The American West: Traditional and Trendy, with Photos

A dramatic comparison of federal land ownership in the West versus other regions.

A dramatic comparison of federal land ownership in the West versus other regions.

The Atlantic magazine recently published a piece about the West entitled  The Graying of Rural America, which argues that, “As cities attract young people, rural America has become older, whiter, and less populated.”

The authors focus on Fossil, Oregon, the county seat of Wheeler County, which they describe as slowly dying. According to The Atlantic, the town began “bleeding jobs” after a lumber mill closed in 1978. Young people leave for educations and jobs in larger cities, and old people become trapped. They exist mostly on investment earnings or government checks like Social Security.

However, an article in Wikipedia, citing Census Bureau data, shows that Fossil reached its peak population around 1960, well before the lumber mill closed, then vacillated up and down, gaining population between 1970 and 1980, and again between 1990 and 2010. What’s going on? Are such towns really dying, or are they just hanging on like a patient on life support.

Based on my own traveling in the West since 1969, the Wikipedia article seems to better represents western experience. My first trips were in 1969 and early 1970s, and they took me through most of the West, from the deserts in Arizona to the Canadian border in Washington, Idaho, and Montana. After that, I didn’t travel extensively in the West until the last 13 years (after retirement) when I again made several trips. Many of the small towns I traveled through on my early trips stayed roughly the same over the next 30+ years, but many others grew into trendy, modern communities. These are not discussed much in the Atlantic piece, yet as any traveler can verify, the West now comprises many examples of both old and remade towns.

In Oregon, many of the communities are white, which The Atlantic highlights as a general characteristic of the rural West. In other parts of the West, however, significant populations of Hispanics or American Indians live in small towns and cities. Many of these resemble Fossil, and they often reflect a decline in mining, lumbering, ranching, and farming.

Federal Lands, New Uses

The federal government owns huge amounts of the West—576,897,348 acres, or 52% of 12 western states (roughly 55% if American Indian trust lands are included). In contrast, only 4% of the remaining 38 states is federally owned ( Many of the Fossil-like Communities depended on access to minerals, timber, and rangeland owned by the government. Starting about 50 years ago, federal priorities shifted away from traditional rural industries and moved toward recreation, preservation, and environmental quality. Large areas of federal land have been classified as wilderness or given other designations that limit traditional commercial uses. Even on lands not so designated, the emphasis has shifted away from mining, lumbering, and grazing.

The shift in priorities was initially forced on the federal land agencies as environmentalists lobbied Congress for new laws, then used them to sue federal agencies into compliance. These battles still occur, but it’s also true that the agencies have largely internalized and accepted the viewpoints they were forced to adopt.

In turn, the public lands have become a magnet for new breeds of westerners: athletes, pleasure seekers, and woods dwellers (who build homes snuggled against public lands). Hikers, kayakers, bicyclists, climbers, skiers, and more now use the public lands extensively. Families and retirees explore the West in motorhomes and trucks with trailers. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of public (federal, state, local) campsites to accommodate them. Ski developments now boast hundreds of nearby condos and vacation homes, and the same developments now include four seasons of recreational activities.

Trendy Towns

The young people in nearby cities come in throngs for recreation, and many communities that were slow-moving rural western towns have transformed themselves into modern communities that offer pet grooming, art and jewelry galleries, meditation centers, book stores, quilt shops, candy stores, western boot outlets, and outdoor stores where customers buy $50 water bottles. Many towns try to attract a modern boomtown lifestyle and they may yet succeed. Many others see no such potential.

In other words, it’s not just that the small towns of the west are stagnating; it’s more that the entire region is becoming dependent on play, on people recreating in or near the modern towns like Durango and Breckinridge, CO., Taos and Angel Fire, NM, Jackson Hole and Cody, WY, White Fish and Missoula, MT, Coeur d’-Alene and Salmon, ID, and many others.

I remember traveling through Durango and Pagosa Springs, CO around 1970. Durango was a cattle town: slow-moving, dusty, full of cowboys and ranchers along with the businesses needed to support ranching. Pagosa Springs was a sleepy little town mostly given to activities supporting the nearby National Forest. In both, a large proportion of the housing was in mobile home parks. Now they are reborn western towns with new homes and businesses like those mentioned above.

When one drives through the West today, the two types of towns seem to meet the eye in roughly equal proportions. The traditional towns have little employment, while the remade towns support a variety of jobs. Often the best jobs are with the Forest Service, Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, or the Bureau of Land Management—all federal agencies.

A Dream Job

In June of this year we stopped at an out-of-the-way store near Salmon, Idaho, and while we were having a cool drink on the porch, we overheard a phone conversation that a young man who worked for the U.S. Forest Service was having with a person who was coming to pick him up. He had just completed a raft trip down the Salmon River with a group of tourists, but in his case, the raft trip was “work.” There were a few archeological sites as well as campgrounds along the river, and the Forest Service worried that the sites were beginning to deteriorate from over use. The young man talked about the purpose of his trip, which was to “check things out” and see if he could come up with some ideas about how to slow the deterioration, maybe adding some restrictions on use and access, he thought, but he wasn’t yet sure. He said that now, at the end of his trip, he didn’t have any specific ideas, but he felt the trip was worthwhile. What a job!

Fifty years ago a similarly situated young employee of the U.S. Forest Service would more likely have been reconnoitering for a logging chance or a mining or grazing lease. Now he’s drifting down river in pursuit of ideas about protecting sites from over-use.

The Real West

The Atlantic article offers an incomplete, maybe over-wrought view of the rural West in decline. Instead, the rural West is changing into a region that supports massive amounts of outdoor recreation, including all the amenities. At the same time, the athletes, pleasure seekers, and woods dwellers bypassed many communities that remain quietly hanging on.

The photo gallery below illustrates the major themes here, with the exception of the Native American and Hispanic communities. You’ll see remnants of the old, and plenty of the new. To enter the gallery, click on the first photo. To exit, hit the “esc” key on your computer, or click on the “X” in the upper corner of your screen.