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The West's Destiny

September 18, 1988

The sun has set for now on the Sun Belt concept of the intermountain West as a region of economic prosperity and growth. Except for the West Coast and scattered metropolitan areas, boom and bust have struck the West again. The area is suffering through another prolonged economic drought and wondering, what next? In the past five years the rural region has lost population. Energy projects stand idle or unbuilt. Ranches cannot be sold. Towns, either. Young people go away and do not come back.

The West stands again as a new frontier, a blank slate onto which the future is yet to be inscribed. This is the thesis of a special edition of High Country News, a respected environmental and social journal of the intermountain West published in Paonia, Colo. The News called on writers and specialists throughout the West to provide an assessment of the region and its prospects as it enters the 1990s.

In one article Publisher Ed Marston portrays a West that has been almost separate from the rest of the nation, except for the cities and a few isolated resort complexes like Aspen and Santa Fe. It is built on an old economic ethic of natural resources and agriculture, inextricably tied to federal land policies and knit together by a culture "anchored in small communities, extended families, conservative religions and an education system designed for the procreation of that way of life," Marston wrote.

But the old way has unraveled. The energy boom of the 1970s posed severe environmental threats, but also brought jobs and wealth. Ranchers could afford to expand or sell out to the energy companies. The rural renaissance attracted affluent professionals fleeing the frenzy of the cities. New businesses opened along Main Streets from Gallup to Billings. And then, bust. And no more is the federal government the generous patron, and managing general partner, of the West through spending on giant water and energy programs.

Marston said the theme of all the manuscripts that he solicited is that the West is being reworked from the ground up. The frontier has been reopened. More than ever before, Westerners have an opportunity to affect their own affairs without decisions imposed from Washington or the headquarters towers of giant energy companies. They now can compete--and plan--for economic development, at some risk perhaps to traditional values. Or they can try to cling to the old ways and languish until the next energy boom brings another round of chaotic growth and disruption.

High Country News offers no easy answers. But, clearly, the adversity of the 1980s also presents the West with the greatest opportunity that it has ever had to control its own destiny.

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