`Tree-Huggers' Fail to Shift Western Politics Environmentalists and Others Are Moving to the West, but Unpopular Clinton Administration Efforts to Change Land-Use Policies Have Led Many Democrats to Turn to the GOP Series: VOTE '94

By Brad Knickerbocker, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, November 2, 1994 | Go to article overview

`Tree-Huggers' Fail to Shift Western Politics Environmentalists and Others Are Moving to the West, but Unpopular Clinton Administration Efforts to Change Land-Use Policies Have Led Many Democrats to Turn to the GOP Series: VOTE '94


Brad Knickerbocker, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


THE "New West" has been going through considerable demographic and economic change as those moving in bring new values and lifestyles to an area steeped in tradition and myth.

But will the region's greatest migration since the opening of the Oregon Trail translate into a new political landscape as well?

This is a key question in such states as Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, where state and congressional elections are drawing national attention.

Experts in these states say there may be more espresso-sipping, tree-hugging interlopers from California, but it's still the region where Ross Perot did better then anyplace else in 1992, where what's perceived as the Clinton administration's "War on the West" over natural resource management has alienated many, and where independence and the personal touch are more important than political party.

The influx of newcomers is "a process still pretty early in its evolution," says Timothy Rife, publisher of the Montana Political Reporter.

Many newcomers indeed fit the stereotype. Mr. Rife calls these "Ted Turner liberals," referring to the media executive and his wife, actress Jane Fonda, who (along with a number of other big names) have bought up ranches and businesses there.

Still, he adds, "the folks coming into Montana are from all over the country, and a great many of them are conservatives."

Sierra Club regional director Larry Mehlhoff, based in Sheridan, Wyoming, notes the indicators of change in his town: four places that sell cappuccino while there was only one a year ago and a big subdivision of $200,000-$400,000 homes being built.

"We really have been discovered," he says. "I do think there's changing demographics, and I do think it will affect things."

"But it's not clear how," he adds. "Things are so unsettled and difficult to predict this year."

If anything, says University of Idaho political scientist Florence Heffron, Californians moving into her state are shifting the political balance rightward. "They are tilting what is basically a conservative Republican state even more in that direction," she says.

Kent Briggs, senior fellow at the Denver-based research organization Center for the New West, lays the sense of disgruntlement that pervades much of the West at the doorstep of the Clinton administration - especially Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.

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