Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Great Basin Growth and the Withering of California's Pacific Idyll

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Great Basin Growth and the Withering of California's Pacific Idyll

Article excerpt

For more than 150 years California has gained population at the expense of other parts of the United States. The attractions highlighted climate, agricultural opportunities, employment, and a lush beckoning of spirit, style, and trend. California's nickname, the Golden State, enshrined both opportunities and attractions. Long perceived as a relatively tolerant and welcoming destination, California for a century pulled in people who were sprinting from the soured economies, natural disasters, discrimination, and sundry plights of other states. By 1994 California had a population of nearly 32 million and the seventh-largest economy in the world.

Although California has long glimmered as the promised land for an idyllic Pacific existence, no one would claim that unalloyed perfection was attained. Still, the shift in sentiment during the 1990s is stunning. None of the explanations for this change is entirely satisfactory. What is clear is that the highly touted "California dream" is tarnished, and people seeking it are turning eastward (DRU-CA 1994b). Every western state is gaining population at the expense of California, and the Great Basin states of Nevada and Utah have proved especially popular to emigrants. With new residents and economic changes come problems and opportunities that are reshaping expectations and possibilities of the urban and rural American West.

A new western order is being scripted as the territory between the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra-Cascade ranges of the Pacific Rim is resettled by lifestyle refugees and job seekers moving toward an attractive and economically active urban realm [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. The intermontane western states are attracting people and enterprises that are all too disposed to evacuate a California that has of late been burdened with economic crises, urban disorder, and costly natural disasters. Amenities like climate that once pulled millions of people to the Pacific Slope are now balanced by negatives such as smog, drought, valley fever, and fire. In contrast, the desert states are relatively pristine. For partisans of the Old West the legacy is uncertain. People who regard the West as a venue for unrestrained logging, grazing, prospecting, and irrigation see these lifeways and traditional economies as threatened. The primary producers whose interests once dominated see past monopolies teetering. With an influx of unfamiliar and uninformed outsiders, the old-time cliques are verging on statistical and economic insignificance; even congressional committees are examining a redress of power (HR 1994; Starrs 1994).

The Great Basin is the pivot for reshaping the geography of urban, political, and natural-resource relationships in the American West, overwhelmingly at California's expense. Growth in the Salt Lake, Dixie, and eastern regions of Utah, as in Las Vegas, the western valleys, and the eastern fringes of Nevada, adds a fresh and urbane population that savors the enduring natural pleasures and expanding economic opportunities of the Great Basin. Traditional social and ethnic geographies once fundamental to life in this western realm are being changed. Local planning is compromised by an influx of wealth; traditional political constituencies are disenfranchised and outnumbered; water and other resources are strained; and the cost of growth is being questioned. These are not remote or impersonal quandaries; their resolution will affect the region well into the new century.


Since 1990 jobs, industries, and workers have migrated eastward from California into the interior West [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED]. Military-base closures, businesses abandoning a state regarded as overregulated and tax-unfriendly, and growing unease about the attainability of an idyllic life along the Pacific Slope began a trend that has gained volume and velocity. By late 1992 quality-of-life surveys found residents' perceptions of California had reached an all-time low, with only 30 percent considering the state "one of the best places to live" (Hayward 1994). …

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