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Know the West

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 [email protected] or directly to me at [email protected]

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.