A roller-coaster decade


By David Frey, NewWest.net guest blogger, 12-29-09

The last 10 years in the West was a wild roller coaster ride, a decade of explosions and implosions: nine years of mostly up, up, up and one year of solid down.

Here are five top trends that shaped the region in the first decade of a new millennium.

Real estate boom – and bust. At the dawn of the Ohs (or was it the Oh Nos?), real estate was already booming here, but it would soon go off the charts. Minus a post-9/11 sputter, real estate prices soared throughout much of the West as baby boomers and urban refugees sought their own little piece of big sky. The real estate bubble expanding across the country hit a funhouse mirror in the West – bigger, fatter and a little twisted.

Little towns like St. George, Utah saw growth go off the charts. Big cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas metastasized into megalopolises. Resort towns saw their prices hit insane levels ($135 million for Prince Bandar’s Aspen spread, anyone?), and worker bee hamlets followed suit.

Fast forward to 2008. The economy tanked. The real estate market collapsed. The construction industry vaporized. The only things going up were foreclosures and bankruptcies. The Yellowstone Club’s bankruptcy was one of the most vivid examples: a playground for the wealthy, now hard up for cash.

Energy boom – and bust. Booms and busts are par for the course when it comes to the energy industry in the West. The Ohs were no exception. A broad swath of the West, from New Mexico to Montana, saw a boom of oil and gas development, with rigs popping up in backyards where residents never dreamed of seeing them.

It wasn’t just oil and gas. Oil shale and uranium saw renewed interest. Coal was going gangbusters. Solar and wind were getting attention from more than just environmentalists.

The boom brought battles. Residents complained about impacts on their homes and ranches. Environmentalists fought over cherished landscapes. The Valle Vidal. The Roan Plateau. The Wyoming Range. Wells were planned in view of spots like Utah’s Arches National Park.

Part of the rush was pure economics. Soaring fuel prices made drilling in remote Western lands more economical than ever before. Part was pure politics. The Bush administration opened up public lands to drilling and stripped roadless protections that would have kept some lands drill-free.

States scrambled to catch up to the boom. The Obama administration was less industry-friendly. But what really did in the energy industry was falling prices. Rigs are lying down now, just waiting for the prices to rebound.

Purple tide. The West has long been Republican territory, but Democrats made enormous strides here in the Ohs. Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico all found themselves with Democratic governors. Democrats gained ground in Western congressional delegations and statehouses.

Compare that to 2000, when the West had no Democratic governors, three Democratic Senators, just a handful of Democratic congressmen and most state legislatures were in Republican hands.

The party took notice, and in 2008, it gave a nod to the power of the region by holding the Democratic National Convention in Denver. Obama and his supporters made campaign appearances in parts of the West long abandoned by Democrats. Obama carried Colorado, New Mexico, Montana and Nevada.

Time will tell how long the Democrats hold onto these victories, but it seems their win was more than just good luck or dissatisfaction with the GOP. The West’s politics are shifting. The Western Democratic politician doesn’t have to don a cowboy hat and boots to get elected anymore.

Dry spell. Much of the first decade of the century was marked by drought. If global warming projections are right, it looks like much of the rest of the century will be, too.

Devastating wildfires raged across the region. Part of that is thanks to a century of firefighting that left the forests filled with big, old trees ready to burn. Much of it, though, was thanks to year after year of drought. Summers didn’t bring rain. Winters didn’t bring much snow. The forests dried, and fire, a part of life in the West, raged into conflagrations.

What the fires left behind, the beetles took. A scourge of pine beetles raged across the West, leaving in their wake thousands of miles of dead timber from the Canadian border to Mexico.

It used to be environmentalists who threatened to drain Lake Powell in Utah. In the Ohs, Mother Nature did it herself, revealing canyons long hidden by the Glen Canyon Dam. Rivers shrank, often leaving fish to die in waters that were too warm for them.

Western communities worried about dwindling water supplies as reservoirs emptied and snowpacks thinned. Say goodbye to the glaciers of Glacier National Park. Even ski industry executives worried, and responded with a campaign to fight global warming. It wasn’t just a rallying cry of environmentalists, anymore.

Nuevo West. As the West boomed, immigrants came in search of jobs. When resort towns were booming and construction was thriving, there were plenty of jobs to go around. The ranks of construction workers and housekeepers filled with immigrant workers, just as the West’s agricultural industry had relied on them for years. Most were Mexicans, escaping a lack of jobs at home in search of work across the border. Others came from across Latin America and around the world and fueled the New West boom.

These immigrants changed the face of the West. Latino-owned restaurants and businesses thrived. Norteño music pounded from passing pickups and Spanish became a common sound on even small-town Western street corners. A Pew Hispanic Center study found illegal immigrants made up one in 10 workers in Arizona and Nevada, nearly one in 20 workers in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah and over 3 percent of workers in Idaho.

When the economy tumbled, their fortunes did, too. Some headed home. Others held on, hoping, like all Westerners, that the next decade would bring better times.