The West’s big landscape demands big vision

Western author Wallace Stegner wrote about the goal of creating a society to match the scenery of the region. To get there, the West will have to formulate a vision to match its views, an expert in regional planning and conservation told a Glenwood Springs audience Friday. "We need to articulate a broad vision, a bold vision for a more sustainable, more benign society," Luther Propst of the Sonoran Institute said at the State of the Valley Symposium, presented by Healthy Mountain Communities at the Hotel Colorado. Propst is executive director of the nonprofit institute, which he said promotes decisions that respect the land and its people. It's based in Arizona, but recently opened a satellite office in Grand Junction.

The West has a unique competitive advantage in the global economy, Propst said. Besides its economic opportunities, it offers its residents easy access to vast amounts of public lands where they can find recreation and solitude. The result has been a population boom that is expected to continue. Under one estimate, 40 million more people will live in the intermountain West by 2040, and Colorado's population will grow to 7.1 million then, from 4.7 million now.

"The question is how do we accommodate those people while still protecting what we all value about the West," Propst said.

That growth is threatening the quality of life on which the Western economy now depends, he said.

"The changes are occurring faster than the structures for dealing with them," he said.

Propst said that to achieve Stegner's goal, "we have to tap into the proclivity of the West for thinking big, the proclivity of America for thinking big."

Negative thinking won't cut it, he said.

Among other attributes, such a society would be less reliant on cars, would protect landscapes and watersheds, and would have well-planned communities with attainably priced housing, he said.

Examples of that big vision already can be found around the West, Propst said. Among them:

  • Pima County, Ariz., undertook the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, originally to address conflicts over endangered species. Voters approved a $275 million bond issue to purchase open space, and other bonds for public transportation and other needs.
  • Cities such as Denver and Phoenix are turning extensively to passenger rail transportation.
  • Wyoming created a wildlife trust fund from energy development revenues.
  • Residents of Custer County, Colo., realized they didn't have the tax base to conserve ranch lands themselves, so they talked to ranchers and state and federal agencies and came up with a plan to protect 20,000 acres from the kind of fate that has met a lot of agricultural lands in the nearby Front Range.

Another speaker Friday, Tim Watkins of the nonprofit organization Envision Utah, described how the Salt Lake City area and surrounding counties jointly agreed on their vision for the future of the region, where 1 million more people are expected to live by 2020. Some of their goals are protecting air quality, boosting passenger rail, making communities more walkable, promoting infill development, and deciding how much land is needed for development and what land should be protected.Propst believes Healthy Mountain Communities provides an example of forward thinking in western Colorado. Based in Carbondale, it promotes regional collaboration and innovation on issues such as affordable housing, transportation, economic development and human services.

"The work you have done in this region is an inspiration for people all over the West," Propst said.

Article by Dennis Webb, Post Independent Staff
May 7, 2006

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