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What the West would look like with state boundaries drawn by culture, population, or watersheds

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Jodi Peterson | Jan 14, 2014 11:00 AM

Here at High Country News, some of us recently had a lively discussion about our slogan: “for people who care about the American West.” After 43 years, is it still the best phrase to convey who we are and what we do? We added the “American” to that slogan some years ago, realizing that in an increasingly globalized world, “West” could be interpreted in a much broader sense than we intended.

Our definition of the West has morphed over the years. We mostly cover the 11 Western states, and for us, one of the key characteristics of those states is their high proportion of public land. Texas is only peripherally a part of our West, mostly because it has little public land. And because, well, it’s Texas.

HCN's West
High Country News' map of the 11 Western states, drawn by Diane Sylvain.

During our first few decades, we mostly focused on the Interior West, the eight states with the highest mean elevations (hence “High Country”). We didn’t often write about California, Oregon or Washington. But now we cover those states regularly. And our scope continues to expand – we venture into Alaska now and then, and out into the Great Plains. We’ve even run stories set in Oklahoma. These days, our West seems to be defined more by the 100th Meridian, the line between East and West, between moist and arid, described in detail by John Wesley Powell.

The discussion got me thinking about the many ways to consider the boundaries of both states and regions. The lines defining each state, of course, are based on physical geography and political history. National Journal political correspondent Alex Seitz-Wald describes how a few of them came to be:

"Congress carved Nevada out of the Utah Territory when prospectors discovered silver there, because (the federal government) didn't want the Mormons, with whom officials were feuding over polygamy, to reap the riches. Republicans in Washington rushed Nevada to statehood just eight days before the 1864 presidential election because President Lincoln wanted to pick up a few more electoral votes, even though the territory had about 20,000 fewer residents than the population requirement applied to other states. Nevada then gained the water-rich southern spit that now holds Las Vegas from Arizona when Congress punished the Grand Canyon territory for siding with the Confederacy. … And the list goes on and on, as Mark Stein details in his 2008 book, How the States Got Their Shape. It's no wonder there are at least a dozen active state secession movements across the country, from California to western Maryland."

Historian and reporter Colin Woodard suggested that the U.S. is more accurately thought of as 11 distinct nations, defined by their specific history and cultures (he describes this idea at length in his 2011 book American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America).  The conflicts between these regions mold our politics and identities, and so should define each “nation,” he says.

Colin Woodard's map
The 11 distinct 'nations' of America, according to Colin Woodard.

HCN’s 11 Western states fall primarily into The Far West (as Woodard writes in Tufts Magazine, “The Far West’s people are often resentful of their dependent status, feeling that they have been exploited as an internal colony for the benefit of the seaboard nations”). Slivers around the edges of HCN turf fall into The Left Coast (“a hybrid of Yankee utopianism and Appalachian self-expression and exploration”) and El Norte (“Long a hotbed of democratic reform and revolutionary settlement, the region encompasses parts of Mexico that have tried to secede in order to form independent buffer states between their mother country and the United States”).

Montana land-use planner John Lavey, of the environmental organization Sonoran Institute, riffs off an idea first proposed by explorer John Wesley Powell 134 years ago – defining Western states by watersheds, because in such an arid region, any other way of organizing would surely lead to water conflicts. Powell described a watershed as "that area of land, a bounded hydrologic system, within which all living things are inextricably linked by their common water course and where, as humans settled, simple logic demanded that they become part of a community." (Larger version of map available here).

Explorer John Wesley Powell's map
Explorer John Wesley Powell's watershed map of the West.

Lavey took Powell a step farther and came up with a map basing all of the American states on principal watersheds (high-res version available here).

John Lavey's watershed map
John Lavey's map of the 50 states according to watershed boundaries.

Here’s what Lavey’s “what if” results in, in addition to more efficient use – and defense – of water rights. He writes:

    • "Transportation networks could be made more efficient in some places. … In their present day configuration, state transportation departments sometimes have to maintain roads that they access through adjoining states, or form maintenance agreements with other states to maintain their roads for them.
    • The Electoral College would be completely changed. States losing and gaining house members would shift the balance of political power substantially.
    • Land and wildlife management could be streamlined. Because many of these watersheds encompass unique ecosystems, climates and geographies, a watershed states approach could result in more efficient state land management departments better equipped to deal with their particular regional needs.
    • If states were organized around watershed and the idea that water should be used efficiently, then that conservation ethic could also have taken root in the way places were built. Recognizing that it is both fiscally unwise and squandering of agricultural/open space, towns may have grown up with a more compact, mixed use form because of their performance relative to those two benchmarks."

Artist and urban planner Neil Freeman also examines boundaries, but with an eye to fixing a basic political problem (which Lavey’s boundary suggestions also address) – the unbalanced electoral college:

"The fundamental problem of the electoral college is that the states of the United States are too disparate in size and influence. The largest state is 66 times as populous as the smallest and has 18 times as many electoral votes. This increases the chance for Electoral College results that don't match the popular vote. To remedy this issue, the Electoral Reform Map redivides the fifty United States into 50 states of equal population."

Under Freeman’s map, the West still has 11 states, but instead of a bunch of squares roughly similar in size, most of the region is divided into three huge states  -- Ogallala, Salt Lake and Shiprock (larger version here).

Neil Freeman's map showing states with equal population. Click for a larger image.

This reimagining of states, Freeman says, preserves the original structure and function of the electoral college, but gives each state an equal vote. It also would mean that each House seat would represent the same number of people. The states, Freeman proposes, could be redistricted after each census.

Of all these different proposals for redefining state boundaries, Lavey’s watershed scenario makes the most sense to me. Organizing ourselves around watersheds is a way to acknowledge and respect the fact that water is one of our most vital resources, essential to agriculture, industry and life itself. As NPR reported:

"If Congress had listened to explorer and scientist John Wesley Powell 125 years ago, the American West today might be an entirely different place. 'We would not have, if Powell's ideas had carried through, any of our huge federal water projects,' says Powell biographer Donald Worster. 'And we certainly would not have had anything like the massive urban growth that's taken place in the West.' "

It's interesting to imagine what Powell's West might be like today. We need a talented writer with a flair for alternate histories to start with Lavey's map and describe a plausible scenario for how the nation's cities, agriculture and industry might have evolved. For example, huge desert cities such as Phoenix and Las Vegas probably would not exist.

And as for our slogan? Well, for now it’s still “for people who care about the American West.”  Perhaps at some point the words may change, and the definition of the West may change -- but our mission remains the same. And so does the name, even though we sometimes cover the Low Country and the High Plains too.

Jodi Peterson is managing editor of High Country News.

Craig Bowman
Craig Bowman Subscriber
Jan 14, 2014 06:43 PM
Very entertaining article & certainly, great food for thought. Thanks to Jodi Peterson.
Todd Wilkinson
Todd Wilkinson
Jan 14, 2014 07:49 PM
Brilliant, provocative thought piece, Jodi....one of your best yet.
Alan Bowman
Alan Bowman Subscriber
Jan 14, 2014 10:11 PM
Many years ago I read an humorous magazine article that discussed many complaints of people who happened to live in state "panhandles" or otherwise a long ways away from their state capitals. The article proposed leaving the capital cities in their present locations but redefining the state's borders in a manner that no citizen would live nearer to any capital than to his own. A map was provided.

That article stuck in my memory for many years. Having now been retired for a while and because of occasional boredom, I decided to try to learn some modern computer programming language. After several failed starts, I found and learned to like Python. I found it to be suitable for lots of casual uses, but it was still mostly for providing very arcane recreation. Eventually, an ambitious project emerged... to recreate that map from that very old magazine article. Eventually I stumbled my way through to a satisfying result.

I'm offering here to share the map here for your entertainment. Some of its features are suprising. It's on the web at URL http://goo.gl/uYRAhm (you can copy/past or rekey this into your own web browser).
Robb Cadwell
Robb Cadwell Subscriber
Jan 15, 2014 05:45 AM
You better draw some boundaries somewhere. There already is a Mother Jones. I'd stick with that map that calls the place "the far west".
martin weiss
martin weiss Subscriber
Jan 15, 2014 06:32 PM
this article is a Coltrane solo.

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