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The Rocky Mountain West: region in transition.

When I was growing up in Buffalo, Wyoming, there used to hang a sign in the in the Busy Bee Cafe. I saw it repeatedly while eating my pie. It read:

|In Wyoming~ The average man rises in the morning from his New England sheet, he shaves with "Williams" soap and a Yankee safety razor, pulls on his Boston boots over his socks from North Carolina, fastens his Connecticut braces, slips his Waltham or Waterbury watch in his pocket, and sits down to breakfast. There he congratulates his wife on the way her Illinois straight-front corset sets off her Massachusetts blouse.... At the same time he reads his morning paper ... probably edited by a smart journalist from New York City.

Lest you think I commit to memory whatever hangs on restaurant walls (or that I ate pie that many times), let me explain how I know the Busy Bee sign's precise text. Years later, while doing research for my doctoral dissertation in New York, I ran into the original source, Englishman William T. Stead. His sensationalist 1901 book, "The Americanization of the World," warned about the new American economic threat. It would, he grimly prophesied, spell the decline of British power, and make Britain an economic and cultural captive of the United States. (Incidentally, this book bears remarkable similarity to a contemporary American genre targeting Japan--but that is another subject.)

I believe the Englishman's book and the Busy Bee's sign illuminate real concerns. Both express fear of domination by a dynamic economy centered in the eastern United States. And they both convey anxiety about their region's lack of status, its economic dependency. Also, I believe the Wyoming wall hanging illustrates two further points. First, today's regionally-based efforts to diagnose problems and promote economic health build on older traditions of regional identity and on continuing anxieties about structural imbalances. Second and more importantly, the sign reflects major themes in Western history: in particular, the region's economic dependence, and a cultural style that expresses what Western historian Patricia Limerick calls the "motif of victimization."

As Limerick points out, the motif of victimization attributes misfortune to the nefarious doings of outside forces. One early formulation blamed Indians: So-called captivity narratives and countless fictionalized variations of Custer's "last stand" continually reembroidered the idea that white Westerners were weak, innocent victims of Indian power. Another formulation blamed Easterners--as in the Busy Bee's wall hanging--or the federal government, which was often seen as a creature of Eastern interests. Such expressions of victimization run fairly continuously through the Rocky Mountain region's dominant culture.

The following paper sketches some basic structural features of this region's highly dependent economic order, an order which took decisive shape about a century ago and which I call the "New West." In simplified terms, the "New West" was based on two "E" words: extraction and exclusion. By contrast, we are currently in a transition period to what might be called the "New, New West." Emerging for the next century, the New, New West will, I argue, reverse the "E" trends and usher in a "D" trend: diversification--both economic and social. Finally, I will offer a few comments, both hopeful and cautionary, about the Rocky Mountain West's "New Regionalism."


Let's look briefly at the New West of the double "E." "Extraction" refers to the broad condition of economic dependence on the use of largely unprocessed natural resources.

The Rocky Mountain West of the past relied on drawing off natural riches. Mines, lumber companies, ranchers, and farmers all extracted exportable surpluses from the land; railroad builders carried these primary commodities to distant processors and global markets.

Some obvious negative consequences and limitations accompanied this kind of economic order. A high degree of commodity specialization in Rocky Mountain localities meant that fluctuations in far away markets--even more than local hard work or determination--set the parameters of prosperity on Main Streets. The copper market quickly affected Butte's fortunes; potato prices had a similar influence in southern Idaho. Like many third world nations with comparable reliance on single, primary commodities for export, the Rockies experienced cycles of boom and bust; environmental degradation; and a lack of local control which, in turn, bred cynicism and distrust of outsiders' power--elements of the victimization motif.

Ironically, the most visibly prosperous periods often exacted the greatest long-term damages. Instead of promoting the export-led growth that might have been generated in a different political economy, high profits arguably entrenched an even greater resource dependency. So-called free market forces, shaped by decisions and plans made in distant markets and boardrooms, created instability in many local Rocky Mountain economies.

Government land policy and public projects often provided a measure of countercylical spending that cushioned the instabilities of dependency. The Rocky Mountain region, perhaps more than any part of the country, was shaped by federal expenditures. First came spending for forts and Indian wars; then for transportation infrastructure and land management projects; and recently, for military installations.

But as with dependent economies everywhere, this flow of money never produced a grateful or easy relationship. The more people in Rocky Mountain states relied on federal projects, the more they hated federal government's interference and control over land use. William Graff, a historian of the so-called "sagebrush rebellions," has written that "The rancher, miner, logger, and water developer sought to be free of federal bureaucratic entanglements.... Yet, at the same time, they sought from the federal government farm subsidies, mineral price supports, below-cost timber contracts, and reclamation projects." Graff's work shows how rhetoric about regionalism and regional independence became central to a long tradition of anti-Washington crusades.

Thus, the motif of victimization--a consequence of ongoing economic dependency--targeted both Eastern interests and so-called "federal bureaucrats." In fact, the terms "greenhorn" and "bureaucrat" became almost synonymous pejoratives, reflecting a deep-seated cultural distrust of outside experts and governments of all kinds.


The second E-word, exclusion, refers to a process of enforcing cultural uniformity. It is a shorthand way of saying that the New West of the 1890s was decisively shaped by the spread of European-based culture.

The older "Wild West" of the mid-nineteenth century took much of its unsettled character from the clash of cultures, including many native American, European, and Chinese groups, the latter imported as railroad and mine laborers. Toward the late nineteenth century, however, a variety of new policies and laws ensured the West would be settled from Eastern America and Europe--not from Asia or by natural increase of native inhabitants.

Turn-of-the-century racial science assumed white superiority. Reflecting that doctrine, restriction laws stopped Asian immigration. Meanwhile, a wave of European immigrants entered America between 1890 and 1914, and land policies encouraged them to move westward. The reservation system was actively enforced, and that, coupled with widespread fraud, reduced the land base of Indian tribes, which continued to suffer long-term numerical decline. Thus, the Rockies--once a cultural caldron--became the nation's whitest and most racially homogeneous region.

But today, I would argue, the era of extraction and exclusion is coming to a close. A New, New West is emerging, one that will differ sharply from the past century's dominant patterns. What will a restructured Rocky Mountain region look like? Let's examine the contrasts.

Economic Diversification

First of all, the emerging New, New West is characterized by economic diversification. The Rocky Mountain states grow ever less dependent on extractive industries. This slow shift away from natural-resource dependency has proceeded at different rates within the region. But for many localities, World War II marked an important transition.

The war required vastly expanded production capacity, and some new plants were located deep in the country's interior. The interior was arguably more secure than the already heavily industrialized coasts. Moreover, plants in the interior were closer to raw material supplies, and so saved transportation costs. Between 1939 and 1947, for example, Colorado more than tripled its manufacturing segment -- from $90 million to $280 million in eight years. Cold war military spending also had an impact on Colorado's continuing diversification. Colorado Springs emerged as a favored site in what a new book calls the postwar "Rise of the Gunbelt."

Other events also forced economic diversification on the Rocky Mountain region. A deep slump in primary commodity prices in the early 1980s dealt a crushing blow to the old extractive and dependent order. Copper mines around Butte and Anaconda closed and reorganized; the timber industry came to a standstill; 100-year-old ranches slipped into bankruptcy; and farms, always marginal in this drought-ridden region, collapsed under the stress of high-interest loans made in the late 1970s.

Thus, restructuring and diversification became not just a matter of economic choice, but the only alternative to massive outmigration. Some scholars (Frank and Deborah Popper, for instance) advocated that the arid region from the Great Plains to the Rockies be emptied of people and become a "buffalo commons." But Westerners scoffed at such suggestions and searched for other assets. The 1990 census showed, to the amazement of many, that all Rocky Mountain states had posted moderate population gains. Rural areas continued to decline, but large and mid-sized regional centers grew.

What assets held and even drew population during the economically troubled 1980s? And can they increasingly turn the region away from dependence on extractive industries and coastal markets? Mining, timber, agriculture, and ranching remain vital to the region's economic health, but many local economies are becoming more diversified. Growth has accelerated in secondary processing and in new, dynamic sectors such as recreation, leisure, health services, high-technology, and specialized manufacturing. This kind of diversification is clearly a critical asset, and promoting it is key to the region's future economic growth and stability.

In addition, the region may find new opportunities as trade internationalizes. The North American Free Trade Agreement could bring new markets, new trading ties, and a reorientation away from the generally east-west economic connections that have characterized both Canadian and U.S. Rocky Mountain regions. Increased north-south connections could have both economic and political consequences. (For more on this subject, see Larry Swanson's article in the forthcoming conference proceedings). A healthy interdependence among many parties could decrease the region's historically lopsided dependence.

The Rocky Mountain region has many riches beyond those that can be taken from the ground and shipped off, assets that could help diversify its economy. One still-underdeveloped, highly valuable, and environmentally safe asset: its powerful cultural images. Imagery from this "landscape region" has long been an advertising and entertainment resource, but the profits have largely been pumped elsewhere.

Marlboro cigarettes, for example, used symbols of the Rocky Mountain West to develop international advertising's most successful campaign ever. The campaign was considered such a spectacular specimen of the genre that it has been thoroughly documented and preserved in the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of American History collection.

However, Marlboro was hardly the first entrepreneur to achieve global success by marketing images of the West. Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, for instance, was the first product of American mass culture to sweep foreign markets; and "Western" movies helped make Hollywood the world capital of film. Many people in the Rocky Mountain West want to escape this imagery and its stereotyping--again, feeling victimized by outsiders who project their own fantasies and dreams onto a landscape in which they have no real stake. But I believe rejecting these images is a mistake; better that the region's people work to reshape and control--not to escape--these immensely profitable images.

It is important to stress that the Rocky Mountain region has, so far, profited the least from its own unmatched international renown. Tourism has great potential for capturing more profits within the region; so-called ecotourism is especially promising in this regard because it can have high economic but low environmental impacts. Calgary, Cheyenne, and other cities already have well-known and popular western-oriented festivals. Many other inventive uses of Rocky Mountain images could boost global sales of this region's products. Rocky Mountain regionalists face the interesting task of figuring out how to convert the most positive and widely-recognized images in the world into international marketing opportunities that boost this region's economy.

As the region outgrows its dependence on natural-resource extraction, sustainability will increasingly become the watchword of development. In the past, U.S. conservation and environmental movements were often led by people not born in the West. They were often portrayed in this region as the creatures of Eastern sentimentalists or meddlesome bureaucrats. But, for a number of reasons, the movement for sustainability is now developing greater bases of support within Rocky Mountain communities. These reasons have less to do with sentiment than with economics.

First, natural beauty has growing value as an economic commodity; this is reflected in rapidly increasing numbers of people with an employment stake in its preservation. Second, environmental damage of the past has done observable harm to westerners' economic and physical health. Third, resource management along the lines of regions, ecosystems, and biosystems--rather than political borders--is philosophically and practically more in tune with current science and with the 1990's emerging regionalism. Residents' desires for jobs, health, and regional self-control, then, may promote greater acceptance of sustainable practices in the Rocky Mountain West.

If economic and political dependence and exploitation of resources have characterized the region's past, diversification and sustainability seem to be its future. In fact, these trends are already well underway. But to become a flourishing reality, the New, New West will need both private creativity and strong public policy.

Cultural Diversification

Another contrast with the past is the region's increasing cultural diversification. As with economic life, World War II and the 1980s brought dramatic changes to the region's demographic make-up. New defense-related industries in the 1940s and 1950s broke down some of the region's racial insularity. These new urban and industrial jobs attracted larger numbers of African-Americans, Indians from rural reservations, and Mexican-Americans. Mexican-American agricultural workers not only swelled the stream of migrant labor during those years but also created more settled, permanent communities in towns throughout the region.

The 1970s and 1980s also brought a strong influx of new immigrants. They came not only from Mexico, but from Central America and Southeast Asia as well, areas heavily affected by United States foreign policy. In the 1990s, social institutions (such as schools) increasingly reflect these demographic shifts. Thus, cultural diversification, like economic diversification, is not simply a choice facing the Rocky Mountain region. It is a fact of life and a strategy for survival.

The Contradictions of Diversification

In some ways, economic and cultural diversification complement and support each other. Contributions from a variety of cultural groups can help diversify both markets and production. Also, the internationalization of trade generally will work to break down cultural, as well as economic, insularity. Groups that already span borders, such as Native Americans and Mexican Americans, might be natural supporters and beneficiaries of pan-national regionalism.

But the two kinds of diversification--economic and cultural--can work against each other as well, and it is this potential problem I turn to now. Many supporters of the New Regionalism rightly emphasize its positive possibilities; but they should also anticipate its contradictions. In particular, I invite us all to think deliberately and consciously about who in the region is included in the "we" to which "we" keep referring.

Restructuring always accompanies movement from one economic/cultural order to another. And almost by definition, that means instability. Restructuring shifts resources and jobs, creating both winners and losers. Any area with a rapidly changing economic base experiences a rise in social tensions. In many places across time and space, rapid economic restructuring has been linked to upsurges in fierce ethnic, racial, or gender loyalties, and to intense hatreds for other groups. Think of the South after the Civil War, or Germany in the 1930s. Today's news also provides vivid examples; witness the economic and ethnic turmoil in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

How can the Rocky Mountain states be exempt from such pressures? The effects of diversification, internationalization, sustainability, and urbanization will harm some people--especially those dependent on declining resource-based industries and those living in rural areas with little recreation potential. Where people and communities see their economic security linked to the past but are uncertain about the future, resentments may flare, drawing on the historic themes of victimization. Free trade and environmental issues are and will be flash-points.

In addition, restructuring could disadvantage victims of historic discrimination. They may lack the accumulated assets, entrepreneurial know-how and connections, perhaps even the language skills to take advantage of new opportunities, and so fall further behind. Though it is by no means certain, economic diversification may end up bringing aggregate economic growth. However, if that growth is channeled only to narrow sectors of the population, it could produce declining opportunities and more, not less, poverty. As society and the workforce become demographically more diverse, economic diversification could, ironically, accentuate inequalities and tensions.

Strong public policy can provide an important cushion against the economic blows that otherwise might widen social divisions and resentments. Rocky Mountain policymakers must make special efforts to diversify diversification--that is, to spread the hoped-for advantages of new opportunities across lines of race, gender, and income. Regionwide policy options worth considering include encouragement for trade-networking, flexible manufacturing networks, microenterprise development, advanced communications and transportation infrastructure, high-quality educational institutions, and regional environmental planning.

But it is well to remember the region's powerful historic distrust of "experts," "bureaucrats," and "government." Private groups as well as public officials should also spur these agendas.


Worldwide, economic restructuring and population movements of the 1970s and 1980s have been linked to regional redefinitions and to revivals of regionalist loyalties. Regionalism is making its mark in Canada, the old Soviet Union, the old Yugoslavia, and throughout Africa; the new Europe--with German unification and the Maastricht integration movement--also represents a regional redefinition. These examples suggest that regionalism can be a constructive response to changing times, providing a sense of identity, initiative, self-definition; and that it can be an expression of empowerment within a larger system. But each example contains a warning, too. Regionalism can also amplify motifs of victimization, and thereby heighten distrust of difference, revive old hatreds, and enforce the narrowest kind of conformity.

A New, New West is coming to the Rocky Mountains. Both the region's economy and its workforce will be more diversified, internationalized, and urbanized. These trends may bring greater stability and contentment; or, restructuring may breed divisions and hatreds. Everything will depend on the shape of the new order, and on who is included in both its planning and its benefits. As a socially diverse movement accompanied by strong public policy initiatives and private-sector creativity, the New Regionalism can become a dynamic economic and cultural force. If we assume older notions of homogeneity, or if we are blind to cultural change, the New Regionalism could accelerate fragmentation and social discontents.

Emily Schlaht Rosenberg is professor of history at Macalester College in St. Paul, MN, the author of several books on recent American history, and a consultant on economic development.
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Title Annotation:Rocky Mountain States
Author:Rosenberg, Emily S.
Publication:Montana Business Quarterly
Date:Dec 22, 1992
Previous Article:Developing a multi-state operation from Montana.
Next Article:Some perspectives on Montana's economy.

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