The Evolving West

  The West has, and continues to, evolve. The era of economic dependency on resource extraction has long since passed. The logging industry has been a fraction of the economy of the Sierra’s rural counties for decades. Even in the counties where significant logging industry infrastructure remains and where the economies are the least diversified, timber employment is a small player.


Logging TruckFormer Montana Congressman, Pat Williams described the situation this way:

The Myth of the Old West

"Today’s West has undergone a significant transition—our economy, population and culture have changed. An historic threshold has been crossed, particularly in the states of the Rocky Mountains. The West is no longer what it was—nor are we who live there what we once were. We now live in an Evolving West.

'"Most Americans know the story of the Old West. It was the stuff of myth, inaccurate but comfortable. Myths have a way of arresting ambiguity. The Hollywood movie director and producer John Ford, whose films include Wagon Train, Fort Apache, and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, was once asked, 'Did you show the West the way it was?' Ford replied, 'Hell no. I showed it the way it should have been.'

"The West and its old industries cannot return to those heydays of yesteryear even if we wanted to. The transition was, and its effects continue to be, wrenching. People and places still feel the displacement. Whether that will be an asset or liability depends, at least in part, on purposeful leadership. But we cannot deny the effects and power of the marketplace. The throes of the transition have passed and today’s West is our future. We can rail against it and be swallowed or guide it and prosper." -- Testimony of former Montana Congressman, Pat Williams, at a recent hearing on the topic of the “Evolving West” in the House Natural Resources Committee.

Myth of the “McJob” Economy

There is a common myth that new jobs generated by the economy of the Evolving West are low paying service jobs where hardworking local folks end up fluffing duvets and making cappuccinos for upscale urban newcomers. The reality is much different and far more appealing. The Economy of the Evolving West is both amenities driven and restoration based. It is amenities driven in that the places with the most protected lands, scenic vistas, low crime rates and best schools are attracting investment and people while those areas that are the most degraded with social indicators heading south are losing out.

In the woods, jobs that involve restoring the decades of damaging practices by the timber industry is a growth industry. Restoring fire resiliency by thinning out small trees and brush creates opportunities for timber industry workers to stay in the woods while helping to protect communities and surrounding forests.

Forest Community Economics

Case Study: Tuolumne County

The following chart details personal income over the past 30 years in Tuolumne County, home of the Stanislaus National Forest and two Sierra Pacific Industries sawmills. Manufacturing, including forest products from those mills, has been about as steady as one might expect from the cyclical logging industry.

Meanwhile, two other categories of income, have grown so much that if they were in a clearly identifiable industry like lemonade the county would be posting signs and making t-shirts that said “Tuolemonade” and “lemonade capital of the world” and “sour is us” and “here’s squinting at ya!” Those categories are services and professional income which have tripled; and non-labor income from investments and retirement which are up five-fold. Combined, they are worth $1 billion to the county. Forest products are 5 percent of that.

Personal Income GraphOther information about Tuolumne County indicate that the population is growing faster than the state and nation, unemployment is down, and the county acquired more than 16,000 new jobs that have been created in the past 30 years in other sectors.

Read more about the evolution of the west, and new forest economies including sustainably harvested, small diameter trees and their role in forest restoration, in the links to your left.