Wednesday, August 22, 2007


The West has been booming for years. Lots of people moving in, new development projects everywhere and no end in sight. Nevada has led the nation in growth for the past 19 years. Idaho ranked third for the 2004-2005 Census. And St. George, Utah, was the top in the nation for population gains between 2000 and 2005.Nevada officials said they weren't surprised with their top ranking because all they do is deal with growth.

That sort of news sounds good to lots of people in other places, but if you're someone who has grown up in the wide open spaces or the beautiful Rocky Mountains the news is actually somewhat dismal. What you have probably always loved about your region is being destroyed before your eyes and your government seems happy about it.

In Montana, a huge state where nobody used to live, residents are looking around aghast as wealthy folks from who knows where are buying up huge chunks of land for their own private use.

Now this is a tough one for Westerners who have always been big on the rights of private property. Suddenly they are finding out what was one of their cherished ideals is screwing them.

In a guest column printed on the site New West, Sen. Jon Tester of Montana writes:

"I, like many others, have a problem with folks from other places buying up agricultural land, fencing it off and locking it up forever. That land is available only to an exclusive club of elite and blocked to the workaday Montanan who pays his dues to the state and understands the western value of sharing the landscape with fellow Montanans. What used to be traditional hunting and fishing grounds for generations are fast becoming off limits for ordinary Montanans looking to put some meat and fish on the table.

Out-of-state developers are buying up large ranches across our state with plans to subdivide them and sell lots as “trophy properties.” I can see why wealthy folks are intrigued by the idea of buying pieces of rural Montana for vacation getaways. I have to admit, the glossy pamphlets advertising those properties are nice.

But ordinary Montanans don’t live in fancy log homes and properties showcased in glossy pamphlets. They work hard, build their communities, and put their kids through school hoping they can stay here to enjoy what is so special about Montana."

Westerners who have long prided themselves with their love of the outdoors are also surprisingly finding themselves allied with those they used to consider enemies - wacky environmentalists. For example, the Bureau of Land Management not tot long ago approved opening up the vast Roan Plateau in western Colorado to natural gas drilling. The decision delighted the energy industry. It wasn't received with such delight by environmentalist. Suddenly the opposition presented by the environmentalists was supported by outfitters and wildlife advocates, hunters, fishermen (and fisherwomen) and a number of local communities that wanted to see the flattop mountain preserved.

Even the lack of water doesn't deter developers. In fact, local communities are having to take action on this very issue. In Arizona, for example, where water already has to often be trucked in state lawmakers took the unusual action, for them, and voted—overwhelmingly—to let desert counties and cities put in place new restrictions on rural development linked to water supplies.

“It’s time to address growth in the rural areas,” the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Marsha Arzberger, D, told the Associated Press. It’s hardly a Democratic bill, though. The state House voted 50-1 in favor of it. The Senate backed it by a 26-2 vote. Yup, Republicans voting for governmental controls.

But governmental controls have always been the last thing Westerners wanted.

In Anaconda, Montana, a town of less then 10,000 plans for a new subdivision have run into lots of protest. “If you folks approve this subdivision as they have it, you’re going to open the door … and Georgetown Lake will look like Lake Tahoe does right now with green water, high nitrates and very few fish,” landowner Mickey Sanders told the Granite County planning board.

Mickey was seconded by a neighbor. “You cannot have density this high at Georgetown Lake,” Earl Sager said. “California, maybe. Some other state, maybe. But not in Montana.”

These people like their space.

They don't like the government telling them what to do.

They are at war with themselves.

Finally, back to Colorado support of a move to ban the drilling atop the Roan Plateau in northwest part of the state, as noted earlier, is moving beyond a handful of environmentalists.

The Rocky Mountain News reported this comment recently. "The Roan is so important for its above-ground hunting and angling resources," said Brian O'Donnell of the group Trout Unlimited. "Keeping it intact is the best option for sportsmen who appreciate the unique fishing and the trophy-hunting opportunities available atop the Roan."

Janine Fitzgerald, a local ranch owner (not a left wing crazy) spoke for many out west. Her comments were about the Roan controversy but they really go far beyond. She said simply, "The more of the land we destroy, the more we won't have for ourselves when there's no oil and gas left. It's all connected..."

What's a westerner to do these days?

The following is from Headwaters News.

Western growth and its discontent
New book lays out strategies to direct growth,
and save the special qualities of the region

ByTom Kenworthy

Readers of William R. Travis’ New Geographies of the American West, may have to adopt a new definition of optimist: someone who can do a detailed study of growth and development in the American West and not descend into utter despair.

Ten years ago, Travis edited the useful and humorous Atlas of the New West (where else can you find a map showing western cowboy poetry festivals?). Now, the University of Colorado geographer has undertaken a more serious look at change in the fastest growing region in the United States.

As anyone who has lived in the West for even a short time knows, it’s not a comforting picture:

• The 11 western states (including the coast) grew by 20 percent in the 1990’s, and five of them—Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Colorado and Idaho—are the fastest growing states in the nation.

• What we often describe as a region of boom and bust pretty much always has boomed and shows no sign of busting anytime soon. Our population grew even during the downturn of the 1980’s and, Travis writes, “the region’s population and economic growth are poised to outpace the nation’s for decades to come.”

• Neither the West’s vast tracts of public that can’t be developed nor its arid climate are going to stop the growth trend. The West’s population will double in the next 40-50 years.

• This rapid, and largely uncontrolled development, Travis writes, is “transforming the West’s emblematic landscapes: its mountain fronts, its great swaths of rangeland, and its desert canyons. At risk is wildlife habitat, biodiversity, nurturing human communities, and the sense of place that comes from the West’s terrain, climate and history…[T]he West is at risk of losing the qualities that make it unique.”

That coarse scale view of western development is a familiar one. But Travis goes far deeper with his analysis of what he calls the West’s “development geographies” – metro areas, exurbs, resort zones and gentrified range – and the forces that are driving growth in each.

The “ultimate enablers” of western development, Travis writes, “are the counties and municipalities, which promote growth as the equivalent of community well-being….” And those enablers are largely unconstrained because of “weak, fractured, and uncoordinated” land use regulation in the region.

How, then to get control of this monster that is devouring the very qualities that make the West such a special place to live?

Travis proposes four strategies:

• Expand land use planning beyond single communities to the regional and landscape level, using multi-jurisdiction organizations such as councils of governments. The Puget Sound Council of Governments is a good model, Travis says.

• Develop land use codes “suited to landscapes and tension zones in the West” that include preservation of natural spaces, wildlife migration routes and stream corridors.

• Bolster public participation in land use planning and encourage more advocacy on its behalf. Travis sees hope in the work of regional smart planning groups like the Sonoran Institute and conservation organizations built around specific landscapes such as the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.

• Make better use of the new tools that are available such as GIS mapping and sophisticated community planning models.

There is, Travis concludes, “still time to alter the settlement trajectory of the West,” but not much.


Tom Kenworthy, who formerly covered the West as a reporter for The Washington Post and USA Today, is a senior fellow at Western Progress, a regional policy institute.

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