irrigation systems could be the future of Western water management. You’ll meet a billionaire who’s adding a sawmill to his ranch and perhaps reviving a destitute timber economy in the process. You’ll learn about an innovative funding scheme that might just protect water quality through the counterintuitive measure of cutting down trees. And you’ll encounter a Forest Service program that’s forging new community relations by letting private citizens harvest wood on public lands.

Thanks very much for exploring, sharing, and commenting, and we eagerly await your feedback.

Happy reading,

Ben Goldfarb

Solutions Journalism Network

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