Chapter 1: Old West, New West, and Next West?

Donna L. Lybecker

Out where the handclasp’s a little stronger,
Out where the smile dwells a little longer,
That’s where the West begins;
Out where the sun is a little brighter,
Where the snows that fall are a trifle whiter,
Where the bonds of home are a wee bit tighter,
That’s where the West begins.

-Excerpt from Arthur Chapman’s “Out Where the West Begins” (1917, 1)


The Western US was and is a place of stories and of reality.  It includes descriptions of the open frontier, rugged individualism and space to take one’s own path, wilderness and the struggles to overcome this wilderness.  As noted in a speech by President L.B. Johnson in 1963, “…the West of yesterday is glamorized in our fiction, the future of the American West now is both fabulous and factual.”

The west of the past, the “Old West” was one of struggles that were overcome by legendary heroes such as Jesse James who stole form the rich but helped the poor, and Horace Tabor who made a fortune in silver mines. Yet, the Old West also included the less-glamorous struggles of drought, poverty (Tabor’s wife Elizabeth “Baby Does” died poor) and death (Jesse James robberies were brutal and at times deadly). Likewise, the current day “New West” is a place where individuals experience beauty and grandeur in Yellowstone, Rocky Mountain and Yosemite National Parks, but also where there are also growing numbers of homeless in the urban corridors. Understanding the Western US, particularly what the future “Next West” is likely to encompass, necessitates looking at the big picture of both mythological perceptions and realities of the Old West and the New West.

Change is constant in the western US. From manifest destiny to the Sagebrush Rebellion, from ranching to fracking, from boom to bust to boom again, the reality and the image of the western US are redefined and remade. Yet despite this persistent change, over time, much of the land and many of the core characteristics and values of this region remained the same. Thus the contradiction of change and consistency, the layering of the traditional and the modern, and the mixing of an identity shaped through narrative and through on-the-ground change are what define the western US.

The sheer extent of the public lands in the western US is a large factor in both the change and the consistency of the West. Public lands support the social and economic connections to resources provided by the large open landscapes. However, with continually growing populations, consequent demographic and economic change, and resulting physical change, the western US may be facing its largest transformation yet. The West appears set to experience shifts not only from sparse populations to fast-growing urban centers, and resource extraction to recreation, but from charted weather patterns to environments impacted by extreme conditions and alterations in climate. These more extensive shifts will surely affect the environment, including the public lands, of the western US, transforming characteristics of the region and the policies that shape the management of it. What was once a region of tentative balance between the Old West and the New West will likely need to reinvent itself into the Next West. In particular, changes to the environmental policies, which affect the public lands of the region, will need to reflect the reality of this transformation while simultaneously working with the Old West and New West narratives and identities.

Narratives: Stories of the Old West and the New West

People tell stories. People often think in narrative form (Sarbin 1986) and ascribe meanings via narrative (Mishler 1995; White 1980). Thus it is not surprising that narrative also shapes collective human behavior (Shenhav 2004) and forms a base for political discourse (Shenhav 2006). Narrative forms of political expression are based on stringing events together in an attempt to shape the present while maintaining and drawing from the past (Shenhav 2006). Thus narrative is the product of a given perspective; it does not include full reality but reveals major themes or ideas that exist. In this respect, understanding the narratives presented of a region, such as the western US, helps reveal dominant perspectives and thus the images that people ascribe to the region. In these stories are elements of truth, elements of desires, and elements of foreshadowing. The ideas of the Old West and the New West are narratives. They describe truth—for example, the economic changes occurring within the region—but they also describe a constructed “reality” of the region, elements of what the storyteller desires for the region. Understanding the narratives of the Old West and the New West gives insight into where the region has been, where it is, and where it is heading. Given the importance of public lands within the western US (according to Hardy Vincent, Hanson, and Argueta [2017], public lands comprise 47 percent of the eleven western states in the lower forty-eight), public lands comprise a fundamental aspect of these narratives. Furthermore, these narratives, along with the reality of the region, affected the development of and continue to affect the modifications to public lands management and policies. Thus understanding the western US and the changes the region will likely face requires not only recognizing the demographic, economic, and physical shifts occurring to the region but also acknowledging the Old West and New West narratives of the region.

Narrative: The Old West

The “Old West” (Bennett and McBeth 1998; Shumway and Otterstrom 2001) inspires images of cattle drives, open expanses, and the old-style frontier. This narrative describes “winning the West” or “taming” the vast open landscape and all that is a part of it. It includes iconic western cowboys living off the land, hardy souls digging for gold and other valuable minerals, and small groups of individuals harvesting what the rugged landscapes can provide. The narrative of the Old West is one of self-made pioneers and rural and small communities closely linked to resource extraction and commodity production industries such as forestry, ranching, mining, and fishing.

With this as its base, the image of today’s Old West focuses on the still romanticized idea of these hard-working, largely ethnically European men and, to some degree, women whose tough individualism carries them through the boom and bust cycles of the land. The people of the Old West understand the western landscape and apply this knowledge to economically survive; they appreciate the landscape for what it provides and recognize there are limits to the number of resources that can be taken and the number of individuals who can survive on these lands.

Narrative: The New West

Although the narrative of the Old West is still evident today, a secondary narrative for the western US also exists, a “New West.” This New West narrative links elements of the Old West to the reality of the changes pushed forward by a growing population and consequential shifts in society and technology. It recognizes the region’s multifaceted evolution, acknowledging the past and present and different groups and ethnicities, and pushes toward a more heterogeneous notion of the West. However, the New West also still recognizes the significant connection to the wide-open landscape and environment that define much of the West as a region. The narrative of the New West is a portrait of a mix of rural and cosmopolitan; of prized outdoor recreation with blue-ribbon trout streams, world-renowned skiing, and miles of hiking and biking trails; of rapid urbanization and growth; and of technology and the simplicity of living “off the land.”

The New West narrative highlights environmentalism and diversity, setting up a contrast to the Old West, but also shares the Old West’s reverence to the wide-open landscapes and opportunities and resources offered by the environment, along with the image of tough individualism (albeit often via extreme sports rather than long days working the land).

Old West and New West, but Next West?

The shifting landscape and expansion of the New West have pushed individuals of the Old West to suggest that the last half-century has created an upheaval, bringing in outsiders who change traditional values and expose the region to modern dilemmas. Highlighting the tensions surrounding these changes, this Old West–New West conflict can be seen in recent confrontations such as the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon (management of public lands), the battle in the state supreme court over the ownership of and releases from Idaho’s Lucky Peak Dam (water rights), and the controversial wolf management and greater sage grouse listing (as an endangered species) across the western plains and sagebrush ecosystems.

Furthermore, westerners are being forced to recognize the negative aspects of both the Old West and the New West. The Old West often ignores the human causalities and environmental costs of its management of the western landscape and its people (Aron 2016). The New West ignores the negative aspects of amenities desired by the new westerners such as increasing goods consumption, extensive choices in restaurants and shopping, and easy access to the wide-open spaces, all of which have led to increased pollution, skyrocketing land prices, and pocketed poverty contrasted with extreme wealth.

Continued change through growth and the resulting social, economic, and physical changes will push both the Old West and New West to address the question, What is the Next West? Population expansion is changing the landscape that both the Old and New Wests value and utilize. Subsequently, management practices and policies affecting the public lands are and must continue to change. For a region that already has two identities, old and new, how will a Next West fit into the equation? Understanding the transformation from the old to the new and looking toward what is next can shed light on how the western US will change and how the environmental policies, particularly those focused on public lands, may absorb these shifts.

The Basis for Change: Population

Population growth in the western US has steadily risen since the inclusion of the region in the US. The push by manifest destiny and the promise of space to call one’s own intensified with the end of World War II and have continued to today. Illustrative of this, the US population in the West grew faster than any other US region in every decade of the twentieth century (Hobbs and Stoops 2002). Most recently, between 2016 and 2017, all western states grew by more than 1 percent, except New Mexico (which grew by 0.1 percent) and Wyoming (which was the only western state to lose population [−1.0 percent]; US Census Bureau 2017).

Looking at the states with the greatest percent population change from 2016 to 2017, seven of the top ten are in the West (see table 1).

Table 1: Percent Population Change 2016 to 2017 in the Western States
Idaho 2.2%
Nevada 2.0%
Utah 1.9%
Washington 1.7%





South Carolina 1.3%

Source: US Census Bureau 2017

This trend is also evident when looking at city growth. The western US shifted from majority rural to majority urban (defined by the US Census Bureau as places of 2,500 or more persons) in the 1910s. Since that time, this trend has intensified, with cities in the western US experiencing substantial growth (see graph 1).


Source: US Census Bureau 2010

Data from 2010 to 2017 reveal that cities with top growth in population are located nearly exclusively in the southern and the western US (US Census Bureau 2018), and the West has the largest percentage of the total population—of any region—living in urban areas (Cox 2016). This stands in contrast to the percentage of land that is urban in the West. The northeast still maintains the highest urban land percentages, with the West maintaining the lowest (Cox 2016; US Census Bureau 2012). This reveals the complexity and duality of the West and shows the Old West narrative confronting the New West narrative: wide-open spaces, including public lands, that are sparsely populated and that have been and are valued for their resources in combination with large urban centers wielding burgeoning populations.

Changing Demographics

Much of the population growth in the western US is in urban centers. This fact is important for a number of reasons including that with an increasing number of urban dwellers, the West is seeing those who follow the New West narrative outpacing the old westerners.

The urban residents of the West fit the American Community Survey’s (US Census Bureau 2016a; US Census Bureau 2016b) description of urban residents: they are younger, are more likely to be single, and have more education than those who live in rural areas. Urban residents within the US and the West are less likely to live in the state of their birth (48.3 percent compared to 65.4 percent), own their own home (59.8 percent compared to 81.1 percent), and serve in the military (7.8 percent compared to 10.4 percent; US Census Bureau 2016a). They are more likely to be racially and ethnically diverse; minorities comprise a larger percentage of urban populations compared to rural populations (although the percentage of minorities living in the rural US is also on the rise), as more than half of all minority groups live in large metro areas or their suburbs (Frey 2011).

Given these facts, it is not surprising to find that the western US, with a large and growing percentage of urban dwellers, has a growing image supporting the New West narrative. There is greater diversity in race and ethnicity and a larger shift from the traditional US conservative ideology. Examining race and ethnicity, the percentage of racial and ethnic minorities is expanding. US Census Bureau data show this: the second half of the twentieth century saw rapid growth of races other than white in the West, and by 1990, the West was the region with the highest percentage of races other than white (Hobbs and Stoops 2002, 84). Looking at political ideology for 2017, in the West, 32 percent of adults identified as conservative, while 30 percent identified as liberal (Saad 2018a). This is a slight contrast to the US as a whole where 35 percent of adults identified as conservative and only 26 percent identified as liberal (Saad 2018a). Additionally, it is a marked contrast to the traditional West, where historically the conservative ideology label substantially outpaced the liberal label. Considering the diversity and ideology together, the shifts seem logical. Older, ethnically white, less-educated adults tend to identify as conservative, while younger, racially and ethnically not white, more highly educated adults tend to identify as liberal. Thus the increase in urban-dwelling, young, and ethnically diverse residents is shifting the political ideology of the region. Data shows this playing out, with states that are not experiencing the intense population growth, such as Wyoming and Montana (refer to table 1), seeing virtually no change in ideology from 2008; however, states with substantial population growth, such as Oregon and California, are seeing some of the largest decreases in the conservative label (Saad 2018b).

Demographic Shifts and Public Lands

The demographic shift portrayed in the rural-urban shift is affecting the public lands and the politics and policies of the public lands. This is in large part due to the shifting preferences of the people who now call themselves westerners. The changing makeup of the people who live in the western US has generated a new majority vision of the Western landscape. Simply stated, the number of residents who lobby and vote for changes in public lands usage is increasing, and there is a greater emphasis on the New West narrative.

The general characteristics of the past decades’ new residents to the West, those of the New West, include individuals whose jobs are in a metropolitan area but who focus nonwork time on outdoor recreation. These western migrants moved for quality of life and natural amenity conditions (Krannich, Luloff, and Field 2011), are generally postindustrial middle class, and present a profound challenge to the Old West ideas of public lands (Tracey and Sizek 2017). This group pushes the recreational values of public lands rather than resource extraction.

However, there is also a second group of migrants moving to the West and who also often support the New West narrative, though they are less-obvious supporters of this narrative. This group is comprised of those who do not regularly visit public lands but who appreciate the aesthetic value of the landscape (Krannich, Luloff, and Field 2011). This group is varied and includes a growing number of minorities who tend to visit and use public lands at a much lower percentage than the ethnically white. According to US Forest Service (2018) data, African Americans accounted for 1.2 percent and Latinos, or Hispanics, accounted for 5.7 percent of national forest visits, while ethnic whites accounted for 94.6 percent of the national forest visits (Flores 2018). Likewise, studies focused on national parks have found similar trends, with minorities making up only 22 percent of national park visits (Taylor, Grandjean, and Gramann 2011). Despite a lack of visitation, public lands and particularly their aesthetic value are still important to minorities (Burns, Graefe, and Covelli 2006). This group is also comprised of those who moved to the western US mainly for employment opportunities rather than seeking a western lifestyle. Employment opportunities in service, industry, and technology—areas not directly linked to public lands—are expanding in the western US (Hogan 2016); of the top ten states for job placement, seven are within the western US (Cohn 2018). Again, these individuals lack that direct connection to the public lands themselves but often appreciate the lands for the aesthetic value and the tourism associated with the public lands that creates service and industry jobs.

The complexity of growing diverse populations and expanding urban centers is modifying the pressure on those who manage public lands and who develop the policies for them. What resources the landscape provides and the economics associated with these lands has become more complex as New West narratives and communities push against Old West narratives and economic necessities.

Economic Development of the Old West and the New West

As alluded to previously, with changes in population and demographics, there is a change in economics. Within the western US, this shift has a direct impact on the politics and policy of public lands. At first glance, the economy of the western US appears to be booming. From 1970 to 2014, real personal income in the West rose substantially faster than in the other regions of the US (Headwaters Economics 2016). Likewise, employment outpaced the other regions nearly two to one (Headwaters Economics 2016). Although true, this growth is not evenly distributed and in many ways, delineates two western economies: that of the Old West’s rural communities and that of the New West’s urban centers.

Economy of the Old West

The traditional Old West economy includes dependency on natural resource-based commodity production for many small, rural communities with symbiotic relationships to the adjacent unsettled land and public lands. The narrative, and much of the reality, of the Old West economy is one focused on natural resource–dependent, labor-intensive jobs (farming, ranching, mining, fishing, logging); neighbors helping neighbors; and isolation from population centers and much government “meddling.” This created an economy that was visually apparent—drawing economic benefit from the natural resources provided in the surrounding landscape. The impact of this economy is also apparent: Old West extraction impacts the landscape—grazing, mining, and logging all leave visible marks of the use of the lands. Yet as the Old West narrative suggests, these individuals provide for many of us (beef from grazing cattle, energy from mining coal). We all use the resources; we all hold some responsibly. According to the Old West narrative, it is the old westerners that understand land stewardship and how to minimize their impact so future generations may also economically survive. Furthermore, it was and is the efforts of the Old West that have and continue to protect open spaces and public access. These Old West economic characteristics still exist in many rural communities and still shape much of the region’s cultural mind-set.

Economy of the New West

Over the last few decades, new forms of economic development expanded or evolved in the western US. These include tourism, recreation, and associated service industries, along with technology. The economy of the New West generally does not directly connect people to the hands-on work within the western landscape, as does mining or ranching, but does utilize the resources provided by the landscape through tourism and associated services. Thus the New West economy is linked with public lands resources but through a reinterpretation of the resources. The New West economy provides experiences within the landscape (guide services and tourism) and the services supporting those experiences (restaurants, breweries, outdoor gear retail). The New West economy also provides jobs less connected to the lands but that support those individuals, the postindustrial middle class, who want access to experiences and thus live in the West. This accounts for much of the technological boom in the West, well-educated potential employees want work-life balance and natural amenities that the West provides (Whitney 2015). Overall, the narrative of the New West economy focuses on the natural amenity values—scenic quality and recreational opportunities associated with undeveloped, topographically varied landscapes and ready access to open spaces.

The Economic Changes and Public Lands

Traditionally, public lands in the West were associated with the Old West commodity production—logged for timber, mined for minerals, grazed by cattle and sheep. Subsequently, the people of the West supported resource extraction on public lands, as it financially benefitted many of them. The more recently evolving economy, built on natural amenities, renewable nature services, and the existence of minimally developed areas and clean environments, also brings supporters of public lands but ones who do not want the visible marks of resource extraction. The West’s shift away from agriculture and resource industries to a New West economy with a greater focus on recreation, technology, and service industries tipped in the 1980s. Thus particularly since the 1980s, resource management of the western public lands has made clear shifts to support the New West narrative (Krannich and Jennings 2011). This shifting management perspective emphasizes recreational uses and protection of ecologically sensitive areas and creates greater restrictions or even prohibits extractive activities (Carlton 2018; Winkler et al. 2007). This move supports the New West narrative—that of greater “conservation” of the public lands—which allows the development of trails but minimizes grazing.

It was the New West narrative supported by “in-migrants” to the West that has shifted public lands management priorities to what they see as greater conservation. However, an unintentional consequence of this change has been that the resulting policies helped attract even greater numbers of in-migrants and, more recently, a growing number of seasonal residents. This expansion of in-migrants and in particular, the seasonal residents who want easy access to public lands are driving greater change—both to public lands management and policy, dealing with increasing numbers visiting the public lands, and to the physical condition of the public lands themselves.

Physical Change in the West

Human activities have always affected the physical setting of the West. With increasing populations in all areas of the West, there are increasing numbers of human impacts. Expansions of the Old West, such as increased mineral development and agriculture and forestry expansion, are occurring; however, these losses are relatively small compared to the losses caused by urban sprawl (Center for American Progress 2018).

Urban sprawl within the West drives expanding boundaries of cities and towns and the development of formerly natural areas. Between 2001 and 2011, the footprint of Western cities and towns grew by nearly 17 percent (Center for American Progress 2018), and this trend continues. Within the West, the sprawl of housing and commercial buildings accounts for half of the West’s loss of natural areas (Center for American Progress 2018). This loss has occurred mainly on private land (such as ranch land sold to developers); however, development associated with this building has direct impacts on public lands. For example, the increasing number of roads and transmission lines, both to physically connect new development and to accommodate larger numbers of people visiting public lands, has impacted these areas irrevocably (Maffly 2018).

A second physical change involves water. As the population grows, the arid West’s limited water supply is stretched thin. Add to this the droughts that have plagued the West in recent years, and there is the potential for great conflict between the Old West and the New West. The increasing usage in urban areas, including demands for green lawns and golf courses, is more and more often confronting agriculture, which still uses more than 90 percent of consumptive water in many Western states (US Department of Agriculture 2018). The politics and policies of Western water directly involve public lands; Western water comes from snowmelt and flows across these lands. Thus when there are water shortages, it is not only the people of the West who feel the effects but also the physical landscape itself. Among other issues, public lands have been impacted by engineering projects designed to move or store water, changing the location of water and often stressing aquifers (King 2018).

Finally, it is important to note that the future of the West will continue to impact physical changes, not only due to growth and water usage but also due to climate change. The West has experienced and will continue to experience higher temperatures, lower snowpack, and the associated effects of dryer landscapes (Mote et al. 2018; Union of Concerned Scientists 2018). The West is expected to see increases in extreme weather, including the prevalence and duration of drought, particularly “megadroughts” that last for more than two decades (Cook, Ault, and Smerdon 2015). Each of these traits will affect public lands—the ability to support cattle or sheep, the variety and size of trees, the vegetation and associated aesthetics, the temperature of water in blue-ribbon trout streams—thus affecting both the Old West and the New West narratives and forcing a change to what comes next—the Next West.

Next West

Over the past decade (or so), we have seen hints as to where the Next West is heading. The Next West is maintaining narrative elements of both the Old West, independent residents living in wide-open spaces, and the New West, modernity in an environmentally clean expanse, but is also bringing forward new issues and challenges.

Population and Demographics

If trends hold, the Next West will continue to see rapidly expanding populations, particularly in urban centers. However, this will also necessitate further expansion, intruding into some of the traditionally rural Old West areas. Thus regions of the Next West will be connected to the New West urban centers—by the transportation corridors and technology—yet may be located in somewhat “rural” Old West settings (Headwaters Economics 2015).

Second, the Next West will likely be comprised of growing numbers of people drawn to the quality-of-life attributes of the western region but whose presence and lifestyle will change the places and characteristics they desired. The increasing population, many of who value the healthy lifestyle, abundant wildlife, and wide-open spaces, will physically move into and thus take over the open spaces, displacing wildlife and the natural processes for maintaining clean air and clean water.


Economically, the Next West likely includes continued expansion of consumer service industries, tourism, telecommunication, and laptop-toting, remote-working individuals. This economy will likely push the Next West toward greater development of the connection areas—increasing the wildland-urban interface and moving the contrasting New West lifestyle closer to the Old West, where much of the open space and many of the public lands exist. Increased number of individuals in formerly small towns, changing work landscapes (neighbors no longer helping neighbors corral cattle or providing economic assistance when mineral prices are down, leading to fewer miners, for example, being employed), and increasing numbers of second homes, trophy homes, and seasonal residents will impact both the Old West economy and the connection within communities. Furthermore, the telecommuting, service-oriented economy will likely further the divide western residents, creating contrast in how public lands resources are viewed and who can afford to live in the region given the recreational economy’s profound influence on property values.

Overall, the economy of the Next West will in part create a situation where those moving to the West for amenities are themselves destroying the amenities. This is already occurring with the displacing of ranchers and others whose lifestyles have helped maintain the open spaces and with the overpopulation of public lands, thus forcing the development of tourist-based amenities within the “undeveloped” areas. The Next West economy just may become a postindustrial high-tech rapidly growing society that still encompasses resource extraction but that slowly destroys elements of the beautiful and fragile landscape that supports western ideals.

Physical Changes

Adding to the population- and economically based physical changes, the Next West will also be forced to address physical changes due to climate change. Signs of climate change in the western US include rising temperatures, lower and earlier-melting snowpack, and dryer forests suggest a future with increasing water scarcity in already dry regions. This will further reduce water availability for the competing water uses of urban areas, recreational activities, agriculture, and mining. Furthermore, as predicted, precipitation will decline 20 percent to 25 percent in the West by 2100 (Kaufman 2018), increasing pressure on groundwater supplies, driving longer and more damaging wildfire seasons, intensifying forest death, and resulting in worsening air and water quality (Union of Concerned Scientists 2018). Finally, climate change also suggests a trend of more extreme weather—meaning the possibility of floods interspersed with drought and more extreme cold and hot weather. Each of these characteristics will affect public lands and the ability to utilize the diverse resources contained within the public lands: those utilized by the Old West and those utilized by the New West. The management and policies of these changing scenarios are of vital importance to the West. They will either find a way to help maintain the open spaces of the public lands for use by many stakeholders or they will dictate where the West will head and who will utilize the public’s public lands. The West will need to adapt and in doing so will have to choose to either adapt inclusively, drawing from the strengths of the Old West communities and the New West’s diversity, or exclusively, focusing on who can financially maintain a rapidly changing region.

Conclusions: The Next West and Public Lands

Future effects of the Next West on public lands will be substantial. More people will visit the fragile lands causing physical change and pushing for their idea of what the Western lands should provide. There will be greater numbers supporting the New West narrative of recreational uses, modern lifestyle, and clean environment. However, there will also be a need for the resources produced from the extractive industries of the Old West and a Romanization of the independent western lifestyle. And there will be the reality that none of these can exist with the force of change that the West faces. The environmental politics and policies of the Western public lands will need to address all these elements.

A shift from the Old West to the New West occurred over the past century. As change continues, the question to ask is what is next? What is the Next West? To understand where the West is going, it is necessary to understand the reality of the region but also the stories or narratives told about the region, powerful in determining both future trends and policies that impact the West and its iconic public lands. Overall, rather than all-out change, the western US has and is likely to continue experiencing a layering—keeping of the old but adding the new, which now extends to the Next West. With the layering comes a more complex and diverse society, economy, and culture, a move beyond believing this region is one-dimensional to a reality of multiple Wests: the rural, the urban, and the connector, all of which define themselves in part with the existence of public lands and the changing politics and policies that manage those public lands.


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