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Know the West

Economic engineering in the New West


The other night, my local irrigation ditch company held a meeting at the VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars). I sat down on folding chairs with about 50 of my neighbors to hear from our elected board about by-law changes and progress on a federally-funded project to put much of our unlined ditch -- hand dug by ranchers in the late 1800s -- into pipe.

As we sat next to each other, I was reminded again that civilization in the rural West is actually built through collaboration among neighbors, and, more often than not, the help of the government.

This belies the myth of the West as a harsh region tamed by rugged individuals, but it is true: Our widely scattered cities, ranches, mines and farms would not exist without the water, electricity, roads and other essentials provided by tax dollars and a remarkable degree of coordination among local, state and federal officials.

No state in the West embraces this reality more vigorously than Utah. As senior editor Jonathan Thompson reports, the Beehive State's unique history as the promised land of the Mormons set it on course for cooperative and proactive economic development more than a century ago, and it has stayed on this road ever since. In places like Provo and Ogden, local and state leaders, many of them members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, eagerly back projects that benefit society and stimulate growth, from taxpayer-funded mass transit to aggressive incentive packages to attract outside companies. The result is a vibrant, low-unemployment economy that has recovered more rapidly from the recession than most other Western states.

The irony is, of course, that Utah's progressive economic policies stand in stark contrast to its politics, which are the most Republican-dominated in the country and are fluent in anti-federal invectives. But, then again, the GOP's avowed adherence to the dog-eat-dog free market has always been a bit more complicated than it sounds. Presidents Nixon, Reagan and Bush # 1 supported stringent environmental laws and regulations that are anathema to today's rightward-tilting GOP. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, a practicing Mormon, backs rollbacks of regulations and taxes, yet he governed a state -- Massachusetts -- renowned for its progressive social programs; he also managed the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, which pumped tens of millions of dollars in subsidized infrastructure development into Utah.

What should the rest of the West learn from Utah? At first blush, not much. The remarkable social, economic and political cohesion of the state's people allows its leaders to make decisions more easily -- some would argue too easily -- than elsewhere in our region. But, during an election season in which the government's role in the economy is getting beaten up daily, Utah is a good reminder that the private and public sectors have always needed each other to sustain communities in the West.