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Politics Shift As City Folk Fill the West


From his office here, venture capitalist Steven Nightingale looks out at the vaulted peaks of the Sierra Nevada. On this day, like many, a haze hugs the mountains, but it does not yet creep down to the suburban tract homes that nestle in the foothills.

As a businessman, Mr. Nightingale sees the view from his window as a sign of prosperity. But as a man who loves the West's open spaces, he speaks wistfully of an earlier era. "Anybody who works in a Western city who bothers to look out a window understands the problem," he says.

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The "problem," simply put, is growth. The West is booming, like no place else in America, far outpacing the rest of the US in job creation and population growth. Contrary to the image of the West as a land of sagebrush and cowboys, most newcomers are headed to cities, making this the most urbanized region in the nation.

Just as growth is changing the landscape, it is also reshaping the political agenda in the West. Traditional Western issues such as grazing fees and other federal land-management policies are less likely to concern the region's urban dwellers - prompting politicians from the local to the national levels to scramble to revise their messages for the New West constituency.

"Urban dwellers don't know what the [federal] Bureau of Land Management or the [US] Forest Service does in this state," says Steve Bradhurst, chairman of the county commission for Washoe County, which includes Reno. "They're focused on urban issues. They're glad there's open space out there for them to recreate in."

Indeed, when asked to identify the issues most important to them in this election year, Reno area residents tick off a familiar list: welfare reform, poverty, Social Security and Medicare, health care, and taxes. Only one voter, Julie Evans, who comes from three generations of Montana ranchers, touches on classic "Western" themes.

"I'll vote for [Bob] Dole just to get [President] Clinton out," she says, standing in front of a Wal-Mart in Fallon, Nev. "He's just been a nightmare for ranchers and farmers." But, admits Ms. Evans, "most people around here are not aware of this - they have no connection to the land."

Voter disinterest in land-management battles between local governments and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) may seem out of character for a state that led a "Sagebrush Rebellion" less than 10 years ago. Certainly, the fight over land, and against the federal government, remains an integral part of politics in most Western states. But times have changed, and so has Nevada.

Home to a booming gambling and entertainment industry, Nevada has the fastest rate of population growth in the nation. Nine out of 10 Nevadans live in two neon-lit cities - Reno and Las Vegas. At current growth projections, "we have to double all of our infrastructure in 10 years," says Kathleen Truman, professor of environmental studies at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. Inadequate waste-treatment facilities, air pollution, and the need to build a new school every month for the foreseeable future are a few items on urban Nevada's agenda.

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As a result, area politicians, who have long lived by the tough-talking rules of the West, are adopting more compromising postures - even when it comes to the contentious Western issue of water. An agreement struck this month, for example, allocates the precious water of the Truckee River among competing users and enables local officials to buy water rights from farmers. Mediated by Nevada Sen. Harry Reid (D) and the Clinton administration, the deal delivers a vital resource to the urban constituency, while guaranteeing to environmentalists and a local Indian tribe a steady flow downstream.

"What you're seeing is a reallocation of water from agricultural to urban use, and you're getting an environmental benefit in part driven by rapid urbanization," says Graham Chisolm of the Nature Conservancy's Nevada office.

Democratic Party officials see an advantage in this new Western demographic landscape. "The Dole campaign thought that rural issues would drive the West into their camp and made a lot of miscalculations in states like Arizona and Colorado that actually have far greater urban populations," says Barry Dill, field director for the Clinton campaign in Arizona.

A Democratic presidential nominee has a chance to win Arizona for the first time in decades, in part because of economic well-being and the fears of retirees, who make up a large part of the population there and in the West. Asked to name the most important issues in the presidential campaign in a survey conducted by The Arizona Republic last month, Arizona voters put the economy, education, Social Security/Medicare, and crime on the top of their list.

Still, some argue that the ethos of the Western frontier, with its tradition of individualism and private property rights, remains a powerful force. "While we may be the most urbanized state, most people don't consider themselves living in cities," says Reno Mayor Jeff Griffin, a Republican. "The Great West is very close to the average Nevada citizen."

Nightingale, the venture capitalist, sits on the board of one of Reno's oldest casinos but also spent time penning a newly published novel set in Nevada's empty spaces. He sees that attachment yielding a new constituency for environmental protection. "People coming to the interior West are usually coming from places that are more crowded, more polluted and places less agreeable in many ways," he says. "They look upon the West, and they value it with fresh eyes."

* The first article in this series appeared yesterday.

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