Public Land Policy

Week 7 Narrative – New West vs. Old West

Where is natural resource policy, in particular, western public land policy moving? How are today’s conflicts going to be resolved?  Are there changes that need to be made or are we moving in the right direction to healthier landscapes?  Are there new, innovative ideas to resolve long standing environmental issues?

Over the next three weeks, we will explore and discuss the future of the west and natural resource issues, with a special focus on public land management.

New West vs. Old West

Charles Wilkinson, author of the book Crossing the Next Meridian about the future of public lands policy, wrote about what he called the “Lords of Yesterday.”  These “Lords” are those extractive uses of western lands that promoted settlement in the west, namely: mining, livestock grazing, logging, dams, and water rights.  Wilkinson contends that the laws under which these uses are managed need to change or are already changing because of the influx of population and booming metropolitan areas.

Since the 1990’s, there has been a conversation about the direction of western public land management.  It has been framed as New West vs. Old West.  So what is the difference between the New West and the Old West?

Old West New West
Rural economy Postmodern economy
Focus on extractive commodity industries Focus on  service based activities
Livestock grazing Services and retail oriented
Mining Recreation
Logging Retail, information
Utilitarian philosophy Conservation and preservation oriented


Can you think of any other resource uses that would fall in either category?

The debate of Old West vs. New West is difficult to quantify.  Economies that are more commodities based are easily measured whereas a service based economy is much softer because the users don’t directly pay for the resource they’re using.  Instead, those economies have to be measured indirectly in purchases of gas, groceries, restaurants, equipment, etc.

This debate is especially poignant in rural areas and is plainly evident in places like Escalante, UT.  Read the following article from the Salt Lake Tribune about the town’s perceived difficulty in coping with a changing economy: (Links to an external site.)

Another county this has happened in is Kane County, UT. I’ve worked closely with the Kane County Commissioners on various projects throughout my professional career.  They do have an appreciation for the New West and the economic impact it has on their rural communities.  Yet you can’t ignore the first-hand accounts of how it has changed these rural places.  What I hear most in my line of work is the types of jobs the New West brings to these towns.  It does bring jobs but jobs in the service industry aren’t always as high paying as the commodities sector.  This has made it difficult for young people with families to live in these rural areas.  This is evident by the article linked above; e.g. a shrinking school population.  This holds true in Kanab, Utah as well from one on one conversations I’ve had with people that live there.

What will happen to these traditional rural communities?  Would it be important to try to promote traditional uses like ranching in order to reach other goals like preserving open space? Watch the following video about the urbanization of the west:

the video is a little cheesy but it makes a valid point worth considering).

Another thing to consider with the New West are the more recent developments on public lands and energy development, including oil and gas extraction, on those lands.  Technology has made more oil and gas available on public lands.  Also, renewable energy development like solar and wind have become major components of the United States’ energy strategy (just drive over to Milford, UT to see the largest wind farm in Utah with the majority of turbines located on BLM land) and an emerging use of public lands.  How do these more recent commodities fit in to the New West?

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