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Development Is Changing The West's Political Map

The New York Times has an interesting piece today about how changing patterns of development in the mountain west--namely, an influx of wealthy outsiders who are buying up land in order to either develop it or fence it off as "private playgrounds"--are redrawing the region's traditional political battle lines. Whereas earlier political fights pitted environmentalists on the one hand against industry and hunters on the other, it's increasingly the case that all three groups are teaming up as they find their interests converging when California expatriates come in and buy up land that would in past decades have been used either for logging, conservation, or public recreation. As the Times puts it:

In ways that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago, environmentalists and representatives of the timber industry are reaching across the table, drafting plans that would get loggers back into the national forests in exchange for agreements that would set aside certain areas for protection. ...

Many environmentalists say they have come to realize that cutting down trees, if done responsibly, is not the worst thing that can happen to a forest, when the alternative is selling the land to people who want to build houses. ...

Most private timber tracts in the West, including those owned by Plum Creek, have traditionally been open to recreational use, treated as public entry ways into the vast national forests, grasslands and wilderness areas that in Montana alone add up to nearly 46,000 square miles, about the size of New York State. But in many places, the new owners are throwing up no trespassing signs and fences, blocking what generations of residents across the West have taken for granted--open and beckoning access into the woods to fish, hunt and camp.

Ryan Sager has argued that the region's much-publicized evolution from Republican bastion to competitive battleground is a result of the supposedly libertarian mountain west's discomfort with the GOP's increasingly strident social conservatism. There's probably something to this, but it's easy to overstate the degree to which the region's culture of "rugged individualism" actually translates into social liberalism at the ballot box. A bigger part of the reason why the mountain west has been more hospitable to Democrats in recent years, especially in gubernatorial races, is this nascent alliance between different interests to challenge land-use trends.

--Josh Patashnik