The adage rings true in the rural Mountain West: the rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer.
For a study recently published in The Professional Geographer, BYU professors Samuel Otterstrom and Matthew Shumway analyzed population and income trends in the Mountain West region over the past 20 years. Their research confirmed the widening inequalities between less wealthy “Old West” counties known for traditional mining, farming and ranching, and wealthier “New West” counties boasting natural beauty and recreational opportunities like hiking or skiing.
“The rural Mountain West is complicated — you can’t just throw it all into one category,” said Otterstrom. “Rural counties with desirable amenities are attracting tourists and new residents with more income and leisure time, while neighboring counties that don’t have those resources struggle to maintain their population and income. It’s a stark difference.”
IRS and U.S. census data from Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming showed that average annual population growth in the Old West has been below 1% since 2000, while New West counties averaged 1.35%. Some counties saw especially extreme differences. For example, in Emery County, Utah, where the economy is based in mining and farming, population declined by 8% from 2000 to 2019. By contrast, the population in nearby Grand County, Utah, home to Arches National Park, grew by 15% over the same period.
With these migrants comes new money to the New West. For instance, recreation-based Grand County, Colorado, increased its aggregate income by $78 million from 2011 to 2019 through income differences among in-migrants, out-migrants and non-migrants. On the other hand, mining county White Pine, Nevada, lost $21 million in aggregate income through these same migration processes. And although typical migrants are younger and have less money than those who stay in one place, that trend was reversed for New West counties in the study: incoming migrants had 6% higher per-capita income than locals and 21% higher incomes than out-going migrants.
These patterns continue a trend going back to the 1990s, when Otterstrom and Shumway last measured these demographics, but more recent factors have amplified the gap.
“There are fewer people working in agriculture and ranching since the rise of more concentrated, corporate farms. With the aging of the U.S. population, you have Baby Boomers looking to use their retirement savings to settle in places with a pleasant climate or other natural amenities. Then you have remote work, which of course dramatically increased during the pandemic, so that people can live in New West counties and work for a company headquartered elsewhere,” Otterstrom said.
The resulting income gap between residents has major consequences for the culture of New West counties.
“Population pressure raises property prices and strains resources,” Otterstrom said, noting that this pressure in some ways mirrors the recent astronomical rise in the cost of living in more urban areas. “Locals can’t afford to live in their hometowns anymore and get pushed out. So maybe you work in a hotel in Park City or Aspen, but you can’t live in Park City or Aspen. That can take a psychological toll. Additionally, when you lose too many of the locals, you lose a sense of a place’s history.”
Despite the significant challenges these trends pose for both Old and New West counties, the professors stressed that there are positive aspects, too. Wealthier transplants and tourists to New West counties bring more tax revenue, and those who moved to the rural West to enjoy the region’s natural beauty may be especially motivated and equipped to help preserve it.
The professors have hope for the Old West as well. “Old West economies may not continue declining if those counties innovate to take advantage of new developments, like the push for renewable energy through increased solar farms in the desert or the demand for mined resources like lithium and copper,” Otterstrom said. “Every county has its own unique culture and history, its own attraction and potential.”