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A Watershed Moment: The American West in the Age of Limits

Robert Frodeman, Evelyn Brister, and Luther Propst, editors

forthcoming Fall 2024

University of Utah Press

The American West faces unprecedented natural and social challenges. In 2021, catastrophic wildfires burned over 7 million acres, an acreage double that burned annually in the 1990s. Wildfire risk is heightened by the major drought affecting much of the West—the worst in 1200 years. At the same time, the desirability of the West grows as people are increasingly attracted to its natural beauty, opportunities for outdoor recreation, and cultural traditions. These changes in turn drive growing social and financial inequities. For example, the price of a single-family home in Bozeman, MT increased almost 50% from 2020 to 2021, a phenomenon that creates worker shortages in towns with amenity-based economies.

 

The 25 chapters of A Watershed Moment examine these challenges and the policies that communities can adopt in order to live well within natural limits. This edited volume sets a course for a sustainable future for communities in the American West and across the nation. Essays by leaders in land use planning and wildfire, wildlife, and tourism management demonstrate the connections between land use policy and cultural values; essays by historians, anthropologists, and sociologists investigate the cultural and political traditions that affect community decision-making in the face of limits. By examining how residents of the West live in and value their natural environment, this book generates a positive and creative vision for land use and management policies.

 

Structure of the Volume

 

The volume integrates practical approaches to land use, land management, and planning with a rich philosophical perspective on justice, quality of life, and sustainability in the American West. The West is unified by a set of common conditions—abundant public lands but scarce water resources—and a historical imaginary that projects plenitude and freedom. Many towns are situated close to or in areas of great natural beauty and serve as gateway communities to public lands. They share a set of challenges: aridity and susceptibility to drought and fire, limited available land because of public land ownership, and high tourist and resettlement interest. This produces pressure on communities and decision-makers to preserve a way of life while coping with rapid social and ecological change.

 

The individual chapters of the volume share a theoretical framework of place-based environmental studies, supplemented by perspectives taken from history, sociology, economics, geography, community planning, and ecology. Each chapter begins with a vivid narrative about the challenges facing a particular place and develops an analysis that draws lessons for communities elsewhere.

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1882 hand-colored map depicting the western half of the continental United States

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