One of my readers, a Minnesota friend, sent me a whole bunch of links related to the backlash of Minnesotans against this article, which used a bureaucratic invention by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to rank every county in America in terms of the desirability of its scenery and climate. Those qualities include mild, sunny winters, temperate summers, low humidity, topographic variation, and access to a body of water.
According to the USDA’s so-called “natural amenities index,” the Great Lakes region—my original home—fares poorly, with some of the lowest scores being in Minnesota—my adopted home of thirty years—presumably due to its long and cold winters. Some of the lowest rankings are clustered around the Minnesota/North Dakota border (I can’t disagree), and Red Lake County MN was established as the absolute worst place to live in the whole US. Wow. Talk about harsh.
Fourteen years ago, after spending my entire life seemingly surrounded by blah, I finally moved to West Texas, attracted by its sparse population, mild winters, and spectacular scenery. Out of 3,111 counties, I had bettered the desirability ranking of my surroundings from 2,790 (St. Joseph County IN), to 2,637 (Hennepin County MN), to 155 (Brewster County TX). Not exactly #1 in the nation, but 155 out of 3,111 isn’t bad.
Minnesota wasn’t the only state that looks undesirable according to the USDA’s bureaucratic scale. Iowa and Delaware don’t have any counties ranking at average beauty or above. A number of states—North Dakota, Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin among them—have just one or two counties of at least average beauty. But there hasn’t been a single word of protest from folks in these states.
Nooo. Only Minnesotans have taken a public stand to defend their state’s honor. Why is this?
According to the Washington Post writer who drew attention to the USDA’s scorn, the most plausible explanation is that “Minnesotans have thick coats but thin skin.” Yet this isn’t the truth. If anything, they’re super-insulated by a thick layer of blubber.
Minnesotans know their weather is arguably the worst in America—they’re famous for it. They know that “cabin fever” should be listed as the leading cause of death in the state. They cut jokes about how the mosquito should be designated as the state bird. So they have no illusions.
I’ll tell you a story about Minnesota that illustrates the reason why you can say no wrong about the place.
I was traveling north on one of my many road trips, fighting driving snow and icy roads to avoid fishtailing my way through Iowa. Then, immediately after passing a “Welcome to Minnesota” roadsign, the highway miraculously changed to dry pavement, even though the weather—if anything—had remained the same or even worsened. It was clear and dry all the way home. I felt like Moses passing through the Red Sea.
I also felt a swell of pride at living where I did at the time. Even though Minnesota is one of the most inhospitable places to survive in North America, Minnesotans have not only adjusted to prevailing conditions, but learned to thrive in them. For them, cross-country skiing is the antidote to winter, even if it is below-zero. Most Minnesotans would view my move to this beautiful refuge from winter as a disloyal act of apostasy.
I understand where they’re coming from. Maybe they’ll think better of me when I remind them this place is just as extreme, though in an opposite way.
Every place sometimes sucks in its own way.
Every county in America, ranked by scenery and climate
I know this because in the late 1990s the federal government devised a measure of the best and worst places to live in America, from the standpoint of scenery and climate. The “natural amenities index” is intended as “a measure of the physical characteristics of a county area that enhance the location as a place to live.”
The index combines “six measures of climate, topography, and water area that reflect environmental qualities most people prefer.” Those qualities, according to the US Department of Agriculture, include mild, sunny winters, temperate summers, low humidity, topographic variation, and access to a body of water.
These “natural aspects of attractiveness,” as the USDA describes them, are intended to be constant and relatively immutable. They’re not expected to change much over time, so the USDA hasn’t updated its data beyond the initial 1999 scoring. “Natural amenities pertain to the physical rather than the social or economic environment,” the USDA writes. Things like plants, animals or the human environment are excluded by definition. “We can measure the basic ingredients, not how these ingredients have been shaped by nature and man.” I stumbled on these numbers after reading about a recent study linking natural amenities to religiosity. (US counties with nicer weather and surroundings tend to have less religious residents.)
I’ve mapped all the counties above according to where they rank on the natural amenities index—mouse over to check out how desirable (or not) your own county is. Click here to access this interactive map. You’ll see that Sun Belt counties fare pretty well—especially ones in California and Colorado. In fact, every single one of the 10 highest-ranked counties is located in California. After Ventura County, Humboldt, Santa Barbara, Mendocino and Del Norte counties round out the top five.
By contrast, the Great Lakes region fares poorly, with most of the lowest rankings clustered around the Minnesota/North Dakota border region—hey there, Fargo! The absolute worst place to live in America is (drumroll please)… Red Lake County MN (claim to fame: “It is the only landlocked county in the United States that is surrounded by just two neighboring counties,” according to the county Web site).
And sorry, Alaska and Hawaii residents—the USDA didn’t have some of the data for your states (a common problem), so you’re left out of the rankings. It’s probably for the best, since Hawaii would probably have swept the top of the rankings, what with it being an island paradise and all.
For a sense of what contributes to these rankings, check out the maps below of the individual measures comprising the index—darker counties rate as less desirable on these measures, while lighter ones rate higher.
Now, if you spend even a few minutes with the map above you can probably find a few things to quibble with in the methodology. If you hate summer, like me, it may seem that there’s an inordinate emphasis on warm weather and ample sunshine. How else to explain that Inyo County CA—home to Death Valley, a place so inhospitable to human life that it literally has death in its name—ranks so much higher than, say, the bucolic rolling hillsides of New England?
Or that Maricopa County AZ—home to Phoenix, a place that feels like the inside of a hot car for half the year—ranks higher than Iowa’s stunningly beautiful and criminally underappreciated Loess Hills region? Or that Washington DC—home of sweltering summers, miserable winters, swampy humidity and little natural beauty to speak of—ranks higher than any place at all?
On the other hand, it turns out that this index correlates well with a lot of human behaviors that researchers and politicians are constantly trying to understand better. For instance, the USDA’s original report on the natural amenities index found that these measures “drive rural population change.” The USDA found that rural areas with a lot of natural amenities saw the greatest population change between 1970 and 1996.
“The relationship is quite strong,” the study found. “Counties with extremely low scores on the scale tended to lose population over the 1970-96 period, while counties with extremely high scores tended to double their populations over the period.”
More recent research has found a relationship between natural beauty and religious attendance—places with more natural amenities tend to have lower rates of religious adherence, according to a 2015 Baylor University study. Why go to church if you can hit the beach or the trailhead?
Of course, correlation isn’t necessarily causation, and it would be easy to overemphasize the importance of natural amenities in the decisions Americans make about their lives. Still, the rankings provide plenty of food for thought. And the natural landscape is certainly one piece in the giant puzzle that explains why Americans do the things they do in their lives.
94° and Clear