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.
—Arthur Chapman, “Out Where the West Begins”
The western United States 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, as well as wilderness and the struggles to overcome this wilderness. As Vice President Lyndon Johnson noted in a 1963 speech, “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 characterized by legendary heroes such as Jesse James, who stole from 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’s robberies were brutal and at times deadly). Likewise, the current-day “New West” is a place where individuals experience beauty and grandeur in Rocky Mountain, Yellowstone, and Yosemite National Parks, but it is also where growing numbers of people experience homelessness in the urban corridors. Understanding the western United States, 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 a constant in the western United States. 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 United States are redefined and remade. Despite this persistent change over time, however, much of the land and many of the core characteristics and values of this region remained the same. Thus the contradictions of change and consistency, the layering of the traditional and the modern, the mixing of an identity shaped through narrative and through on-the-ground change are what defines the western United States.
The sheer extent of western public lands is a major 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. But with continued growing populations, related demographic and economic change, and resulting physical change, it appears the western United States is facing its largest transformation yet. The West appears set to experience change that will shift the region not only from sparse populations to fast-growing urban centers and from resource extraction to recreation, but from charted weather patterns to environments affected by extreme weather and alterations in climate. These more extensive shifts will surely affect the environment, including public lands, of the region, transforming its characteristics and the policies that shape its management. 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 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
As lovers of 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 together events 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. Understanding the narratives presented of a region such as the western United States helps reveal dominant perspectives and the images that people ascribe to the region. In these stories are elements of truth, desire, and 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,” 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 United States (according to Vincent et al. 2017, public lands comprise 47% of the eleven western states in the Lower 48), 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 land management and policies. Thus understanding the western United States 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 its old and new narratives.
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 that landscape. It includes iconic cowboys living off the land, hardy souls digging for gold and other valuable minerals, and small groups of individuals harvesting what the rugged landscape can provide. The narrative of the Old West is one of self-made pioneers and rural and small communities closely linked to industries dependent on resource extraction and commodity production, such as forestry, ranching, mining, and fisheries.
With this narrative as its base, the image of today’s Old West focuses on the still-romanticized idea of hard-working, largely ethnically European, men (and to some degree women) whose tough individualism carries them through boom and bust cycles of the land. The people of the Old West understand the western landscape and apply this knowledge to survive economically; they appreciate the landscape for what it provides and recognize there are limits to the amount of resources that can be taken and the number of individuals who can survive on the western lands.
The New West
Although the narrative of the Old West is still evident today, a secondary narrative for the western United States also exists—that of 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. But 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; of technology and simplicity of living “off the land.”
The New West narrative highlights environmentalism and diversity, setting up a contrast to the Old West, but it also shares the Old West’s reverence of 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 the last half century has created 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 water rights and releases from Idaho’s Lucky Peak dam (water rights), and the controversial wolf management and greater sage grouse listing across the western plains and sagebrush ecosystems (endangered species).
Furthermore, westerners are being forced to recognize the negative aspects of both the Old West and the New West. The Old West often ignores human causalities and environmental costs of the Old West’s management of the western landscape and its people (Aron 2016). The New West ignores the negative aspects of amenities desired by the New Westerners—like increasing consumption of goods, a desire for 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 public lands are and must continue to change. For a region with two identities, the Old West and the New West, 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 United States 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 West has risen steadily since the inclusion of the region into the United States. The push by manifest destiny and the promise for space to call one’s own intensified with the end of World War II and has continued. 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% except New Mexico (which grew by 0.1%) and Wyoming, which was the only western state to lose population (−1.0%) (US Census Bureau 2017).
Looking at the states with the greatest percentage population change from 2016 to 2017, seven of the top ten are in the West (see table 1.1).
This trend is also evident when looking at city growth. The urban makeup of the western United States (defined by the US Census Bureau as places with 2,500 or more residents) shifted from majority rural to majority urban in the 1910s. Since that time, this trend has intensified, with cities in the western United States experiencing substantial growth (see table 1.2).
Table 1.1. Population Change in the United States, 2016-2017
|State||Percentage of Population Change|
|Arizona and Florida||1.6%|
|Colorado, Oregon, and Texas||1.4%|
Source: US Census Bureau (2017)
Data from 2010 to 2017 reveal that cities with the top growth in population are located almost exclusively in the southern and the western United States (US Census Bureau 2018), and the West has the largest percentage of 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 having the lowest (Cox 2016). 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 exist alongside large urban centers wielding burgeoning populations.
Table 1.2. Western urban population as a percentage of the total population
Source: US Census Bureau (2012)
Much of the population growth in the western United States is in the urban centers. This fact is important for a number of reasons, including the fact that increased migration into urban areas will result in an increased belief in the New West narrative as rural communities (subscribing to an Old West narrative) are seeing populations that are far outpaced by urban populations. The urban residents of the West fit the American Community Survey’s description of urban residents (US Census Bureau 2016a, 2016b): they are younger, are more likely to be single, and have more education than those who live in rural areas. Urban residents within the United States and the West are less likely to live in the state of their birth (48.3% compared to 65.4%), own their own home (59.8% compared to 81.1%), and serve in the military (7.8% compared to 10.4%) (US Census Bureau 2016a). They are more likely to be racially and ethnically diverse; minorities comprise a larger percentage of urban populations than rural populations (although the percentage of minorities living in the rural United States 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 that the western United States, with a large and growing percentage of urban dwellers, increasingly has an image that supports 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 support this fact: 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, p. 84). Looking at political ideology for 2017, in the West, 32% of adults identified as conservative, while 30% identified as liberal (Saad 2018a). This is a slight contrast to the United States as a whole, where 35% of adults identified as conservative, and only 26% 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 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 people tend to identify as liberal. Thus the increase in urban-dwelling, young, ethnically diverse residents is shifting the political ideology of the region. Data show this playing out, with states that are not experiencing the intense population growth, such as Wyoming and Montana (refer to table 1.1), seeing virtually no change in ideology from 2008, while states with substantial population growth, such as Oregon and California, are seeing some of the largest decreases in the conservative label (Saad 2018b).
Demographics Shifts and Public Lands
The demographic rural-urban shift is affecting public lands, especially their politics and policies. 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 United States has generated a new majority vision of the western landscape. Simply stated, the number of residents who lobby and vote for changes in public land uses is increasing, and there is a greater emphasis on the New West narrative.
The general characteristics of past decades’ New West residents include individuals whose jobs are in a metropolitan areas but who focus nonwork time on outdoor recreation. These western migrants moved for quality of life and access to natural amenities (Krannich et al. 2011), are generally part of the 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.
But there is also a second group of migrants moving to the West. These residents also often support the New West narrative, although they are less obvious supporters of this narrative. This group is composed of those who do not regularly visit public lands but who appreciate the aesthetic value of the landscape (Krannich et al. 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 do the ethnically white. According to 2018 US Forest Service data (Flores 2018), African Americans accounted for 1.2% and Latinos or Hispanics accounted for 5.7% of visits to national forests, while ethnic whites accounted for 94.6% of national forest visits (Flores 2018). Likewise, studies focused on national parks have found similar trends, with minorities making up only 22% of national park visits (Taylor et al. 2011). Despite lack of visitation, public lands—particularly their aesthetic value—are still important to minorities (Burns et al. 2006). This group is also composed of those who moved to the western United States mainly for employment opportunities rather than for the western lifestyle. Employment opportunities in service, industry, and technology—areas not directly linked to public lands—are expanding in the region (Hogan 2016); of the top ten states for job placement, seven are within the western United States (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 them that creates service and industry jobs. Overall, the common characteristic of the individuals that comprise this second group of migrants is a desire to consume an aesthetically and economically gentrified landscape; thus an appeal to minimize resource extraction on public land may minimize these elements.
The complexity of growing diverse populations and expanding urban centers is modifying the pressure on those who manage and develop the policies for public lands. The shifting number reveals that a greater percentage of the western population views the public lands as useful for recreational and aesthetic purposes, and the economics related to supporting those purposes, rather than the traditional natural resource extraction for economic benefit. What resources the landscape provides and the economics associated with these lands has become more complex as New West narratives and communities push again Old West narratives and economic necessities.
Economic Development of the Old West and the New West
With changes in population and demographics comes a change in economics. Within the western United States, this shift has a direct impact on the politics and policy of public lands. At first glance, the economy of the western United States appears to be booming. From 1970 to 2014, real personal income in the West rose substantially faster than in the other regions of the United States (Headwater Economics 2016). Likewise, employment outpaced the other regions nearly two to one (Headwater 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 and public lands. The narrative, and much of the reality, of the Old West economy is 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.” These characteristics created an economy that was visually apparent—drawing economic benefit from the natural resources provided in the surrounding landscape. Old West extraction affects the landscape; grazing, mining, logging all leave visible marks of the use of the lands. As the Old West narrative suggests, however, these individuals provide for many of us (beef from grazing cattle, energy from mining coal); we all use the resources, we all hold some responsibility. According to the Old West narrative, it is the Old Westerners who understand land stewardship and how to minimize its impact so that future generations may also economically survive. Furthermore, efforts of the Old West 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 United States. These included 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 land 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 that have less connection 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 employees want the 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, as they were logged for timber, mined for minerals, and 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 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 is the New West narrative supported by in-migrants to the West that has shifted public land management practices to give conservation greater priority, as new residents to the West favor more conservation. But an unintentional consequence of this change has been that the resulting policies helped attract even greater numbers of in-migrants and, more recently, seasonal residents. This expansion of in-migrants, particularly the seasonal residents who want easy access to public lands, is driving greater change—both to public land 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 region, there are increasing numbers of human impacts. Expansion of the Old West, such as increased mineral development, agriculture, and forestry, is occurring, but these losses are relatively small compared to urban sprawl (Center for American Progress 2018).
Urban sprawl drives expanding boundaries of cities and towns, and development of formerly natural areas. Between 2001 and 2011, the footprint of western cities and towns grew by nearly 17% (Center for American Progress 2018), and this trend continues. The sprawl of housing and commercial building 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 ranchland sold to developers), but development associated with this building has direct impacts on public lands. For example, increasing numbers of roads and transmission lines, to both physically connect new development and to accommodate greater numbers of people visiting public lands, has affected public lands (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 region 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, confronts agriculture, which still uses more than 90% 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 on public lands and flows across public lands. Thus, when water shortages present, 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 affected by engineering projects designed to move or store water, changing locations of water and often stressing aquifers (King 2018).
Finally, the future of the West will continue to effect physical changes, not only because of 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 “mega-droughts” that last for more than two decades (Cook et al. 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 change to what comes next, the 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 it 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. This will also necessitate further expansion, however, 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 they may be located in somewhat “rural” Old West settings (Headwater Economics 2015). Also, the Next West will likely be composed of growing numbers of people drawn to aspects of the quality of life of the western region but whose presence and lifestyle are changing the places and characteristics they desired. The increasing population, many of whom 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 employees working remotely. This economy will likely push the Next West toward greater development of the connection areas—increasing 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. Greater numbers of individuals residing in formerly small towns, the changing work landscape (where residents no longer help neighbors corral cattle or provide economic assistance when mineral prices are down and thus fewer miners are employed), and seasonal residents buying second homes will affect both the Old West economy and the connection within communities. Furthermore, the telecommuting, service-oriented economy will likely further the divide western residents, creating a contrast between how public land resources are viewed and who can afford to live in the region given the recreational economy’s profound influence on property values.
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 overpopulating public lands, thus forcing development of tourist-based amenities within the “undeveloped” areas. The Next West economy just may become a rapidly growing postindustrial high-tech society that still encompasses resource extraction but slowly destroys elements of the beautiful and fragile landscape that supports western ideals.
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 United States include rising temperatures, lower and earlier melting snowpack, and dryer forests, suggesting a future with increasing water scarcity in already dry regions. This will further reduce water availability for the competing needs of urban areas, recreational activities, agriculture, and mining. Furthermore, precipitation is predicted to decline 20% to 25% 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 inclusively draw from the strengths of the Old West communities and the New West’s diversity or exclusively focus on who can financially maintain in 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 different ideas 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. But there will also be a need for the resources produced from the extractive industries of the Old West and a romanticization 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 of 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 and the stories or narratives told about the region, both powerful in determining future trends and the policies that affect the West and its iconic public lands. Overall, rather than all-out change, the western United States has and is likely to continue experiencing a layering—a keeping of the old while adding the new—that 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 accepting 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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