Help us cover the New New West


Dear Reader,

I need your help. No, I’m not asking for money, or even a couch to crash on or your extra ramen noodles to dine on during reporting trips. I’m just looking for your ideas and observations.

When I was brought on as High Country News’ senior-editor-at-large number two in July, it was with a specific beat in mind. Rather than being a generalist who tries to keep up with every issue in the West -- as most HCN editors are -- I’ve been charged with trying to keep the journalistic ADHD in check and focusing on one specific, albeit broad, topic area. We’re calling it the “communities in transition” beat.

What we’re trying to do here is to get a handle on what we see as a new era for many of the West’s communities. Call it the New New West, if you will.

The hypothesis goes something like this: The Old West -- one dominated by “traditional” industries like logging, mining, ranching and drilling -- started to fade away after the 1970s. It was replaced (kind of) by what became known as the New West, in which tourism, real estate, construction, service industries, cottage industries and telecommuting displaced the old economic engines. The New West was built on growth, mostly from in-migration, and that resulted in a major demographic and political shift.

Yet just as the pundits were ready to declare the Old West dead, it returned with a vengeance. Rising energy prices in the early Aughts sparked a drilling boom, which then got a boost from new drilling and fracking technology. Then the housing market collapsed, hitting Western communities harder than just about anywhere else in the world. Even as all the new economic sectors were pulled under by all those submerged mortgages, increased global demand for everything from hay to molybdenum to oil buoyed the old economies. So much for the New West.

It’s not as though we’ve simply slid back to where we came, however. This new era is an amalgamation of both the old and the new, where an energy boom is almost as likely to come in the form of wind turbines or solar panels as drill rigs or draglines. The old agricultural economy is getting a new look, as small organic farms replace alfalfa fields and ranches. This new era is flavored as well by various communities’ reactions to the threats and opportunities dealt to them by the Recession. Hard times have taught us, perhaps, that the resources of this abundant region are limited, after all. If we’re not careful, there will come a day when our water will run out, our minerals will all be mined, our forests will burn and our credit will run dry.

High Country News wants to tell the stories of the people, the clashes and the trends of the communities that are transitioning into this new era. We plan to delve into the reasons why some regions have rebounded strongly from the Recession while others continue to wallow. We’ll look at a novel energy project in the Southwest. We’ll examine how an area that has been a oil-drilling sacrifice zone for more than a half century might set itself on a new path.

Since it’s the community beat, we want to engage the HCN community -- that’s you -- from the beginning of the stories to their end. We hope that you’ll act as our on-the-ground eyes and ears, and fill us in about your community’s unexpected and surprising ways of dealing with the challenges of the new era. Has the recession knocked your community back or propelled it forward? What innovative ways are locals coming up with to cope? What kind of economic development, housing and land-use strategies are folks wielding? What is being done with all those ghost subdivisions? And what sort of new political dynamics have accompanied this new era? Is our hypothesis regarding the Old West/New West/New New West just a bunch of bunk?

We’ll never be able to use all of your ideas, but I promise to read/listen to every one and look into it. Mostly, I hope to get a conversation going about these issues. I hope you’ll join in. Comment on our stories, engage us on our Facebook page, or send your thoughts, ideas, feedbacks to or directly to me at

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at
High Country News and is based in Durango, Colo. His Twitter handle is @jonnypeace

Image of clueless editors courtesy Stephanie P Ogburn.

John W Stephens
John W Stephens Subscriber
Aug 14, 2012 10:35 AM
Here in Arapahoe County the flawed FR/EIR for the Chatfield Reservoir Reallocation Project is a topic. The EIR is full of error and downstream users are worried that the South Platte will dry up. Instream flow is not guaranteed and the flow is much lower already than the 39fps needed for optimum river health. Although the FR/EIR draws a different conclusion, the charts and graphs show that this will probably worsen when the recommended alternative is in place.
Bruce Ross
Bruce Ross
Aug 14, 2012 07:06 PM
Can't speak for elsewhere, but in rural California -- especially the conservative inland parts -- the gray-market marijuana trade has exploded, and is a huge source of income.
Borg Hendrickson
Borg Hendrickson
Aug 15, 2012 10:41 AM
An interesting agricultural development in north central Idaho is a dramatic increase in growing/producing green garbanzos (emphasis on "green") on the Palouse Prairie where wheat and lentils have traditionally been the mainstay crops. As demand for hummus has grown in the U.S., demand for garbanzos has grown, and green garbanzos, it has been discovered, make great hummus. They are also environmentally a better crop than garbanzos harvested after the 'green' stage and dried for canning, etc., because green garbanzos 'return' to the soil more nutrients and can be grown without pesticide applications. (Garbanzos naturally produce an acid that repels pests.) No pesticide applications of course means that in the grocery store, we'll find safer beans for human consumption. In fact one key reason, aside from hummus, for the increase in green garbanzo production is to provide safer food. One of the focal people involved in the rise of green garbanzo production on the Palouse is Doug Moser (and his wife Judy) of Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. Doug is the 'go to' person for information on this more naturally grown bean. He comes from a 'pesticide' farming tradition but now feels that America's farmers are not providing us with safe foods. He serves as a consultant/advisor to other farmers moving into the green garbanzo market, to those moving towards safer food production, and to foreign countries developing this market.
Deb Dedon
Deb Dedon Subscriber
Aug 16, 2012 04:44 PM
Everything old is new again? Hm. Homesteading in the 21st Century? High-tech, low-carbon, low impact ways of living with the land. Beyond the Earth Ship - living off-the-water- grid in a persistent drought?

Farming in the increasingly arid west - low water/high protein crops grown on a small scale. Resource needs for cattle versus buffalo. Re-inventing heirloom crops.

21st Century Crop rotation - fallow land used as mobile solar plants. Smaller-scale wind farms. Local-only energy grids.
Rick Blotter
Rick Blotter Subscriber
Aug 16, 2012 06:55 PM
I live in Elbert County, Colorado. We've had developers try to sell water to other counties and suggest that the water can be replaced with water from the Arkansas River. Basically there is no ground water here. What is the status of the aquifers? How long are they predicted to last given the rate of use? A recent study has just been published by the Colorado Geological Survey; what implications are there? Our governor just asked President Obama to be aware to Colorado's water issues. Is there a problem with selling water to the Frackers; Aurora just sold effluent water to them; what are the impacts? The drought complicates issues; one of my neighbors, a large landowner and rancher, had to shut down one of his center pivot irrigation systems because his well is dry this season.
Liana Aker
Liana Aker Subscriber
Aug 16, 2012 08:54 PM
Wow, this is cruel and unusual yet, compelling and unavoidable. I feel a sense of responsibility to contribute to a worthy cause yet don't want to spoil a perfectlyyy good after work buzz... Let me sleep on it.
Jonathan Thompson
Jonathan Thompson Subscriber
Aug 17, 2012 06:13 AM
Now you're talkin'! Keep the good ideas rolling in!
Becky  Johnstone
Becky Johnstone
Aug 21, 2012 06:58 PM
You can't separate timber management from the New West. If you eschew all management it will be management by fire at some point. While some poke fun at people who built their cabins on private land surrounded by National Forest you have to keep in mind that towns like McCall and even Boise can be affected by fires on public lands. Do we want fire to be our only or main management tool? What are the forest coalitions doing to help bring user groups to the table to improve on forest management? How will this affect the future of forest management and our ability to recreate on public lands? While it is hard to look at management by fire as a tool that will improve snowmobile terrain while the trees on your property are on fire, there are some potential pluses long term. If we are concerned about mercury levels in fish we need to be concerned about fire as a management tool. You really can't completely separate the old West from the new West. Mining is stimulating the economies of several small towns in Idaho right now. Many of us eat meat so ranching does affect us. While areas without irrigation are being severely impacted by drought we are able to produce food and fuel products on our irrigated farm land. If farm commodities are high priced, how will that affect the cost of housing development expansion moving forward? Keeping farm land farmed is not bad from my point of view. How are we going to move forward in the current real estate market to encourage work force housing especially in resort areas? There was a big push that has now fallen by the way side. Land prices are as low as or below what they were 10 years ago and during the housing boom they were what really pushed house prices out of sight at least in my area. Why aren't cities and counties buying lots at auction for a fraction of what they were selling for 10 years ago? I realize budgets are tight all over, but isn't this the time to be addressing a problem that will come back.