« Return to this article

Know the West

Newcomers turn out to be just like locals

  Dear HCN,

Your Sept. 30 issue profiling Walt Minnick was encouraging; let's hope he prevails. But Minnick's strategy and Stephen Stuebner's report misses the mark. The politics of the New West are much more complex than the hope that newcomers are liberal, pro-environment, urban refugees.

Between 1985 and 1991, according to Census Bureau estimates, 2 million people moved into the states of the Intermountain West. In the Northern Rockies, Utah, Idaho and Montana had 88,000 new arrivals between 1985 and 1991; only 20 percent were from California. And yet, overall population growth remained stagnant. In 1980, Montana's population was estimated to be 789,690; in 1990 it was 799,065. This suggests a significant population replacement is taking place and, in fact, when we examine where so-called newcomers are coming from, it turns out about half are coming from the same state where they are now considered newcomers. It seems that a large proportion aren't urban refugees but rural refugees from the small towns that dot the plains and valleys of rural states.

In other words, many of these people are not bringing new ideas or values, they are just moving them to more urban areas.

In almost 10 years of surveys and study in communities in Idaho and Montana I have found no statistically significant indication that newcomers, no matter where they are from, think different politically from old-timers. They are overwhelmingly conservative. This makes some sense. Consider that 20 percent from urban California: They sell a house and buy 20 acres in Montana or Idaho and are suddenly landowners. With land ownership they have a sense of private property they never enjoyed in L.A.; they are the natural ally of a conservative political agenda.

Finally, our modern forms of recreation on public lands are increasingly conservative in nature. Jet skis, four-wheelers, ORVs, hobby prospecting, downhill skiing, snowmobiling, big game hunting (where the trophy is more important than the meat), and even pastoral fly fishing (with helicopter shuttles and global destinations) are all premised on cheap gas, public access to large tracts of land and a sense of individual freedom.

These are not folks who willingly support wilderness and the closing of Forest Service roads. These are people who buy the West's trout streams and advocate expansion of "ski country" into the undeveloped adjacent land. The conservative anti-tax movements in Montana were organized and supported by out-of-state newcomers.

The potential for political realignment in the West is real. Walt Minnick is evidence of the shift and many newcomers as well as old-timers are beginning to change. But to assume it is going to happen simply because of demographics is not only wrong, it is going to encourage apathy among pro-environment voters. Greg Cawley has it exactly right: Many local environmentalist organizations have not made pro-environment issues relevant to local voters. Until they do, my hopes for a regional Democratic turnaround in the West are not very high.

Jerry Johnson

Bozeman, Montana

The writer is a professor in the political science department at Montana State University in Bozeman.