Features

January/ February 2014 How the West Was Reinvented

Nudged by Bill Clinton, an economy based more on recreation than extraction is transforming the rural West.

By Ryan Cooper

These changes have only just started to percolate—Garfield and Kane Counties, the home of Grand Staircase, are still heavily Republican. But for starters, folks in Escalante have largely come to terms with the monument, especially given that, thanks to Clinton, the town has few other options. These days they’re looking for ways to take advantage of Grand Staircase even if they aren’t terribly happy with how it came to be. In 2011, Escalante mayor Jerry Taylor testified before Congress in support of a bill that would have required that any new monuments get congressional approval first, but in an interview with me he spoke mostly about trying to take advantage of the place. “We have this asset now, and we need to capitalize on it,” he said. “I call it America’s Outback.”

But taking advantage of a latent recreation economy takes work. Creating museums or launching advertising campaigns can be a heavy lift for a town of fewer than 800 people. Environmentalist organizations, which have spent a lot of money buying and retiring grazing leases in the monument, might consider helping these small communities develop their recreation potential and, in the process, create new stakeholders with an interest in protected lands.

Ultimately, it is much easier to picture a western economy centered largely around tourism than around coal, oil, and gas. The Mountain West has a nearly inexhaustible supply of coal, but America’s coal industry is being hammered by cheap natural gas, Environmental Protection Agency rules banning new coal-fired plants, and the prospect of additional EPA rules that will phase out existing plants. The formation of a national-level climate policy may be hard to imagine, but it is certainly not impossible, and every major climate-related disaster increases the likelihood that such a policy will be enacted. Carbon mining of any kind is likely doomed over the long term.

The potential for a recreation-based economy, on the other hand, is as vast as the West itself. Americans have long loved their national parks. But because we aren’t creating many new ones, and we are creating more Americans, the crowds at the most famous parks, like Yellowstone and Grand Canyon, get bigger every year. And as developing countries in Asia and Latin America grow richer, their expanding middle classes will increasingly have the means to satisfy the abiding human desire to travel and see great natural beauty—and nowhere is more beautiful than the American West. In the future, there will be more people eager not only to visit the West for its natural beauty but to live there as well, if the swelling populations of places like Denver, Boise, Albuquerque, and Salt Lake City are any guide.

It’s highly likely that western towns in close proximity to our national parks, and especially off-the-beaten-path places like Escalante, will increasingly “get discovered” and experience significant growth. Presuming, that is, we preserve the pristine air and stunning landscapes that draw us to these places to begin with.

Ryan Cooper is a National Correspondent at The Week, and a former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @ryanlcooper

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