Rural migration in the future will be a manifest destiny defined by natural beauty and human desires.
The two-hour drive on Route 87 from titanic Phoenix to tiny Payson, Arizona, is a passage from subdivided suburbia to the mythical expanses of the Old West. The road rises from a desert valley crowded with commuters and prefab townhouses into the very heart of Ponderosa pine country and John Ford westerns. On a map, Payson's Gila County is a green oasis in a desert state where almost everything else is portrayed in barren, bleached white.
Over a decade ago, Janet Crane, a harried single mother with a young son, first made the ride up into the Payson pines to clear her mind after a particularly bad week at work. "It was like nothing I ever saw before in my life," the 37-year-old New York native says. "I vowed then and there to move." It took her nine years to do it, but in 1997 Crane finally made it, although she paid a huge price for the privilege. What she found were higher housing costs and lower wages, and because Payson was out in the middle of the nowhere, everything cost about 15 percent more. In order to relocate, Crane says she had to move into what she calls a "four-plex" apartment building crammed unglamorously between two insurance agencies on Payson's commercial strip. "But when you get outside," she says, "there's the view."
In the last decade, Americans of all ages have been moving back to non-metro rural counties, reversing nearly a century of population losses in former farming and mining counties. The Census Bureau reports that non-metro counties - which represent three-fourths of the country's total - experienced a 5.9 percent population surge between 1990 and 1996. The most explosive growth, according to Loyola University demographer Kenneth Johnson, occurred in the 190 counties whose economies are based on retirement and the 285 counties that are ruled by recreation. For those reasons, many have chalked up the boom to retirees and ski-lovingyuppies.
But that only tells part of the story. The counties that did best of all, whatever their economic base, were the ones that offered an ideal climate, postcard perfect mountains, and cool blue waters, according to a new report. And virtually all of them were in western states. The report suggests that in the future, the counties that grow and the ones that falter may be determined by the simplest of human motives: people's desire to live in pretty places.
MAJESTY AND MAGNETISM
In the 1990s, aesthetics has translated into growth. David McGranahan, an economist with the Economic Research Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has found that there is a very strong correlation between rural-county population and job growth and how each county ranks in terms of its physical attractiveness - or to use the more technical term, its "natural amenities."
Surveying 2,260 non-metro counties nationwide (excluding Alaska and Hawaii), McGranahan created a rating scale to measure an area's attractiveness and migrant magnetism. With a limited travel budget - but access to mounds of raw data - he noticed that many of the fastest-growing counties had two things in common: They had temperate climates and they were easy on the eyes. So he decided to catalog the climatic factors and then threw in a pair of aesthetic measurements: the amount of water a county has, plus its "topographical variation." For the latter measurement, he defined 21 separate land formations ranging from "flat plains" to "high mountains." The more hills a county had, the higher the rating. Then he factored all of his variables together, laid them into his computer modeling system, and rated each rural county on a seven-tier scale, based on a standard deviation of +11.2 to -6.4.
What McGranahan found, he writes in his report, "Natural Amenities Drive Rural Population Change," released last month, was that from 1970 to 1996, high-scoring counties tended to double their population (although not all high-amenity counties had high growth), while more than half of the low-scoring counties lost population.
So what did it take to make his amenities top-25 list? "The ones that rate high have interesting terrain," he says. "You know, lakes, rivers, mountains." And the counties that bring up the rear? "For the most part," he says, "they are basically flat."
Eager to avoid over-generalizations - not to mention hate mail - McGranahan is quick to point out that his results don't factor in many other kinds of variables that make localities desirable - the chief ones being a small-town environment or proximity to urban centers. The other caveat he adds is that perfectly lovely counties with an abundance of one particular amenity - say, mild winters or beautiful lakes - but a lack of others, such as topographical variations, may not necessarily land in the upper reaches of the scale.
That said, the crown jewel of rural counties turns out to be Humboldt, in north central California, which scored an 11.2, including a perfect 21 on McGranahan's peaks-to-valleys topography measurement. Temperatures in January there average 47[degree]F, with 16.8 days of sunshine during that month. Although Humboldt wasn't the biggest gainer in terms of population or job growth in the '90s - 2.2. percent and 13 percent, respectively - it is joined on the list by some real winners. California's Calaveras County, for example, in the No. 5 spot, grew by 22.4 percent, and employment grew by 17 percent. Population in Summit, Colorado - No. 8 on the list - grew by 43.5 percent, while employment grew by 52.2 percent. On average, the population of the top 25 counties grew nearly 18 percent from 1990 to 1998.
To a great extent, McGranahan's data tell a tale of two regions. All of the counties in the top 25 are located in the West: In fact, you have to get to No. 40 to hit any county out of the West (Monroe County, Florida). Meanwhile, the ten lowest-amenity counties - all located in the Midwest - grew by a paltry 1 percent. You have to get to number 38 on the bottom 50 list to find one that is located outside of the upper Midwest (Simpson County, Kentucky). It's no great surprise that seven of the bottom ten list agriculture as their main industry.
The homeliest county of them all, according to McGranahan's scale, is Red Lake, Minnesota, a tiny farming county with bone-chilling winters, indifferent summers, and few large settlements. It doesn't have much water larger than the size of a livestock trough, and it scores a 1 on the topography scale. In layman's terms, it's flatter than a pool table. During the 1990s, Red Lake lost 5.3 percent of its residents. And it's got plenty of company. In all, seven of McGranahan's bottom ten are located in Minnesota. Over the border in North Dakota, not far from Red Lake, are two more bottom-ten dwellers: flat, virtually waterless Traill and Pembina Counties.
The irony, of course, is that the West and Midwest were the two areas of the country that were hit hardest by the sharp drop in agricultural, mining, and timber industries that all bottomed out in the 1980s. The difference, demographers say, is that the West has something with which to lure people back.
"The old patterns of boom and bust in population growth is pretty much ending in the non-metro West," says John Cromartie, an ERS researcher who tracks national migration patterns. And, he adds, "It's going to continue to grow steadily because it's such a pleasant place to live." As for the strapped agricultural Midwest, suffice it to say that America's prairie breadbasket will continue to go stale. "I have nothing against Minnesota or Iowa or Indiana - and I went to school in Wisconsin," McGranahan says, "but agriculture does well in flat, uninteresting country. Interesting-looking country makes for crummy farms, but [it's] where people want to go to live."
That Americans want to live in pretty places isn't news. What is surprising is the extent to which scenic beauty is becoming a major factor in their life decisions, among all class and income levels. Demographers have traditionally held to two basic rules for domestic migration patterns: older, well-off people move to warm places when they retire, and young, middle-means wage earners go where the money is. But times are changing, subtly and surely.
THINNER AIR, LOWER PAY
Last year, Dean Judson, then a demographer for the state of Nevada and now in the planning and research division of the U.S. Census Bureau, studied this phenomenon by conducting a detailed analysis of a survey of 1,400 people who moved to Oregon at the height of the state's in-migration boom in the early '90s. The respondents were among the 440,000 people who relocated to the state in the early 1990s - many of them fleeing the crippling California recession that pushed 2.1 million people out of the Golden State.
The first thing Judson noticed when he looked at the numbers was that an overwhelming majority of respondents cited the desire for amenities and a better quality of life. And, to his surprise, the phenomenon held true for all age groups - not just retirees and "downshifting" 55-year-old stockbrokers.
True to historic patterns, Judson's research indicated that the people aged 21 to 39 who relocated to Portland - the state's largest city - went in search of higher wages (and, perhaps, a more exciting night life). And, on the flip side, many retirees, secure with pensions, headed to the part of the state with nice scenery - Oregon's scenic southern coast.
Then Judson found something else that surprised him. When he looked at the state's rapidly growing population in the mountainous central region, he identified a far more varied group of in-migrants, ranging in age from 20 to 65, who defied simple categorization. "These are not people who are in the retirement mind-set," Judson explains. "They still have to pay some attention to labor-market considerations. They need to get a good generation of income and wealth. But they want a life, too. They want to have it both ways." This rural region, he says, is the land of the "Trade-Offs."
These are people, Judson says, who were most willing to trade off salary for close proximity to beauty: Mount Washington, the stunning Willamette National Forest, and an archipelago of unspoiled lakes, rivers, and reservoirs. The in-migrants who said they moved to the Cascades region primarily for the amenities sacrificed an average of $7,200 to do so, Judson found. Whatever their motives, anyone who moved to the central counties lost income - $3,500 a year on average. In addition, they had to incur substantially higher housing, food, and infrastructure costs associated with living out in the middle of nowhere. Six out of ten were between the ages of 20 and 45, in their prime working years.
One of those people was Kelly Gotcher, a thirtysomething computer-training specialist from the Silicon Valley, who moved three years ago up to Bend, a growing berg located 160 miles southeast of Portland in mountainous Deschutes County - ranked No. 37 on McGranahan's amenities list - to live with her retired parents. When she first arrived there, she was awestruck by the same scenes Woody Guthrie must have taken in when he hoboed around Oregon 60 years ago: crisp sunlight, forests of dark green, an abundance of "endless skyway." Replete with such woodsy charms, Bend has enjoyed a bona fide boom. Since 1990, its population has grown from 20,000 to about 49,000. The population of Deschutes County is now 104,900, a 40 percent increase since 1990.
Many who've moved to Bend were frazzled northern Californians like Gotcher. For years, she'd been eager to get out of the work-a-day grind - her daily round-trip commute averaged three hours. And anxiety about work had become a palpable presence in her life. Fresh air was in order. She got her wish, but the economics of the move still make her cringe: In California she made more than $40,000 a year and coordinated a large staff. In Bend, she gets paid "in the mid-$20s" to work as a secretary at the local Chamber of Commerce. The trade-off: She gets to ride her mountain bike up into the forest after work every night for two hours.
"It's always sunny here," says Gotcher, assessing her life. "But I'm also making a lot less than I used to. And I worry about where I am in my life. I'm 32 and I'm working as a secretary." All of her friends have similar relocation stories, she adds, and a similar sense of ambivalence. In fact, they've coined a slogan for their predicament. They call it "poverty with a view."
YOU CAN'T EAT SCENERY
And so it may remain, for the foreseeable future anyway. Beautiful Bend is just too far away from a major technology hub or education center to attract the kinds of large, high-tech employers that can offer higher-wage jobs. There are a handful of small computer firms, but the county's one institution of higher learning is Central Oregon Community College.
That's why it's the non-metro counties in the second tier of McGranahan's amenities scale - mostly those at the edge of large population centers with better access to jobs, education, and other non-natural resources - that have accounted for the largest percentage of the non-metro population growth. Meanwhile, top-tier rural counties have been great at attracting relatively low-wage, low-tech jobs.
That's not the way it was supposed to happen, at least not according to researchers at the Center for a New West, a think-tank based in Denver. In the early 1990s, CNW coined the name "Lone Eagle" to describe the prototypical "new Westerner" of the 21st century: a high-tech professional with a laptop, a cellular phone, and a fiberoptic line who makes $250,000 a year working out of a converted garage in his or her mountaintop aerie. At three in the afternoon, said Lone Eagle clicks on the "shut down" icon, grabs an energy bar, and climbs a mountain. Nice work, if you can get it.
The problem is that the eagles haven't landed. In fact, some are flying away. Take Peter Starkel, a 30-year-old Michigan native who moved out to Leadville, Colorado, three years ago to start his own business producing radio jingles and on-hold music. Leadville, population 2,700, is located in Lake County, which is beautiful enough to earn the No. 4 slot on McGranahan's list of natural amenities standouts. Perched near the Continental Divide, Lake County is over 90 percent parkland and has one of the best municipally run ski slopes in the country. "From a recreation standpoint, it's got everything," Starkel says.
But like some other high-amenity counties that are lagging in population and job growth, Lake has its share of disadvantages. It's remote, it hasn't recovered from massive job loss in the '80s, and it lacks adequate connections to the outside world. Starkel had to wait a month to get a business phone line run out to his house in the country. "That was the first curve ball," he says. Then, when he was setting up a Web site to attract business, he was in for another surprise: His phone line carried a sluggish modem speed of 14.4 bps, instead of the much faster 56.6.
When the local phone company finally installed high-speed fiberoptic lines out to his house, there was just one glitch: The cable didn't run to a main "trunk" line. Instead it sent information by microwave transmission - a slower and inefficient way of moving data. "It was like owning a Ferrari without having a road to drive it on," Starkel says. As a result, his business lagged and his spirits flagged.
In July, after the premature birth of a son who struggled to breathe in the 10,000-foot altitude, he and his wife headed back to Michigan, where for $30 a month he gets a fiberoptic hook-up and more than 100 cable channels. "It was a blast," he says of his mountain days, "but I have to do business now."
He wasn't the first to head back down the mountain. Of the 200 parishioners in his church, about a dozen families returned to city homes. And that may be one of the main challenges to the continuation of the rural resurgence. A lot of counties have the beauty, but can they attract the brains?
"The main thing we're trying to do here is to create a diverse, sustainable economy," says Mary Ellen Thoren, interim director of Leadville's chamber of commerce. "Some of the counties around us have gotten very rich by part-time residents who spend a couple of weeks a year in their expensive condos. They add to the tax base, but they don't contribute to community life."
To help draw younger, year-round families, Thoren has tried to make a few modest improvements. Forget fiber: She's trying to get the local phone company to reroute basic phone lines so that people aren't charged long distance rates for making calls to adjacent counties. "I've been spending a lot of time lately begging and pleading," she says with a chuckle.
Even so, Thoren has to admit things are much better than they used to be. In the late 1980s, most of Leadville's mines shut down, forcing 3,500 to 4,000 people out of work. The county's tax base, she says, plunged from $250 million to $45 million. In the '90s, it rebounded by about $20 million and Thoren says the county's looks and personality will continue to attract the 6 percent population growth it has has enjoyed during those years. "It's beautiful, it's a family-type place, and you never have to wait in line at the ski lift," she adds. "People will come."
And many experts agree. John Cromartie, the ERS demographer, predicts that rural growth in the West will remain steady - if not explosive - for three basic reasons. First, he says, the great losses from mining and timbering have largely been absorbed. Second, the retirement of baby boomers in the first two decades of the next century means millions of people with pensions will be looking for second homes. Third, many of the technological hurdles that now exist will ultimately be surmounted, making way for a steadier influx of Lone Eagles.
But the bottom line, says McGranahan, is a lot more basic than that. "Amenities are the rural competitive advantage," he says. That's because Americans are changing the way they make decisions about where they choose to live. Wages will always be a major consideration. But many working-age people now feel entitled to a higher quality of life - and a hell of a heavenly view - before they get the gold watch. Anyplace that can offer them their place in the clouds, McGranahan says, is likely to thrive. "It isn't esoteric," he adds. "People want to get a life."
David McGranahan defines a natural amenity as one "that enhances a location as a place of residence [and] pertains to the physical rather than social or economic environment." His six measures include the warmth of the winters and the number of winter sun days, the mildness of the summers and the degree of humidity, topographic variations and the amount of surface water.
Population growth in rural counties from 1970 to 1996 closely reflected their amenity ratings, McGranahan reports: High-scoring counties tended to double their populations, while low scorers grew by only 1 percent. Although rural growth was less pronounced from 1990 to 1998, still many (but not all) high-amenity counties performed well, particularly in the West.