The Region Today
The Region Today
The spirit of invention and adventure that has marked the West for centuries continues unabated today. The area remains one of the most culturally, politically and economically progressive regions on earth, from state governments to the innumerable startup companies that make Silicon Valley hum. Having absorbed ethnic influences from east, west and south, its cuisine is now finding new frontiers in supporting organic foods. Its builders call on the world’s most innovative architects; its artists, musicians and filmmakers find new ways to practice their crafts. And the commitment to preserve the matchless natural landscape has never been stronger.
Government, Politics and Society
Though it has since been copied around the world, when the United States created its then-unique federated republic it was radical indeed. The national government consists of three branches--the executive, in the office of the president; the legislative, which consists of Congress‘s Senate and House of Representatives; and the judiciary, which consists of many types and levels of courts, culminating in the Supreme Court. These three bodies guide the vast federal government, which holds sway over national and foreign affairs, and all matters that involve relations between the states. This includes safeguarding the constitutional liberties Americans enjoy, such as freedom of speech and fair trial guarantees. A federal income tax brings in the bulk of the national budget.
The 50 states, including the 19 covered in this guide, govern themselves in internal affairs such as road construction, criminal and civil law such as requirements for marriage and inheritance standards. All the states are organized along lines very similar to the national government, with an executive, the governor; a legislature (Nebraska, uniquely, has a one-house assembly); and a multilevel judicial system culminating in some sort of supreme court. All 19 Western states are further subdivided into counties (some of which are larger than many European countries) and cities within those counties, divisions which likewise govern some aspects of life within their borders. Some rural Western counties, for instance, do not require building permits for residential home construction.
All these levels of government rely on popular vote to select their members, with the exception of judges, some of whom are elected and some appointed. Federal and state elections take place every two years; by and large, governors and senators serve four-year terms, representatives two years.
States, counties and cities raise revenue through various taxes and fees, usually including income and sales taxes. The differences here exemplify the colorful political and cultural diversity of this huge region: Washington state, like several other Western states, has no income tax, and its residents consistently reject any effort to create one. Its neighbor, Oregon, has no sales tax, and its residents consistently reject efforts to create one. In Alaska, there is no property tax, the mainstay of public school funds in every other state.
By and large, the three Pacific Coast states, Washington, Oregon and California, are more liberal (socially progressive) than interior states. California, for instance, has led the US (not to mention the world) in restrictions on public smoking. These three states evince an interesting internal dichotomy—the areas nearest the coast, especially the cities, are much more liberal than the inland regions beyond a dividing mountain range. San Francisco is world-famed—and has been for more than a century—as a community tolerant of nontraditional behavior. A gay couple walking down the street in San Francisco holding hands would be a commonplace; the same sight would be unheard-of in small towns in far inland California, separated from the liberal coast by not one but two mountain ranges.
It is largely true that individualism and independence enjoy high regard in the Western states--but, as the old axiom has it, what‘s gospel in one place is heresy in another. Montana was famous during the ‘90s as the state with no daytime highway speed limit other than “reasonable and prudent.“ (Under pressure from the national government, the upper limit was made 75 mph in 1999.) Assisted suicide is legal in Oregon and illegal in every other US state. California allows medical marijuana use; in Alaska, citizens may possess small amounts of marijuana for personal use. Pot is strictly prohibited in most other Western states. A few counties in Nevada have made brothels legal; they are the only such places in the United States.
Innumerable other examples illustrate the great sociopolitical diversity of the West today. The thread of independence that runs through this theme had its birth in the settling of the West by adventurous pioneers, many of whom simply did not fit in elsewhere. Here, as throughout the US, the continuing political ferment over social issues is decided in the privacy of the voting booth, and despite their differences everyone would agree that‘s best. Alas, fewer than half of Americans vote in most elections.
The Western economy thrives on the unique American system of free enterprise—a laissez-faire capitalism whereby individuals can create, own and control the production of virtually any marketable good, service or commodity they can conceive. In this arena of inventive enterprise the Western economy has given rise to enterprises of global significance, such as high technology and aerospace. Only public services, such as bus and subway systems, are government-owned.
The US has undergone a profound transformation over the last few generations, from one based on resource extraction to one based on service industries and manufacturing. Its 21C economy is complex and varied, and its premier example, California, is so large that considered by itself it would be the 8th-largest in the world.
European settlers were first lured westward by an abundance of fur pelts, minerals, fossil fuels, grazing lands, fertile soil, fisheries and timber. Except for furs, these resources still underlie a substantial portion of the Western economy. Private companies engaged in timber harvesting, mining and graz-ing benefit from favorable contracts for the lease of public lands managed by the US Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management. Altogether, mining accounts for about $65 billion of the US GDP; Nevada is at the forefront of non-fuel production with $4.4 billion annual earnings, mostly from gold, silver and copper. Crude oil is concentrated in pockets along the Gulf of Mexico and in Texas, Oklahoma, California, Alaska and Wyoming, while a vast reserve of undeveloped oil shale underlies the central Rocky Mountains and Colorado Plateau. Fuels production, also largely a Western industry, contributes more than $250 billion to the US GDP.
Irrigation has allowed agriculture to thrive despite arid or semiarid conditions over much of the West. With over $26 billion in annual sales, California leads the nation in overall agricultural production, followed by Texas with more than $13 billion; Nebraska ranks fourth in the US, after Iowa.
The most diverse Western farmlands are valleys near the Pacific coast. These include Oregon’s Willamette Valley, which lured pioneers after being ac-claimed by Lewis and Clark. With more sunshine but greater need for irrigation, California’s fertile valleys—particularly the Central and Salinas—yield some of the richest harvests in the world. Its Napa and Sonoma Valleys are famed for wine grapes, while elsewhere in the state, farmers produce artichokes, tomatoes, citrus, nuts and other vegetables and fruits. Washington is noted for apples and wine, Oregon for wine and berries, Idaho for potatoes, the Great Plains for wheat and grains. Livestock, especially sheep and cattle, are vital to the economies of several Western states, especially in the Rocky Mountains and Great Plains.
Once known for pineapples and sugar, Hawaii has had to downsize and diversify in the face of foreign competition. A broader threat to agriculture is urban growth and competition for water from burgeoning cities such as Las Vegas, Phoenix, Denver and Los Angeles.
All those classic Western industries—farming and ranching, mining, timber, oil and gas--today contribute less than a quarter of the total USA West GDP of $3.2 trillion. The growing Pacific coastal cities were the first to diversify from resource- and agricultural-based economies; San Francisco has always been a trade and banking center, and Seattle shifted quickly from timber to trade and manufacturing. During the 20C, manufacturing and service industries inexorably moved to other Western cities. Regional banking centers such as Denver and Reno grew from mining and railroad-supply settlements in the 19C.
Los Angeles has grown into the West’s largest, wealthiest, most culturally influential metropolitan area. With an artificial harbor, good railroad connections and ambitious engineering projects that delivered freshwater from the Sierra Nevada, Colorado River and northern California, L.A. set the example for other sprawling, prosperous and economically diversified Western cities such as Houston, Phoenix and Seattle. The high-technology revolution of the late 20C spread from successful beginnings in Silicon Valley (San Jose), California, to Seattle and other regional centers in Oregon, Texas, Colorado and Idaho.
Service industries are the fastest growing employers in the West. Government is responsible for much of this growth, especially in California, with more than 250,000 federal civilian employees, and Texas, with almost 200,000. Large military bases in Hawaii, California, Nevada, Texas and Washington employ thousands.
Tourism and travel-related services (lodging, restaurants, entertainment, transportation) account for an increas-ing proportion of US economic activity—$700 billion per year. Tourism engenders close to $100 billion annually in California, followed by Texas ($50 billion), Nevada ($21 billion) and Hawaii ($12 billion).
People of the West
The American West has always been perceived as a land of possibility, a place to start anew. Its population is largely composed of immigrants and their descendants, people who set out in quest of the American dream.
The West remains the fastest growing region of the US. The demographic trend is playing out dramatically in booming communities like Las Vegas, Tucson, Fresno, Santa Fe and Boise, as the largest cities—Los Angeles, San Diego, Houston, Dallas, Denver, Phoenix, San Antonio, Kansas City, and the San Francisco Bay and Puget Sound metropolitan areas—continue to drive the West’s economic engines. Retirees account for large numbers of new residents here, although many of them are “sunbirds” who depart for cooler climates in summer. Denver, Seattle and Portland have all experienced huge growth as well, driven by jobs growth. Other parts of the West, particularly the Great Basin, the Chihuahuan Desert of west Texas and southern New Mexico, the northern Rockies and Alaska, still contain thousands of square miles that are very sparsely inhabited.
The centuries-old steady influx of migrants to the West brought a heady mix of cultural traditions. San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles and Seattle are among the most ethnically diverse cities in the world, with significant Chinese, Southeast Asian, Japanese, Filipino, Hispanic, Italian, Greek, Portuguese, Eastern European and African-American populations. The Texas Hill Country has strong ties to Germany. Alaska celebrates Russian heritage in Sitka and Kodiak. Basque sheepherders exert their influence on the hearty restaurants and small hotels of the Great Basin, Idaho and Wyoming. The ubiquitous Irish, who supplied so much of the labor force of the early West, have rendered St. Patrick’s Day a nearly universal celebration. Mexico‘s Cinco de Mayo is equally popular, and so is Chinese New Year in coastal cities.
Cowboys and Indians
The mythical picture of the West casts settlement as primarily a contest between Indians and Americans of European heritage. It‘s a woefully incomplete picture. For instance, a high percentage of cowboys in the late 19C, and rodeo circuit riders of the early 20C, were black. Many others were Hispanic and Indian. And many parts of the West, from southern Texas and Colorado to California, were first settled by Europeans of Hispanic descent.
Chinese workers represented a large percentage of the miners in the early West, as well as fishermen, railroad workers, road builders and construction workers. Hispanic workers continue to dominate the ranks of migratory field laborers throughout the West.
Most Indians have adopted popular American dress and customs, and many have intermarried with other races and moved to urban areas. But a highly visible segment still dwells on reservations throughout the West; many of these tribes are thriving cultural and economic nations. The most traditional are the Hopi, who still live in pueblos on high desert mesas, completely surrounded by the Navajo Reservation. Other tribes and the Navajo maintain a balance between old ways and new, operating dynamic industries that range from timber to tourism. The reservations of the Great Plains and the Pacific slope are less tied to the nomadic ways of the past, but likewise are less inclined to welcome tourism. The recent trend to open casinos on tribal lands has revitalized the economies of many such groups.
Food and Drink
The food and drink of the West is linked to the staples developed by its peoples during successive waves of immigration: the corn, beans, chiles, squash and tomatoes of MesoAmericans; the salmon and shellfish of coastal peoples; the beef cattle, stone fruits, potatoes and wheat of European immigrants. All these ingredients have been mainstays for centuries. Modern Western cuisine is colored most distinctively by the styles of Hispanic and Asian cooking.
The chief regional distinction arises from Hispanic settlement in the Mexican border states—Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California—where traditional cooking was based on corn (maize) and chiles. The native cuisine of the Indians embraced corn in many colors, including blue, white and yellow. Dried kernels are ground and made into breads, baked in ovens or on hot stones, resulting in the ubiquitous tortilla (which can also be made from wheat). This cuisine is famed for its tacos, tamales and enchiladas, many of which include hot chiles to lend spice. In Texas, such foods are popularized as Tejano or Tex-Mex; one signature dish is chili, a spicy meat stew. Different versions of this cuisine are found throughout most of the West, especially now that immigrants of Hispanic descent have spread north to the Canadian border.
Tomatoes, beans, squash, chiles and corn were all originally cultivated in Central America, but widely distributed throughout the Southwest and Great Plains when the first Europeans arrived. The dried meats of Plains Indian hunters and the carne seco of Southwestern farmers were forerunners of today’s popular “jerky” snack. Foods such as prickly pears, sunflower seeds, wild berries, mushrooms, piñon nuts, wild game and fish were readily adapted--salmon remains the signature dish of Pacific Northwest cuisine.
The stampede of American settlers during gold and silver rushes depended initially upon game for food, but developed a taste for tinned foods and bread. Circumstantial invention produced novelties ranging from the Hangtown Fry (an omelet made from eggs, bacon rind and preserved oysters) to Caesar salad, now the most popular salad in the US, Immigrants brought such simple recipes as Cornish pasties, Irish stews, Southeast Asian curries and Japanese teriyaki, the latter now ubiquitous.
A scarcity of yeast prompted a method of leavening bread with a large pinch of the latest dough, left in a warm spot to ferment its own. The resultant sourdough bread, descended from the California gold rush, is still baked from San Francisco to Alaska.
The era of the cowboy has associated beef with the West, though wranglers themselves were more likely to enjoy beans, stews and organ meats than the tough, stringy steaks. Well-fattened and far tastier beef emerged after a session in the stockyards at the end of the trail drives, to this day giving Kansas City and Omaha a reputation for steaks and barbecue. Barbecue has become a hallmark of Western dining, a staple of every ranch and resort, and a popular excuse for weekend gatherings. While grilling over gas fires has replaced using coals or mesquite as the most popular means, the traditional method in Texas is to bury a prepared carcass with the coals, allowing it to cook underground.
Though over-fishing threatens wild stocks, commercial fisheries along the Gulf Coast are famed for shrimp catches, San Francisco and Seattle for Dungeness crabs, northern California for abalone, the Pacific Northwest for shellfish and salmon, Alaska for salmon and king crab. Western farms, particularly in the fine soils and climate of California’s inland valleys, are world leaders in developing new crop strains. The world’s most productive wheat fields, vegetable farms and livestock ranches are in the West, and its producers have led the way in the 21st century boom of organic farming.
Westerners have long been known for their penchant for red meat. Some interesting culinary reactions developed in the 1960s. Chief among these was California cuisine, credited to Alice Waters and her Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse, which emphasized using fine local ingredients, lightly prepared and presented artistically. Shortly afterward, Seattle and Portland chefs adapted local ingredients to a style known as Northwest Contemporary, which blends seafood with Continental and Asian influences. Refined tastes for wine have encouraged the expansion of acreage planted with grapes, especially in California, Oregon and Washington state. Viticulture has expanded even into the Rockies, the desert Southwest, Texas and Hawaii. Demand for exceptional beer also has fueled the growth of small craft breweries across the West, their products called “microbrews.“ Portland is a center for this craft.