BYU study reveals changing population and income patterns in rural Mountain West


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BYU research confirms the increasing disparities between the less affluent “Old West” counties, known for traditional mining, agriculture and ranching, and the more affluent “New West” counties, characterized by natural beauty and recreational opportunities such as hiking or distinguish skiing.

Photo by Nate Edwards, BYU Photo

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

For a recently published study 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. Her research confirmed the increasing disparities between the less prosperous “Old West” counties, known for traditional mining, farming and ranching, and the more prosperous “New West” counties, characterized by natural beauty and recreational opportunities 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 leisure, while neighboring counties that lack these resources struggle to maintain their population and income. That’s a stark 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 Old West since 2000 has been under 1%, while New West counties average 1.35 % deceive. Some counties saw particularly extreme differences. For example, in Emery County, Utah, where the economy is based on mining and agriculture, the population declined 8% from 2000 to 2019. In contrast, nearby Grand County, Utah, home to Arches National Park, saw its population grow 15% over the same period.


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Growing disparities in population and income among the rural counties of Mountain West have serious consequences such as rising real estate prices and resource shortages.

Photo by Nate Edwards, BYU Photo

With these migrants, new money is coming to the New West. For example, the Grand County, Colorado recreation area increased its total income by $78 million from 2011 to 2019 due to income disparities among immigrants, emigrants, and nonmigrants. On the other hand, the mining district of White Pine, Nevada lost $21 million in total income through the same migration processes. And although typical migrants are younger and have less money than those who stay in one place, this trend was reversed for New West counties in the study: Incoming migrants had 6% higher per capita income than local residents and one vice versa 21% higher income than foreigners. migrants go.

These patterns continue a trend that dates back to the 1990s when Otterstrom and Shumway last measured these demographics, but more recent factors have widened the gap.

“There are fewer people working in agriculture and animal husbandry since there have been more concentrated farms. As the US population ages, there are baby boomers who want to use their retirement savings to settle in places with a pleasant climate or other natural amenities. Then there’s remote work, which of course has increased dramatically during the pandemic to allow people to live in the New West counties and work for a company headquartered elsewhere,” Otterstrom said.

The resulting income gap between residents has major consequences for New West County culture.

“Population pressures are raising property prices and straining resources,” Otterstrom said, noting that these pressures somewhat mirror recent astronomical increases in the cost of living in more urban areas. “Locals can no longer afford to live in their hometowns and are being displaced. So maybe you work at a hotel in Park City or Aspen, but you can’t live in Park City or Aspen. This can take a psychological toll. Also, if you lose too many locals, you lose a sense of the history of a place.”

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

The professors also have hope for the Old West. “The economies of the Old West may not shrink further if these counties innovate to take advantage of new developments, such as the push for renewable energy through increased desert solar farms or demand for mined resources like lithium and copper,” he said otter stream “Each county has its own unique culture and history, its own appeal and potential.”

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