New Geographies of the American West: Growth, Land Use, and the Future of the American West

New Geographies of the American West: Growth, Land Use, and the Future of the American West

by William Riebsame Travis

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Reconciling explosive growth with often majestic landscape defines New Geographies of the American West. Geographer William Travis examines contemporary land use changes and developmpatterns from theMississippi to the Pacific, and assesses the ecological and social outcomes of Western development.Unlike previous "boom" periods dependon oil or gold, the modern population explosion in the West reflects a sustained passion for living in this specific landscape. But the encroaching exurbs, ranchettes, and ski resorts are slicing away at the very environmthat Westerners cherish.Efforts to manage growth in the West are usually stymied at the state and local levels. Is it possible to improve developmpatterns within the West's traditional anti-planning, pro-growth milieu, or is a new model needed? Can the region develop sustainably, protecting and managing its defining wildness, while benefiting from it, too? Travis takes up the challenge , suggesting that functional and attractive settlemcan be embedded in preserved lands, working landscapes, and healthy ecologies.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781597266147
Publisher: Island Press
Publication date: 05/11/2007
Series: Orton Foundation Innovation in Place
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
File size: 23 MB
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About the Author

William Riebsame Travis, Ph.D., Clark, 1981, is associate professor in the Departmof Geography at the University of Colorado at Boulder. His work focuses on natural resources management, culture and landscapes of the American West, public lands, and the evolution of governing approaches to western land and resources. He has a long-term research interest in how groups, like ranchers, construct notions of landscapes and resources.

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New Geographies of the American West

Land Use and the Changing Patterns of Place

By William R. Travis


Copyright © 2007 William R. Travis and the Orton Family Foundation
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-59726-614-7


The Long Boom of Western Development

THE AMERICAN WEST is in transition. Population growth at more than twice the national rate and leading rates of per capita job growth, business starts, and income growth attracted national attention to the region in the 1990s. The national media offered a steady stream of stories hyping the West's latest development boom while also expressing residents' concerns about urban sprawl, displaced wildlife, and stretched water supplies. Those concerns flooded onto the editorial pages of the major newspapers, into local public meetings, and onto election ballots. Predictably, the growth surge also evoked allusions to the West's frontier history. Some observers saw this latest development rush as another round of the region's infamous boom-and-bust cycle; they argued that the current development rush would bust, just like the gold rushes, cattle booms, and energy bull markets before it. The implication: we had better not do anything to squash the boom and thereby risk making the inevitable bust even worse. Growth boosters spent millions of dollars instilling this fear in voters during campaigns over growth management initiatives on the 2000 ballot in Arizona and Colorado.

The boom did slow, briefly, along with the national economy, in 2001–2002, giving many political leaders an excuse to ignore public concerns about sprawl, traffic, and loss of open space. But most western places (fig. 1.1) continued growing rapidly right through the national slowdown (especially large cities such as Phoenix and Las Vegas and charismatic rural areas such as those near Yellowstone National Park), and the region continued to outpace the nation in growth. This sustained growth belies the expectation, based on a misreading of western history, that busts inevitably erase the effects of growth, that regional economic expansions always end in contractions. This view bears closer scrutiny as we contemplate decades of future western development.

I use the words "boom" and "bust" here with some hesitation because in this chapter I will argue that we have mischaracterized western development history as a repetition of booms and busts, as a cycle of growth followed by retrenchment. This misconception is especially relevant to land development: except in very isolated cases, land development does not come and go (ghost towns are sufficiently rare to be tourist attractions). Instead, development subjects land to increasingly intense uses that permanently transform the natural and cultural landscapes, even after growth spurts end. The West's geography is permanently inscribed more by boom than by bust.

Episodes of rapid population growth and land development—the "booms" of western history—do indeed subside, and perhaps a few places actually lose some population in local downturns. But the trajectory of western development is much more cumulative than the cyclic historical model implies. Even in the last episode that westerners called a "bust"—the end, in the early 1980s, of the big run-up in energy development that was spurred by high oil prices—no western state showed a permanent loss of population (that is, no state had fewer residents in 1990 than it had in 1980), and many areas still outpaced national growth rates. It was not long, moreover, before the word "boom" was again heard in the West, in reference to the 1990s development rush, which did not slow until after the new millennium.

I started to study western development closely during the 1990s boom, and I began writing this book during the slowdown in regional development brought on by the national economic downturn that marked the second and third years of the new millennium. Spanning these different patterns of growth strengthens this analysis by allowing a more measured assessment of enduring regional land use problems, not just the effects of a particular boom decade. Yet I must report at the outset that, even in a period of slower growth, I was still impressed with the region's potential for future rapid development and its ability to grow even when the national economy languishes. As of this writing, in 2006, the Interior West's population is still growing faster than that of any other region of the nation, and the fastest-growing places in the nation are immediately east of me in Weld County, Colorado.

If anything, the slowdown between 2001 and 2002 and the subsequent return to faster growth showed that the region's development trajectory remains fundamentally unaltered. It did provide a breather, offering westerners a chance to assess the landscape changes visible across the region, to catch up with growth, and maybe even to do some effective planning and growth management. But ratcheting growth, well illustrated by the increase in the region's share of total U.S. population over time (fig. 1.2), is the overarching fact of western development and its centuries-long, cumulative spread across the landscape.

The Start of the Long Boom

Since humans arrived some 13,000–15,000 years ago, most of the West has been occupied, at least seasonally, at increasing human densities, resulting in a spreading transformation of its landscapes. Some early, intense developments did come and go. The citylike settlements of the Chacoans and Hohokam in the Southwest fell into disrepair after 1200 A.D. These ancestral Puebloans didn't "disappear," although they did de-urbanize for the most part. Some were absorbed into a more dispersed Southwestern culture; others maintain settled pueblos along the Rio Grande to this day.

The European invasion, starting in the 1500s, set in motion the development trajectory that marks the region today. The rate of historical development has varied, quickening and slowing, in episodes that came to be seen as the endemic western pattern of "boom and bust." Episodic economic and demographic booms certainly did put new people and investment into western places faster than prevailing frontier diffusion rates. The Spanish incursion up the Rio Grande Valley in the early 1500s brought on rapidly expanding irrigated agriculture and settlement. After gold was found on the American River at Sutter's Mill on January 24, 1848, the European American population of California increased from roughly 15,000 to over 60,000 in just one year, and reached some 220,000 by 1852. A few years later, gold was found in the southern Rocky Mountains, and by the summer of 1860 over 5,000 miners a week, some originally on their way to the California diggings, inundated the Rockies. Next it was silver in Montana and Idaho. Although many of the western towns that got their start in mining never became big—and today a few are even abandoned—the wealth that flowed in and out of the gold, silver, and copper fields spurred the growth of cities such as Denver, Boise, and San Francisco, cities that then fueled further growth. Moreover, mining required railroads and wagon roads, and this infrastructure also began to serve ranching and logging (even as the minerals played out), which were operating pretty much wherever the requisite resources existed by 1900.

Still, the economic regime of gold, cattle, and timber—like most economies based on raw materials—was inherently unstable. Although a bust inevitably seemed to follow each boom, precipitated by a crash of commodity prices, a change in consumer tastes, or a catastrophic event (as when the open-range livestock industry virtually ended in the drought- and blizzard-induced "big die-up" of 1886–1887), these setbacks were not permanent. Many of the forty-niners left the California gold fields as the placer deposits played out, but they didn't leave California, and the region never returned to anywhere near its pre-rush population. There were other reasons for settling in California: farming, trade with Asia, and the strategic occupation of territory wrested from Mexico. The underlying settlement regime was more stable, and more cumulative, than the region's image as boom-and-bust territory suggested.

Commodities to be shipped out were not the West's only attraction; land itself lured people, especially during the national demobilization following the Civil War. Historian William Robbins described the West as looming large in the nation's post–Civil War economic outlook. It was seen "as an investment arena for surplus capital, as a source of raw materials, and as a vast vacant lot to enter and occupy." To settle the nation's western reaches quickly and to disperse demobilized armies, the federal government encouraged western settlement by surveying the region and offering homesteads for a small fee. It also granted land for 25 miles on either side of the rails to the transcontinental railroad companies, which then further encouraged settlers to fill the space and, not incidentally, their freight and passenger cars. If early settlement faltered due to climate or economics, the government stepped in to shore it up, with outright subsidies and with infrastructure such as dams, irrigation projects, and crop insurance.

Western land speculation was self-reinforcing. Although the history books focus mostly on tangible resources such as cattle, timber, and gold, the deep-seated expectation that land values would increase was, and still is, a key driving force in western development. Historian Patricia Nelson Limerick put it this way:

If Hollywood wanted to capture the emotional center of Western history, its movies would be about real estate. John Wayne would have been neither a gunfighter nor a sheriff, but a surveyor, speculator, or claims lawyer.

He might also have been a real estate broker. The nation's "manifest destiny" was rooted in acquiring, dividing, and reselling property, and settlers in the West took to it with a passion and rapidity that kept them ahead of the government's efforts to survey land and record land claims. Although we tend to see the "land rush" as a uniquely frontier phenomenon, there is little difference between the speculation-driven development in the homesteading era and the late twentieth-century run-up in western resort real estate, or the more mundane appreciation of suburban homes. Speculation feeds, and feeds on, the rational expectations (and, occasionally, the irrational exuberance) of landowners, who then push for, or at least tolerate, the pro-growth postures of local leaders because their policies sustain land appreciation.

Homesteaders brought new land uses and technologies that transformed the region's ecology and economy in more profound and enduring ways than their predecessors had, imposing a land regime based on private property parceled out and deeded for permanent occupation and development. With government support, they introduced domestic livestock grazing essentially everywhere (degrading and transforming the vegetated landscape), cut most old-growth forests, and diverted water from streams onto fields and off to the cities.

Conjoined national purpose and individual ambition yielded an impressive result: the progressive settlement and industrial and mercantile development of a region that explorers and surveyors had pronounced, in the early 1800s, essentially uninhabitable. The federal government maintained much of the settlement and development momentum by building reservoirs, constructing roads, and encouraging extraction of resources—from grass to silver—on public lands at below-market fees. Even its withdrawal of some lands from homesteading to be maintained as forest reserves, national parks, and common grazing allotments spurred development by reducing the supply of private land and imparting special values to some lands.

In a sense, a great federally boosted development project, not unlike the grandiose five-year "new lands" development plans of the Soviet Union (except that it was more effective), was deployed in the American West. Government support, in the past and today, is one reason why the West's settlement history is more cumulative than boom-and-bust, with more growth than recession. Even the great national economic bust of the 1930s occasioned something of a development boom in the West: while the Great Plains was losing population, the Interior West and Pacific states grew. The Relief and Construction Act of 1932 and other make-work elements of the New Deal brought a flood of the unemployed from eastern and midwestern cities to the West. The region outpaced all others in its per capita share of federal funds for construction of irrigation projects, roads, public buildings, trails, and even tourist facilities. Four of the biggest dams in the world today were under construction simultaneously in the West in 1936, all with federal money, equipment, and planning. Farmers driven out of the Great Plains by drought moved to California. Unemployed easterners joined the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). My father, Frank Riebsame, was shipped from Philadelphia to a CCC camp near Flagstaff, Arizona, where he fought fires, built trails in the Grand Canyon, and generally had the "time of his life" in the far West.

The West continued to grow when World War II ended the Depression. Both hot and cold wars spurred even more federal investment and set the stage for the postindustrial development described in the rest of this book. Historian Richard White assessed the region's attractiveness during World War II as follows: "All the old liabilities of the West suddenly became virtues. Vast distances, low population density, and arid climate ... became major assets as military planners scrambled to locate new military bases." Wartime and postwar policies further opened the region, providing infrastructure, people, and industry. Geneva Steel Works was moved to Utah, away from a Pacific coast vulnerable to attack. The atomic bomb was designed, built, and detonated at secret sites in the interior. The Cold War kept the nuclear and strategic mineral and manufacturing sectors alive: rocket engines built and tested on the shores of the Great Salt Lake would carry atomic warheads built in secret complexes on the Columbia River and atop New Mexican mesas, then tested in the Nevada deserts. Many military retirees and defense workers decided to stay on, and the country's abiding westward migration quickened, compelled by jobs, but also by climate and scenery.

The Last Great Boom and Bust?

Although I paint a picture here of a region experiencing much more boom than bust, a recent episode of western growth is often cited as revealing the continued grip of the archetypal boom-followed-by-bust pattern. The 1970s oil embargo by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) raised global energy prices dramatically and pushed American policymakers to emphasize domestic energy exploration and production. In what Charles Wilkinson called the "Big Build Up," oil riggers, geologists, and coal miners inundated the West—where most of the untapped energy in the contiguous United States was located—from the coalfields on the Great Plains to the oil wells off the California shore. Western population grew by almost 40 percent in the 1970s. On the Colorado Plateau that Wilkinson writes about, the rush included the construction of eleven coal-fired plants generating electricity to meet the needs of Phoenix, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Salt Lake City. The twelfth proposed plant, on the Kaiparowits Plateau, finally generated enough public outcry—against the pollution, water demands, and landscape effects of mining, all for producing electricity to be exported off the plateau—that California Edison cancelled the project.

When the oil cartel could no longer sustain high prices in the face of mounting global supplies (evoked by OPEC's artificially high price), the cost of energy plummeted, and the West's energy boom busted in the early 1980s. Boomtowns such as Gillette and Rock Springs, Wyoming, and Rifle and Rangely, Colorado, descended into the development doldrums, their new roads and sidewalks—laid out to accommodate subdivisions for the energy workers and their families—leading to sagebrush slopes instead of houses. The breakneck development, with all the accompanying grief over inadequate housing and services, negative effects on the environment, and rising crime, suddenly seemed desirable in the post-boom hangover of lost payrolls, home loan defaults, and out-migration.

But even this bust—and the term is at least locally accurate in this case, especially in western Colorado, where huge federal subsidies had been sunk into an ill-fated scheme to bake petroleum out of oil shale—did not depopulate the energy boomtowns by even a quarter. Many parts of the West, such as the amenity-rich zones around national parks and the urban swaths from Southern California to the Colorado Front Range, actually gained population right through the bust. All eleven western states, even those that bore the brunt of the oil price collapse, ended the decade of the 1980s with more people (and less open space) than they had at its start. While most rural counties in Wyoming and Montana lost population in the 1980s, the counties around Yellowstone National Park, home to attractive towns such as Jackson and Bozeman, still grew at twice the national rate, as did counties with larger towns and cities. The region's largest cities also felt the loss of energy jobs, especially those in which the energy firms had planted administrative offices. Although much was made of empty office buildings in Denver, and although the city's population declined by roughly 10,000 during the 1980s, the larger, mostly suburban, Denver metro area still grew by over 400,000 residents in the same period. Downtown Denver had more than made up its lost population by 1993.


Excerpted from New Geographies of the American West by William R. Travis. Copyright © 2007 William R. Travis and the Orton Family Foundation. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Page,
Introduction - Building a Better Mountain?,
Part One - Understanding Growth, Development, and the Changing American West,
1 - The Long Boom of Western Development,
2 - Development Geographies of the New West,
3 - Footprints of Development,
Part Two - Making Sense of the West's Development Landscapes,
4 - The Metro-Zones,
5 - Beyond the Suburban Frontier,
6 - Resort Geographies,
7 - The Gentrified Range,
Part Three - Shaping the Future Geographies of the American West,
8 - Understanding the Challenge of Land Use Planning,
9 - Planning a New West,

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