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Research reveals paradox: New Utahns' flight from cities increased urbanization

Welcome to Utah, where there is plenty of room, but it's getting crowded.

Outsiders know Utah as a rural region full of back country, national parks and wide-open spaces. But two Brigham Young University geographers' look at population patterns shows a strong trend toward urbanization.

The rapid population growth in Utah and its neighboring states is a matter of higher concentrations of people, not expanding frontiers, say professors Sam Otterstrom and Matthew Shumway. The researchers map out Western migration in the fall issue of the "Journal of Rural Studies."

"The Mountain West is an arid region where the cities are oases of people and the rest of the land is empty," said Otterstrom. "People are continuing to concentrate in these oases."

At last count in 2000, 74 percent of the Mountain West population resided in a metropolitan area, a jump from 1950 when the population was half rural and half urban. Census reports also show that more than half of the 30 fastest-growing counties in America come from the eight Mountain West states.

Metropolitan growth in these states has progressed even through two national trends of counterurbanization, the 1970s and the early 1990s. Migration swung away from big cities so sharply in the 1970s that population geographers termed the phenomenon the "rural renaissance."

Otterstrom and Shumway say these periods bring an influx of people who paradoxically fuel urban growth in the West as they seek to escape big-city life, suggesting that what's urban in the West could be rural in a national context.

"People see the West as a wide-open place and come here for that reason, even though they still end up living in a somewhat crowded city," Otterstrom said.

Three out of every four Utahns reside along the Wasatch Front between North Ogden in Weber County and Payson in Utah County. Of course federal ownership of half of Mountain West states' land curbs the expansion of growth into many places. Even so, the 1.7 million people living in Weber, Davis, Salt Lake and Utah counties occupy less than 5 percent of the state's land area.

Another matter the researchers wanted to explain was the sudden burst of growth seen in just a few rural counties. Their analysis categorized rural counties by five factors that might account for a surge in population. In the end, the data showed that the heaviest migration to rural counties occurs in retirement destinations, recreation hubs or counties adjacent to metro areas.

Although few in number, these amenity-rich locales produce most of the West's rural population growth. An example from Utah is Washington County, where retirement accommodations and outdoor attractions helped to nearly double the population between 1990 and 2000, putting St. George on the verge of being classified as its own metropolitan area. Similarly explosive growth is ongoing in Summit County thanks to its ski industry and short distance from Salt Lake County.

Such growth naturally brings up water, transportation and other issues, but Shumway predicts particular growing pains with regard to public lands.

"We will probably see more conflict about how public lands are used," said Shumway. "The growing population increases the demand for recreational use. Simultaneously, we see more conservation-minded people moving into the state."

Writer: Joseph Hadfield

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