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Intermountain West - Economy

Intermountain West Irrigation and Agriculture: Much of the flow of several of the more important rivers in the Intermountain West is diverted for various uses, with irrigation claiming the largest share. The Reclamation Act of 1902 provided for federal support for the construction of dams, canals, and, eventually, hydroelectric systems for the 17 western states (excluding Alaska and Hawaii). Today, over 80 percent of the water from these federally supported projects is used to irrigate over 4 million hectares. While most of this irrigated land is in California, large irrigation projects are nevertheless scattered throughout the region.

The 1 million hectares irrigated in the Snake River Plain makes Idaho the region's leader in terms of the amount of land irrigated. This enables the state to be among America's leaders in potato and sugar beet production; alfalfa and cattle are also important. The Columbia Valley Reclamation project, supplied by the bountiful waters of the Columbia River impounded behind Grand Coulee Dam in central Washington, contains well over 400,000 hectares, producing such crops as alfalfa, sugar beets, and potatoes.

Irrigation along the Wasatch Valley has expanded little since the first decades of Mormon settlement. About 400,000 irrigated hectares there are devoted primarily to sugar beets and alfalfa. The Grand Valley, along the Colorado River in west-central Colorado, produces alfalfa and potatoes as principal crops, although tree fruit, especially peaches, are also important. In Washington, tributaries of the Columbia River, notably the Yakima and Wenatchee, supply water for America's most famous apple-producing regions.

Each of these areas produces a limited set of crops. The region's short growing season precludes production of most long-season crops. And local demand is limited, minimizing the need for dairying or many fresh vegetables.

The more southerly irrigated districts, although affected by irrigation water shortages, nevertheless have one major advantage over their northern counterparts--a far longer growing season. California's Imperial Valley, with a frost-free period in excess of 300 days, is one of America's premier crop producing areas. Much of America's winter head-lettuce supply comes from here, as do grapes, cotton, and alfalfa for fattening beef. The cattle population of the valley is over 250,000 head. A newly constructed electric power generating facility there uses locally abundant cattle manure for fuel. The Imperial Valley's growing season is long enough to support double-cropping, and of course this increases overall productivity.

The Coachella Valley north of the state's Salton Sea produces such crops as dates, grapes, and grapefruit. The Yuma Valley along the lower Colorado River supplies cotton, sugar beets, and oranges. In the Salt River Valley, near Phoenix, Arizona, winter lettuce, oranges, and cotton are the major crops. These southern crops, unlike those grown farther north, face little direct competition from the agricultural centers in the major market areas of the eastern United States.

Transportation Services: Because little traffic is generated within the Interior West, a prime goal of transport developers has been to permit movement across the region as speedily and inexpensively as possible. Consequently, most major highway and rail routes pass through the region east-west, from the urban centers of the Midwest to those of the West Coast.

Despite these requirements of transport design, the great width of the region demands development of many service facilities for the traffic passing through. Many of the towns of the region began as centers established to service and administer the railroads. The centers were founded wherever railroad personnel were needed, whether the region was populated or not. Although fewer local railroad workers were needed as technological innovations were implemented beginning in the late 1940s, this population reduction was more than compensated for by the growing need for people to serve truck and automobile traffic with gas stations, car repair facilities, motels, and restaurants.

Although transport services represented the principal early influence on the growth of urban centers, cities that have become the largest have usually been aided by some additional attribute. Spokane, Washington, with a population of over 350,000, has, for example, become the principal center for the "Inland Empire" of Washington. That area, geographically defined and half encircled by the sweep of the Columbia River across central Washington State, has long had substantial agricultural production. Albuquerque, New Mexico, with a population of about 500,000, has gained a role similar to Spokane's through its centrality and accessibility in that state. Phoenix, Arizona, grew initially as an agricultural center and then boomed as Americans flocked to its warm, dry environment. It has become a retirement center as well as a focus of manufacturing activities, with industries that produce small, high-value products, such as the electronics industry, being particularly important in the city's growth.

Ogden, Utah, is one community that exists as a major rail center and was early among the most important such places in the region, but it has not become a major urban place. It is only about 55 kilometers north of Salt Lake City, a city whose continued dominance derived from its key functions as the capital of Utah and of Mormonism.

The variety and appeal of the Intermountain West's scenic wonders attract millions annually. Visitors to most of the major parks must first pass a long, garish strip of motels, snack bars, gift shops, and other sources of local color. In addition, distances between attractions are usually great, and services are thus needed in countless locations. When legal gambling operations in the state of Nevada are included as part of the area's tourist industry, the overall regional impact of tourism becomes even greater.

Lumbering and Ranching: Ranching and lumbering depend on governmental land for many of their basic materials. The holdings of the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management are open to grazing, and most lumbering in the Intermountain West is carried out on Forest Service lands. Levels of production per hectare for both ranching and lumbering products are relatively low, especially when compared with land held in private hands.

One reason for this apparent inefficiency is the limited quality of the land. In many drier areas, 40 hectares of land per head is needed for satisfactory cattle grazing. The great seasonal climatic variations found in much of the region make this one of the few areas in America where transhumance is practiced--a seasonal movement of animal flocks, by those who tend them, from the lowlands in winter to mountain pastures and meadows in summer. It is especially important in the sheep-ranching economy. Many Basques, expert shepherds from the Pyrenees of Spain and France, came to this area as contract laborers to manage the herds. Today, descendants of the Basques are a substantial part of the population of several states, especially Nevada.

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Page last modified: 01-11-2017 19:24:02 ZULU