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GIS for the New West
By Patricia Gude, Sonoran Institute

photo of snow-capped mountain tops

Vast open spaces inhabited by cowboys, miners, and loggers were the defining characteristics of the Old West. The 21st century West is increasingly populated by engineers, architects, and retirees living on ranchettes. What does this transition mean for the people and economy of the West today? What is the relationship between open space, growth, and prosperity? The Sonoran Institute is answering these types of questions with the help of GIS.

click to enlarge
Income from farming has decreased.

The Sonoran Institute, a nonprofit organization established in 1990, works with communities to conserve important natural landscapes in western North America. The SocioEconomics Program is a key part of the institute's approach to conservation. This program helps rural communities and land managers in the West understand changing economics, make connections between environmental health and economic vitality, and use this knowledge to advance conservation and economic prosperity. The Sonoran Institute's new GIS lab has been critical in accomplishing these goals.

Since setting up a GIS lab in 2003, the Sonoran Institute has developed a GIS library that allows it to analyze and map thousands of physical, biological, demographic, and economic concepts. As part of its SocioEconomics Program, a custom ArcMap toolbar was created that integrates GIS with the Economic Profile System. This free software generates custom profiles for any region in the United States and synthesizes census and United States Department of Commerce data into tables and figures illustrating long-term population, employment, and income trends. The integration of the Economic Profile System with GIS allows the SocioEconomics Program to analyze how population, employment, and income trends relate to land management, infrastructure, wildlife habitat, and other GIS layers within its library.

These tools have enabled the Sonoran Institute to more efficiently analyze and communicate

  • How the West is changing
  • How land protection and economic prosperity are linked
  • How peer communities can learn from each other about the economic opportunities and potential pitfalls that result from different land management decisions

The West Today

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Income from services has increased.

Today's West is a product of the global economy. This is an economy in which service-related components of production can be located in remote areas. People with footloose jobs are moving west, and these newcomers are bringing political, land-use, and local economic changes. Any region in transition can expect growing pains, and the West is no exception. Decision makers and citizens are asking questions such as "How has our competitive advantage changed in today's global marketplace? What are our economic strengths? What will be our strategy for ensuring prosperity?"

Long-term residents of the West have seen family and friends suffer from job losses in mining, logging, and ranching. Today, only 8 percent of personal income in the rural West is from industries that historically supported the economy—farming, ranching, mining, oil and gas development, and logging and other wood products sectors-as compared with 20 percent for these industries three decades ago. Resource-dependent and agricultural sectors are often seen as the West's traditional economic staples. Their decline has many Westerners worried. Many feel the region has entered an economic depression that can only be relieved by relaxing environmental regulations and subsidizing extractive industries.

Using GIS, the SocioEconomics Program helps Westerners understand that declines in mining, logging, and ranching have been accompanied by a simultaneous increase in income from business, health services, and nonlabor sources. Increasingly, wealth in the West is created by engineers, researchers, designers, managers, and other occupations labeled as services.

Job creation has been more rapid in the West than the nation as a whole. Increases in nonlabor income, including 401K investments, pensions, and age-related assistance from the federal government, represent substantial disposable income for many Western communities. In the last three decades, more than half the net growth in personal income has come from service and professional industries. Another third of net growth has come from non-labor sources of income. Less than 1 percent of growth came from mining and oil and gas development. Agricultural and agricultural support sectors together added just an additional 1 percent to the growth during this period.

What economic strategy will ensure prosperity in the West? With today's telecommunications technology, it is assumed that software engineers, financial advisors, and other similar professionals can live in remote parts of the West. However, they need to be able to visit with clients. One solution is to develop the roads and airports that ensure easy access to larger markets. This transportation infrastructure will be a key factor in the continued creation of the high-wage jobs in service industries. An even greater challenge lies in preserving the natural landscapes, friendly communities, and abundant recreational opportunities that continue to draw professionals and retirees from around the world to the West.

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