Creating “a Civilization to Match the Scenery” in Western North America

It’s not as exciting as restoring a wetland or leading a geotour. It’s not as satisfying as bringing cattlemen, conservationists, commissioners and contractors together to work out a vision for their community. Planning doesn’t generate much adrenaline or many headlines. It does, however, lay the groundwork for all that follows. Last summer the Sonoran Institute began planning for the next five to 10 years by examining the West — its rapid growth, changing economy and much more. By June, we will have a new plan for best using our time, energy, funding, skills and passion for this land. Here’s a sneak preview.


Healthy Lands, Resilient Economies, Vibrant Communities

The goal is a West where civil dialogue and collaboration are hallmarks of decision making; people live in harmony with the land and wildlife; clean water and energy are assured; and vibrant communities, resilient economies and healthy lands reflect “a civilization to match the scenery,” as Western writer Wallace Stegner envisioned. The Sonoran Institute, with the support of people who care about the West, is working to bring this vision to reality.

Changes & Challenges:

A Snapshot Grizzlies. Saguaros. Iconic landscapes — Grand Canyon, Rocky Mountains, Yellowstone. The West is mythical — a land where many aspire to travel or live, whether in a modern city flanked by rugged wilderness or in a mountain town with world-class skiing or fishing five minutes from work. But profound change is underway. We must be careful stewards of nature’s gifts or risk losing them.

  • Growth. Arizona, Nevada, Idaho, Colorado and Utah are the fastest-growing states. Ranches and open space are giving way to subdivisions. Homes and jobs are often far apart, and streets are gridlocked. Many rural communities outgrow their small-town character. Retirees also look south of the border for affordable, resort-style living. Sources of energy and water are strained.
  • Public Land. Nearly half of the West is public land. Neighboring private development hampers wildlife migration. More off-road motorized vehicles damage resources that understaffed agencies cannot protect. Policies impede public-land managers’ work with private landowners, tribes and other jurisdictions, yet most threats arise outside public-land boundaries.
  • Laws & Policies. State and federal policies offer few incentives and limited authority for communities to plan for growth and protect their land, air and water. Poorly planned development decreases property values and increases costs of infrastructure and services.
  • Energy. Parts of the West are in the grip of an energy boom. When bust follows boom, communities have to pick up the pieces. Many are unprepared for the impacts on their land, water and social fabric.
  • Drought. Compounding these challenges, a prolonged drought is evidenced by reduced mountain snow pack, falling river levels, intense wildfires and expanding noxious weeds.
  • Changing Economy. Traditional industries no longer make a major contribution. Scenery, recreation and open space are the West’s new competitive advantage.

The challenges loom large, but they can be overcome. We can make better decisions about how to develop our communities and preserve the places and quality of life we cherish.

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