3 kinds of counties in the Mountain West

Brief by Central Staff

Geography – August 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

3 Kinds of Counties in the Mountain West

The Mountain West has been through booms and busts since the days of the fur trade, if not the Anasazi (some “bust” might explain why they departed Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon). What’s driving the boom this time around?

J. Matthew Shumway, a geography professor at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, examined current trends and wrote about them last fall in Small Town, a bimonthly magazine published by the Small Towns Institute and aimed at public officials.

Shumway’s article is rather technical, since it wasn’t written for a general audience, but it was quite informative once we got past that.

For most of U.S. history, he observes, people moved from rural areas to cities, and any rural population growth came from natural increase.

The 1970s reversed that trend for the first time, when rural areas (except those dominated by agriculture) began to grow from migration. The historic pattern resumed in the 1980s, but the 1970s trend resumed in the 1990s — migration to rural, or “nonmetropolitan” areas.

But this growth is hardly uniform in the Mountain West, so Shumway asks why some counties grow and others don’t.

He examined county economies, demographics, and locations to derive three categories:

Magnet Counties have the highest growth rates. They are near enough to metropolitan areas to attract commuters. They have a lot of federal land, and their economies are based on tourism, retiree services, government employment, and manufacturing.

Remote Counties have the lowest growth rates, and may be losing population. They sit far from metro areas, “are economically dominated by extractive types of industries, and have limited appeal for retirees or tourists.” Farming, forestry, and mining typically employ a quarter of the workforce.

Inner Core Counties fit between the two extremes. They’re too far for metro commuters, but their economies are quite diversified — they attract tourists and retirees, but they also have a considerable extractive sector.

For our part of the world, Shumway classifies counties this way:

Magnet: Custer and Park.

Inner Core: Frémont, Chaffee, Gunnison, and Mineral.

Remote: Lake, Saguache, Alamosa, Costilla, Conejos, and Rio Grande.

Shumway observed that changing population patterns brings “new sets of problems. The energy, mining, lumber, and agricultural industries still produce commercially viable outputs and are important to several local economies, but the emergence of local economies around amenity, recreation, and retirement are creating conflicts over land, water, and resource use policies. Rapid growth in population has pushed housing prices beyond the means of many local residents.”

He concludes by asking “is the economic and population growth of this `new west’ any more substantial than those patterns associated with the `old west’? That question has yet to be settled…”