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for people who care about the West

Western towns shaped by industries they pursue


As wacky as it sounds, a bunch of corrupt Arizona politicians in 1885 had a profound effect on my life. Back then, the 13th session of the Arizona Territorial Legislature was dubbed "The Thieving Thirteenth" because its members were unusually prone to graft and beating up opponents. One issue they faced was: Should the territorial capital be moved from Prescott to Tucson? And if not, should Tucson get the territorial prison or a mental hospital as a consolation prize? Tucson boosters hoped those institutions would energize their economy, but the legislators, most likely bribed by other towns, refused.

Finally, a Tucson legislator, Selim M. Franklin, suggested establishing a different institution – a university where "for all time to come the youth of the land may learn to become better citizens than we are." The seed they planted grew into the huge University of Arizona. And in 1979, a woman named Linda Platts moved there from California to earn her master's degree in journalism. I met her a year later, while we both worked on Tucson's daily paper, and we married and had two kids. If the Thieving Thirteenth had not established that university, I wouldn't have the family I enjoy today.

Every Western community is shaped by a combination of deliberate actions and chance. In Lead, S.D., the subject of our cover story, local boosters have persuaded the federal government and other powers to transform a busted-out mine into a world-class physics research lab. Now, that lab will reshape Lead, by hiring ex-miners and attracting new residents and scientifically minded visitors, who will interact, learn from each other and even begin new families there.

I'm fascinated by how we choose which industries to pursue, and the long-term effects our choices have. Western towns were often founded on things like mining, logging or tourism, as a logical response to the resources that were available. Over time, though, the ore and the stock of big trees are often exhausted, and tourism's side effects become clear, in sky-high real-estate prices and the often-overwhelming number of tourists. Imaginative, forward-looking communities like Lead are willing to cast for new options for their future.

Such themes are still shaping my life: Eventually, Linda and I moved to Bozeman, home of Montana State University. Many people move to Bozeman in search of a college atmosphere, with its interesting lectures and other events, good libraries, and the chance to work with academics. Bozeman's economy, based on the flow of taxpayer money through the public university as well as us quality-of-life migrants, is fairly stable. Lead's own bet on the science industry is already generating those kinds of benefits, and they'll likely grow more substantial year by year.