Politics Shift as City Folk Fill the West 'WHAT'S THE BLM?' Series: Western Divide. Second of Four Parts. One of One Articles Appearing Today

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From his office here, venture capitalist Steven Nightingale looks out at the vaulted peaks of the Sierra Nevada. On this day, like many, a haze hugs the mountains, but it does not yet creep down to the suburban tract homes that nestle in the foothills.

As a businessman, Mr. Nightingale sees the view from his window as a sign of prosperity. But as a man who loves the West's open spaces, he speaks wistfully of an earlier era. "Anybody who works in a Western city who bothers to look out a window understands the problem," he says.

The "problem," simply put, is growth. The West is booming, like no place else in America, far outpacing the rest of the US in job creation and population growth. Contrary to the image of the West as a land of sagebrush and cowboys, most newcomers are headed to cities, making this the most urbanized region in the nation. Just as growth is changing the landscape, it is also reshaping the political agenda in the West. Traditional Western issues such as grazing fees and other federal land-management policies are less likely to concern the region's urban dwellers - prompting politicians from the local to the national levels to scramble to revise their messages for the New West constituency. "Urban dwellers don't know what the {federal} Bureau of Land Management or the {US} Forest Service does in this state," says Steve Bradhurst, chairman of the county commission for Washoe County, which includes Reno. "They're focused on urban issues. They're glad there's open space out there for them to recreate in." Indeed, when asked to identify the issues most important to them in this election year, Reno area residents tick off a familiar list:welfare reform, poverty, Social Security and Medicare, health care, and taxes. Only one voter, Julie Evans, who comes from three generations of Montana ranchers, touches on classic "Western" themes. "I'll vote for {Bob} Dole just to get {President} Clinton out," she says, standing in front of a Wal-Mart in Fallon, Nev. "He's just been a nightmare for ranchers and farmers." But, admits Ms. Evans, "most people around here are not aware of this - they have no connection to the land." Voter disinterest in land-management battles between local governments and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) may seem out of character for a state that led a "Sagebrush Rebellion" less than 10 years ago. Certainly, the fight over land, and against the federal government, remains an integral part of politics in most Western states. But times have changed, and so has Nevada. Home to a booming gambling and entertainment industry, Nevada has the fastest rate of population growth in the nation. Nine out of 10 Nevadans live in two neon-lit cities - Reno and Las Vegas. At current growth projections, "we have to double all of our infrastructure in 10 years," says Kathleen Truman, professor of environmental studies at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. …


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