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How the New West Is Won

Utah and other Western states struggle with huge influx of settlers

PAUSING as he unloads a U-Haul trailer outside his new home in southern Utah, Roy Southwick ticks off the reasons he and his wife, Doris, moved here: Warm, dry weather; proximity to spectacular national parks; a strong community of fellow Mormons; and neighbors who "just love to visit."

"It really is a good place to live," says Mr. Southwick, an energetic great-grandfather and retired radio broadcaster from Idaho. Speaking of the rapid development and population growth that's been occurring in Utah, he adds (only half jokingly), "I'm here.... Now it's time to stop."

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But the extraordinary influx of newcomers into the wide-open spaces of Utah and other Western states is unlikely to slow any time soon. Drawn by the economic opportunities, less-stressful lifestyles, and stunning scenery, these internal American migrants are causing problems of growth as well as social and political conflict.

Some old-timers say they're being pushed out, culturally if not literally, by those of different values. Attitudes toward the land - environmentalism vs. traditional use of natural resources - are a major issue. Pockets of political discontent are growing as a new chapter in the "Sagebrush rebellion" unfolds.

Growth and development are jarring concerns in many parts of the country. But in this region, site of so many Hollywood sagas, there's a wealth of history and myth at play as well.

"There's a struggle for the soul of the West that's taking place right now," says University of Washington historian Richard White, recent recipient of a MacArthur "genius" grant for his perceptive and sometimes provocative writing and teaching on the American West. "Where we go from here is not clear."

Utah's population of about 2 million is expected to grow by another half million over the next decade, most of it concentrated near Salt Lake City or in the southern part of the state around Cedar City and St. George.

Though the population is still two-thirds Mormon, roughly 23,000 people immigrated to Utah last year.

"You have two phenomena going on," says David Magleby, a political scientist at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. One he calls the "repatriation" of Mormons who left the state to seek their fortune back when the economy wasn't strong enough to accommodate steady population growth. These former residents now are returning to raise families or retire.

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The other demographic shift, Professor Magleby observes, involves non-Mormons (as well as Mormons) attracted to high-quality employment. Much of this is in the high-paying computer industry, which includes some 1,500 firms in the state. Novell and WordPerfect are based here. Micron Technology Inc. is building a new chip-manufacturing plant that will employ 3,500 Utahns.

All issues lead to growth

In an interview at the state capitol in Salt Lake City, Utah Gov. Michael Leavitt (R) says, "There isn't an issue that isn't affected by growth. You can stretch it over human-service needs, over housing needs, over crime, over education."

As evidence of the weight this issue carries with Governor Leavitt, he has just launched a Growth Summit drawing in elected officials, civic leaders, and other interested parties around the state to define legislative solutions addressing water, transportation, and open space.

"Urban sprawl is encroaching on our open space, and agricultural land is being lost," Nancy Nelling of the League of Women Voters told a Growth Summit information meeting held recently in Salt Lake City.

"Is our green landscape appropriate in a desert?" Ms. Nelling asked. "Can we afford to use business-as-usual 19th century [water-allocation] precedents when we're entering the 21st century?" The civic group has called for a moratorium on new water development.

Those who are most opposed to the tremendous growth taking place in Utah now are environmentalists. They are concerned that the introduction of too many people - and their homes, cars, and shopping malls - threatens one of the state's greatest assets - its striking natural beauty.

"The question is not whether there's going to be development here," says builder and environmentalist Mark Austin, "but what kind." (See story, right.)

On transportation, Leavitt observes: "People in the West are in love with free movement, and we like to be able to move about and not feel as if we're constricted. But we're beginning to see traffic jams, and we're starting to see air quality problems."

Roughly 80 percent of the state's population is squeezed into a 100-mile urban stretch running north from Provo through Salt Lake City to Idaho, flanked along the Wasatch Range of the Rocky Mountains. "Traffic congestion along the Wasatch is reaching frightening proportions," warns the current issue of Utah Business magazine.

State agencies here are working on plans to rebuild bridges and highway interchanges to handle increased traffic and also to construct an electric light-rail commuter system. Total costs could top $1 billion.

Utah's attempt to deal with growth before it gets out of hand is similar to the effort begun by Colorado Gov. Roy Romer (D) 10 months ago. He too called a conference on growth. The outcome: a plan for handling the anticipated jump in population that depends on such creative solutions as linking new ski permits to the building of affordable housing and makes local and state planning for managed growth compatible.

New 'Vacationland'

While state officials look for solutions to cope with the growth, the industry catering to visitors is becoming a major economic force.

Travel and tourism now account for more income here ($3.4 billion a year) than do ranching, farming, and mining combined. And as Utah primes for the state centennial next year, the sesquicentennial of the first Mormon pioneers a year later, and then the Winter Olympics in 2002, the amount of tourism-related business is likely to keep growing.

Many Utahns acknowledge that without new growth their state could stagnate. Again, Colorado provides an example. Putting the brakes on expansion there in the early '80s contributed to a decade-long recession that the state is only now emerging from.

There's really no mystery to Utah's allure to those who visit or migrate. Typically, the jaded Easterner or recent transplant from crowded California embraces city life in Utah with gusto. Utah's wide streets and easy parking remain a vast improvement over what they've just left. And the typical reception is a wonder to many newcomers.

"The people are very open, very friendly, very honest," says Ken Yusko, recently arrived in St. George from Bedminster, N.J., his eastern accent standing out like pastrami on a sourdough roll.

"Not to knock New York or New Jersey, but that's very different from what we're used to," he says, enjoying yet another gorgeous mountain sunset from the home where he and his wife, Ingrid, have lived for just two weeks.

Here in St. George, that friendliness even extends to out-of-state journalists. "How about a piece of pecan pie?" Chamber of Commerce president Chapin Burks asks a visitor who's just come through the door.

St. George, one of the state's fastest-growing cities, is a microcosm of the growth - and the sometimes negative results of it - happening all across the state and the region.

Washington County's population has jumped by more than 35 percent just since 1990. A retired Exxon executive from Houston, Texas, Mr. Burks has been here just three years himself. "Growth," he says, "was and is an issue."

The evidence of that is clear: housing developments marching up and across the hillsides as builders hustle to fill the demand.

"It's growing like crazy," says Kelsi Webber, a young realtor whose developer-father is selling new units in a 163-home subdivision almost as fast as his crews can build them - many to "snowbirds" or Northerners and Easterners who spend the winter months here.

Political fallout

All this has meant some political conflict here in St. George.

A group advocating more controls on growth this year gathered signatures for a November ballot initiative that would have phased in a 3 percent per year limit on new residential building permits (which have been growing at more than four times that rate).

But realtors, homebuilders, the Chamber of Commerce, and other interests circled wagons to defeat the measure by more than 2 to 1. And in the same election, three candidates who had hoped to constitute a growth-control majority on the city council all lost.

"This last year has been heck for me," says Cheer Owens, one of those defeated candidates.

"At the present rate of growth, we'll have lost about half the agricultural land in the county," adds her husband, Robert, a retired state circuit court judge who helped lead the failed growth-limitation effort.

"I don't know why anybody would want to make a buck for the moment and have faith that the future will take care of itself," he says.

"There's kind of two minds here," says political scientist Magleby. "There's a school of thought that's always believed we were underdeveloped and we needed growth and jobs and so forth.

"But there is also a newer kind of ethic in the state that is saying we want to save this, and we're here because we like the mountains and the desert and we enjoy the quality of life which in part is influenced by the fact that we are not overcrowded."

* This is Part 1 of a three-part series. Part 2, on civil unrest over property rights, appears next week; Part 3, on environmental ranchers, will appear in two weeks.

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