Study shows changing population and income patterns in rural Mountain West

BYU research confirms growing inequalities between less affluent “Old West” counties known for traditional mining, farming and ranching, and more affluent “New West” counties offering natural beauty and recreational opportunities such as hiking or skiing. Credit: Nate Edwards, BYU Photo

The adage rings true in rural Mountain West: the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

For a study recently published in The professional geographer, BYU professors Samuel Otterstrom and Matthew Shumway analyzed population and income trends in the Mountain West region over the past 20 years. Their research confirmed growing inequalities between less affluent “Old West” counties known for traditional mining, farming and ranching, and wealthier “New West” counties offering natural beauty and opportunity. recreation such as hiking or skiing.

“Rural Mountain West is complicated — you can’t lump everything into one category,” Otterstrom said. “Rural counties with desirable amenities attract tourists and new residents with more income and free time, while neighboring counties lacking these resources struggle to maintain population and income. is a striking difference.”

IRS and US Census data from Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming showed that the average annual population growth in the Far West was less than 1% since 2000, while New West counties averaged 1.35%.

Some counties experienced particularly extreme differences. For example, in Emery County, Utah, where the economy is based on mining and agriculture, the population decreased by 8% between 2000 and 2019. In contrast, the county’s population neighboring Grand, Utah, home to Arches National Park, rose 15%. % over the same period.

With these migrants comes new money for the New West. For example, recreation-based Grand County, Colorado increased its overall income by $78 million from 2011 to 2019 due to income differences between in-migrants, out-migrants, and non-migrants. On the other hand, White Pine Mining County, Nevada, lost $21 million in overall revenue because of these same migration processes.

And although typical migrants are younger and have less money than those who stay in the same place, this trend was reversed for the New West counties in the study: incoming migrants had a per capita income of 6% higher than locals and 21% higher than others. go migrants.

These models continue a trend dating back to the 1990s, when Otterstrom and Shumway last measured these demographics, but more recent factors have magnified the gap.

“There are fewer people working in agriculture and ranching since the rise of more concentrated commercial farms. With America’s aging population, you have baby boomers looking to use their retirement savings to s ‘set up in places with a nice climate or other natural amenities. . Then you have remote working, which of course has increased dramatically during the pandemic, so people can live in New West counties and work for a company headquartered elsewhere,” Otterstrom said.

The resulting income gap between residents has major implications for the culture of New West counties.

“Population pressure is driving up property prices and straining resources,” Otterstrom said, noting that this pressure in some ways mirrors the recent astronomical increase in the cost of living in more urban areas. “The locals can no longer afford to live in their hometowns and are being evicted. So maybe you work in a hotel in Park City or Aspen, but you can’t live in Park City or Aspen. That can have a psychological impact. Also, when you lose too many inhabitants, you lose a sense of the history of a place.”

Despite the significant challenges these trends pose for Old and New West counties, the professors pointed out that there are positives as well. Wealthier transplants and tourists in New West counties bring in more tax revenue, and those who have moved to the rural west to enjoy the region’s natural beauty can be uniquely motivated and equipped to help preserve it. .

The teachers also have hope for the Wild West. “The economies of the Old West may not continue to decline if these counties innovate to take advantage of new developments, like the push for renewable energy through increased solar farms in the desert or the demand for mining resources like lithium and copper,” Otterstrom said. “Each county has its own culture and history, its own attraction and potential.”

More information:
Samuel M. Otterstrom et al, New West and Old West in the Twenty-First Century: The Rich Get Richer, The professional geographer (2022). DOI: 10.1080/00330124.2022.2103719

Provided by Brigham Young University

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