Future Of West Tied To Saving, Not Extracting, The Land

January 23, 1999

ANAHEIM -- The mythical road to riches in the American West has always been tied to a deeper coal mine, a bigger clear-cut, a greater take from the earth. But those boom-and-bust operations have produced more ghost towns than prospering ones.

The road to economic stability for the west today, argues a University of Wisconsin-Madison rural sociologist, is one that takes an ironic twist to the frontier axiom that "all wealth comes from the land."

William Freudenburg says western towns that are healthiest today are those that have stopped chasing new mines, smokestack industries and prisons and focused instead on the west's greatest asset, its natural beauty. Many rural towns have growing populations and revitalized economies built on promoting environmental quality.

"The new prosperity in the west is based on the region's natural beauty, rather than on tangible resources like coal, trees, cattle and sheep," says Freudenburg. "The only mining in these towns is mining the coins out of the pockets of tourists."

Freudenburg is part of a Jan. 23 symposium at the American Association for the Advancement of Science exploring the changing character of the American West. A century after Frederick Jackson Turner's famous "frontier thesis," the west now faces a riding tide of challenges, including relentless development, battles over public land and environmental blight.

The symposium focuses on the interior west composed of eight states of the Great Basin and Rocky Mountains. From 1980 - 1990, the population in these eight states (from Arizona and New Mexico north to Montana and Idaho) has increased 20 percent, twice the national average.

One telling example of change is Kremmling, Colo., a town of about 2,000 people an hour's drive from Steamboat Springs. For decades, its citizens saw industries such as sawmills as the surest route to prosperity. But that all changed about a decade ago, when the last timber-related industry shut down.

"A lot of people expected the town to dry up and blow away," Freudenburg says. But within a few years of the plant closing, the town's population was growing. People moved there because of its mountain scenery and quality of life, and relatively lower costs than nearby Steamboat Springs.

Freudenburg says thriving towns not only have tourism, but an influx of retirees and a growing service economy. New businesses such as software development and consulting can be based anywhere, and more people are choosing small towns with gorgeous views.

Back in the 1970s, Freudenburg was studying small western towns that were riding the wave of an immense coal-mining boom. But in May of 1982, the west experienced its "Black Sunday," when Exxon Corp. pulled the plug on the largest oil and shale development in U.S. history. The shock waves affected the entire region. "It all went away," Freudenburg says.

Freudenburg says one of the biggest enemies of the west is the frontier mentality itself. It's captured in the vernacular of the region, in phrases like "you can't eat the scenery" and "next-year country."

"We're becoming prisoners of our perspectives that are rooted in the time of Frederick Jackson Turner," Freudenburg says. "That era of the frontier may have died, but the logic of the frontier still hasn't."

University of Wisconsin-Madison

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