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There's a population boom on in Utah that's apparent even to denizens of the state's most sparsely settled quarters.

But good grief, Daggett County?The state's smallest county saw its head count increase by 7.1 percent in the past fiscal year, according to the latest statistics from the Governor's Office of Planning and Budget. The percentage is more impressive than the raw number. Daggett County's population is now about 750, up from 700, but it's still an increase.

It's hard to say precisely what accounts for the surge - if you can call it that - in a scenic but desolate corner of Utah that sits in the Green River country of the state's border confluence with Wyoming and Colorado. Maybe it's retirees. Or commuters to Rock Springs. Or hard-rock miners moving in to claim the area's handful of new jobs.

Carl Collette, proprietor of the rustic Flaming Gorge Lodge near Dutch John, has a hunch.

"It's just people getting out of Dodge, that's what I think it is," he said.

And that's as good an answer as any, according to Natalie Gochnour, economist for the planning and budget office, who notes that from mid-1993 to mid-1994 twenty-eight of Utah's 29 counties saw population increases that ranged from slight to startling. Only Garfield County posted no growth. Statewide, population has increased by 50,000 to 1.9 million, half of it newcomers and most of them from California, according to tax-return data.

It's all about urban refugees drifting into the Mountain West to seek a better way of life while staying in touch with the world via modem and fax machine, a trend demographers have tracked since the beginning of the 1990s.

"This part of the country is showing the most rapid economic and demographic growth," said Gochnour, who added that one without the other is improbable.

"While there are a number of factors which contribute to strong population growth, healthy employment growth is a very significant component," offered a news release accompanying Wednesday's dissemination of the data that also noted last year the number of jobs in Utah increased by a robust 6.2 percent.

The population trend isn't lost on Nephi Mayor Robert L. Steele, who said Juab County's 9.7 percent population increase, from 6,200 to 6,800 people, is because Nephi is fast becoming a bedroom community for Utah County to the north.

"It takes 45 minutes to get from here to UVSC (Utah Valley State College) in Orem," said Steele. "And this is a d--- nice place to live."

Nephi, which is the only population center to speak of in a county whose geographic bulk is composed of the vast western desert of Utah, is ready for more, said Steele.

"We've got lots of water, lots of everything."

But with growth comes headache, and city government is in the early stages of grappling with subdivision-density restrictions, something St. George to the south knows all about.

"This used to be a small town," said Robert F. Owens, a retired circuit judge who is active in a Washington County group called Citizens for Moderate Growth, which in November will sponsor a ballot initiative to limit the pace of development in St. George.

Washington County, land of sunshine and golf, in recent years has become a desert mecca to immigrants from California and has grown much too fast, according to many residents.

The state's new numbers say county population increased 8 percent in the past fiscal year, from 58,700 to 63,400.

"But that's too low. Both sides down here agree on that much. It's closer to 15 or 16 percent in St. George."

Owens said he's worried about it because he's seen it happen before.

"I moved here from Phoenix in 1974, and basically my experience in seeing Phoenix trashed was what led me to get involved on this."