The Intermountain West is booming. From Phoenix to Boise and Denver, descendants of pioneers pioneers and Indigenous peoples are seeing their homeland take on new forms. Cranes tower above skyscrapers and apartment buildings. Burgeoning subdivisions stretch the seams of smaller towns on the outskirts. It’s easy to blame California and the tech industry, but what does all this change really look like?

The boom

Utah is America’s fastest-growing state, per the 2020 census, with 22.8 percent growth in adult population over 2010. Idaho, Colorado and Nevada round out the top five (along with Texas), while Arizona ranks eighth at 16.4 percent. Overall, the U.S. grew by just 10.1 percent in that same period.

Adult population growth from 2010-2020:

‘Mountain Megas’

Even before the latest wave of growth, as much as 90 percent of the population in Utah, Arizona and Nevada lived in urban areas, per the U.S. Census Bureau. A 2016 Brookings report coined the term “Mountain Megas” for large metropolitan areas like Phoenix, Salt Lake City, Denver and Albuquerque, characterized by their relative isolation from each other between large stretches of rural land – unlike their often clustered counterparts on the coasts.

Old vs. new

Even in rural areas, growth has been uneven. A pair of BYU professors have found that “New West” counties, largely characterized by outdoor recreation, have grown both economically and demographically, with new arrivals earning 6 percent higher per-capita income than locals and 21 percent higher than outgoing migrants. But “Old West” counties, built around farming and mining, have lost both population and buying power. These contrasts underscore political conflicts — like choosing between extractive land use and preserving natural beauty.

Here to stay

“Rural gentrifiers can be seen as, in effect, ‘permanent tourists.’” — J. Dwight Hines, a cultural anthropologist and professor of literary arts and social justice studies at Point Park University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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The region is experiencing massive growth in its Hispanic population, echoing a nationwide trend toward increased diversity. According to a Brookings census analysis, this trend reaches beyond the “megas” to smaller but growing communities. From 2010 to 2020, the number of Hispanics grew by 39.6 percent in Idaho Falls, 38.7 percent in Colorado Springs, and a whopping 51.9 percent in St. George, Utah. One likely driver is booming construction, an industry where 30 percent of workers are Hispanic, per the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Hispanic population growth from 2010-2020:

Growing diversity

Asian Americans are America’s fastest-growing racial group, increasing 35.6 percent from 2010 to 2020. While they remain largely concentrated in a few large coastal cities, “megas” like Boise, Denver and Las Vegas have seen more than 40 percent growth; that number exceeding 50 percent in Phoenix and Salt Lake City. This group’s raw numbers may be smaller, but they still enrich an increasingly diverse population.

Asian American population growth from 2010-2020:

OK, blame California

As of 2018, Utah was not among the top 10 destinations for those fleeing the Golden State, but California was already the top source of in-migrants to Utah at 16.6 percent, according to the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. That was before the COVID-19 pandemic sparked the rise of remote work, freeing many workers to live wherever they can find Wi-Fi — the state’s natural beauty is a popular draw — and an influx of tech companies to the “Silicon Slopes.” About half the people who move to Utah come from elsewhere in the West.

The water problem

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The region has always been a harsh environment for people, but some worry that this latest growth is pushing the limit of its resources. According to a joint study from the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy (a Massachusetts think tank) and the Sonoran Institute (a conservation nonprofit based in Tucson), demand has already outstripped the supply of water in the Colorado River system. About 75 percent goes to agriculture, but it’s the increase in municipal and industrial users that has driven demand over the edge.

A new swing region?

Growth and new voting patterns could lend the Intermountain West more political power. Not only has the region gained 14 seats in the U.S. House since 1980, but challenges to its conservative tradition could — perhaps surprisingly — make it more influential in national elections, which have become increasingly focused on swing states. That has long cast a spotlight on the Midwest, but recent cycles have seen Colorado, Nevada and Arizona join their ranks. The latter proved crucial in the last presidential election, choosing a Democrat for the first time since 1996.

Like a tapestry

“Overall, rather than all-out change, the western United States has and is likely to continue experiencing a layering — a keeping of the old while adding the new.” — Donna Lybecker, political science chair at Idaho State University, in “The Environmental Politics and Policy of Western Public Lands,” published by Oregon State University.

This story appears in the March issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.

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