The West. The mere mention of it conjures up images of saddle-weary cowboys with campfire-stained jeans and sunburned noses, lumberjacks with plaid shirts and barrel-size arms, or bewhiskered miners with a faraway glint of treasure in their eyes.
But Old West images - some might say myths - are a far cry from New West realities where cowboys have been replaced by biotechnology experts, lumberjacks by computer software designers and miners by aerospace engineers.And the cowboy boots? They're still around, but chances are you'll find just as many laptop computers and white lab coats these days.
"The West is an area being transformed by technology and the influx of people, most of whom are highly educated and with above-average wages," said Philip Burgess, president of the Center for the New West, a market-oriented think tank based in Denver.
"There are more and more people looking to the West (bringing with them) economic diversification, the need for social re-sponses to growth trends, and a new way of life."
That is another way of saying the new immigrants are nothing like the economic and religious refugees who settled the Old West a century ago. They are freelance professionals, writers, brokers, entrepreneurs - computer cowboys, of sorts, who conduct business nationally and internationally via satellite and computer modem from hundreds of small cities across the West.
"The technology to do that wasn't available seven or eight years ago," Burgess said. Today it is, and the result is unprecedented population growth, economic prosperity and the evolution of a new Western ethic rooted in traditional Western freedoms, but not necessarily the traditional Western industries.
The Center for the New West, which tries to understand and document these trends, has now elected Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, a champion of information technology and regional cooperation, to the nonprofit center's board of trustees.
"He is a leader among the nation's governors, he has been a leading spokesman for the West in regional and national circles, and he has been a leader in how communications technology can be used to change the way we live and work and play and learn and govern," Burgess said.
Leavitt, a product of an Old West cattle-ranching economy, is a natural fit for the job. He appreciates Old West values, but he also shares a vision of a New West. He has made information technology a top priority of his administration, he has pioneered the concept of a "virtual university" that will link universities across the West into a single super-university accessible by any personal computer, and he is a vocal advocate of a Western regional presidential primary to give the West a greater political voice.
"We have a lot of the same goals," Leavitt said of the Center for the New West. "The West is stronger economically and is viewed with somewhat more prominence culturally and politically, and we are becoming a world player. When I started looking at what I wanted to accomplish in a second term, I wanted Utah to be a player in the emergence of the American West."
Burgess makes no secret about it. The center wanted Leavitt for his political clout. And Leavitt, honored by the selection, admits he sees the Center for the New West as a valuable contributor of new ideas and conservative approaches to problem-solving that can push Utah and the rest of the West into the national forefront.
The challenge, Leavitt said, is to embrace the future and still preserve the unique Old West values - the values of wide open spaces, family, community and church - that make the New West such a desirable place to live.
And it doesn't have to mean throwing out Old West traditions like cattle ranching and mining. In fact, much of the economic revolution that has transformed the West into the fastest-growing economy in the nation was first fueled by natural resource industries that pioneered advanced technology.
Using high-efficiency technology, lumber companies are producing virtually the same amount of timber with only a fraction of the employees. Same with coal mining. In fact, one mine in Wyoming now produces as much coal annually as the entire West did in 1980, Burgess said. And with far fewer employees.
The biotechnology revolution, Burgess added, was a product of Western ranching and land grant universities that promoted research into how ranchers could produce more with less.
"You go to the national stock show in Denver now and half the people have white lab coats on," he said. "The Old West has been transformed right before our eyes into new high-performing, high-productivity, internationally competitive industries."
But economic vitality has come with a political cost. More efficient industries means fewer employees. And in a democracy where people vote, fewer employees means less political influence.
"Politicians care about employees and reporters listen to politicians," Burgess said.
That's where Leavitt comes in. Leavitt is a player on the national political scene, he is respected by other government leaders, and he is an articulate advocate of "getting public sector leaders to understand the importance of technology for jobs and competitiveness in the new economy," Burgess said.