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California's High Mountain Regions as New Areas for Settlement

The "migration turnaround" in California and the population growth in the Sierra Nevada


Theoretical Considerations
First Results

The years from 1990 to the present represent a unique period in California's migration history: For the first time, more Californians left their state than U.S. citizens migrated to California. While population growth and human settlement expansion is still going on due to high fertility rates and international immigration, there is no doubt that the Golden State's economic problems are the main reason why California has become less attractive for migrants from other U.S. states. Thus, this "migration turnaround" ( Thieme & Laux 2003 ) reflects the very unfavorable socio-economic changes which led to a dramatic financial deficit and - as a political reaction in fall 2003 - to the "recall" of governor Davis and the election of the Hollywood actor Schwarzenegger as new governor.

Apart from this new trend, another demographic phenomenon can be observed: From the 1960's onward the Sierra Nevada counties have continuously ranked among those Californian regions with the strongest relative population growth ( Fig. 1 ). As a result, this mountain area has shown a "colonization activity" similar to that of the Eastern Alps centuries ago. Although the absolute population increase is far smaller than the growth of Southern Californian counties such as Riverside, Orange, San Bernardino, San Diego, and Los Angeles, in mountain regions, however, an increase of some 1,000 inhabitants is identical to a significant horizontal and vertical expansion of permanent dispersed human settlement to mountain landscapes. This does not only create enormous demographic and socio-economic changes, but also fundamental environmental problems influencing neighboring nature preserves. Poor planning has expressed itself in the pattern of human settlement structures on the Sierra Nevada landscape: More and more homes and businesses are being scattered across the countryside in a pattern of "rural sprawl" ( SIERRA BUSINESS COUNCIL 1997: 8f. ) that could quadruple the portion of the landscape set a side for human settlement by the year 2040 ( STEINICKE 1995, 2000, 2001).

The Californian Sierra Nevada, much like the Rocky Mountains of Colorado (HARTMANN 1989), has seen profound changes in demographics, economics and land use patterns since the beginning of human colonization in the 1850s: Up to the 1920s, the region had experienced a progressive population exodus as a result of the ending "Gold Rush," and, subsequently, an increase in the number of deserted settlements or "ghost towns" ( Fig. 1 ). This trend was reversed as early as the 1920s through tourism-oriented innovations. The increasing significance of tourism and of permanent residents in these high-altitude regions has led to renewed growth of population and settlements outside designated protected areas, such as national parks ( STEINICKE 2000 ). In spite of California's migration losses mentioned above, the Sierra Nevada counties are still regions with continuously considerable migration flows.

Relying on financial support from the Austrian Science Fund ( FWF ), Innsbruck's Institute of Geography has begun to assess this process of counterurbanization, in particular its impact on society, economy and environment in California's mountain regions. This report seeks to provide the principal conceptual background as well as first results.

Theoretical Considerations

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This research is based on the notion of "counterurbanization" ( BERRY 1976 ) - occasionally also referred to as "rural renaissance" - as a starting point for a broad, in-depth look at socio-geographic and economic developments in the Sierra. From the 1960s onward, most countries in the Western world have recorded a slowdown in their rate of population concentration, or even a complete reversal of respective migration trends. By contrast, CHAMPION (1989) argued that counterurbanization would be just a new form of settlement systems, but that it would not replace existing suburbanization. Likewise, current academic literature does not view counterurbanization as an antithesis to urbanization: It goes without saying that the growth of rural areas can be accompanied by processes of (re)urbanization and/or suburbanization ( CHAMPION 1997 ; SCHMIED 2000 ). It is important to note that the concept of counterurbanization is not synonymous with "exurbanization" - a development which in the U.S. refers to low-density expansion of metropolitan areas beyond the outer suburban belt. Counterurbanization, however, is defined as the diffusion of metropolitan populations and economies to remote high-quality environments. This process has received important impetus from new information and telecommunications technologies, which allow activities in non-urbanized areas to maintain the level of connectivity that formerly was only available within metropolitan regions.

This research is based on the notion of "counterurbanization" ( BERRY 1976 ) - occasionally also referred to as "rural renaissance" - as a starting point for a broad, in-depth look at socio-geographic and economic developments in the Sierra. From the 1960s onward, most countries in the Western world have recorded a slowdown in their rate of population concentration, or even a complete reversal of respective migration trends. By contrast, CHAMPION (1989) argued that counterurbanization would be just a new form of settlement systems, but that it would not replace existing suburbanization. Likewise, current academic literature does not view counterurbanization as an antithesis to urbanization: It goes without saying that the growth of rural areas can be accompanied by processes of (re)urbanization and/or suburbanization ( CHAMPION 1997; SCHMIED 2000 ). It is important to note that the concept of counterurbanization is not synonymous with "exurbanization" - a development which in the U.S. refers to low-density expansion of metropolitan areas beyond the outer suburban belt. Counterurbanization, however, is defined as the diffusion of metropolitan populations and economies to remote high-quality environments. This process has received important impetus from new information and telecommunications technologies, which allow activities in non-urbanized areas to maintain the level of connectivity that formerly was only available within metropolitan regions.

Taking into account the current status of research, this project is based on three major theses built on one another:

  • Thesis 1: "The process of counterurbanization continues unabatedly in the Sierra Nevada." The project starts with an analysis of processes and dimensions of counterurbanization in the High Sierra. California's scattered mountain sport centers have become focal points for permanent mountain settlements over the past decades. Consequently, in-depth analyses will focus on the following three tourism-oriented high-altitude subregions: Donner and Truckee area, Lake Tahoe Basin, Mammoth Lakes area.
  • Thesis 2: "Counterurbanization is associated with a basic change of socio-economic conditions in the reception area. This may lead to conflicts between the local population and newcomers, as well as to unfavorable environmental developments in these sensitive high-altitude regions." The phenomenon of counterurbanization appears to be associated with an ongoing transformation of rural economies from a commodities-oriented, natural resource-extractive base to a services-oriented, amenity-driven base. The communities in the central High Sierra (Lake Tahoe subregion, Donner and Truckee area) and in the Eastern Sierra (Mammoth Lakes area) are prototypically resource-dependent on recreation and tourism. Population growth there has been particularly strong since the 1970s. Increasing interest in outdoor recreation has resulted in growing ecological pressure on national parks and other public lands. On the other hand, tourism in those areas has exposed many people to the attractiveness of nearby settlements, which then became focal points for residential relocation ( STEINICKE 1995, 2000; DUANE 1999 ).
  • Thesis 3: "Appropriate planning policy in the Sierra Nevada can mitigate negative socio-economic and ecological effects caused by population growth and human settlement expansion. Certain planning strategies and measures tried and tested in parts of the Eastern Alps (Austria) can be viewed as likely models to follow; after all, they could represent innovative strategies to achieve favorable results." The Sierra Nevada is still full of huge wide open space. But agricultural lands, forests, and wild lands usually are not devoted to human settlements, and the share of private lands is considerably decreasing. Furthermore, adequate land use strategies are necessary because the consequences of sprawl are costly ( SIERRA BUSINESS COUNCIL 1997: 9 ): Dispersed patterns of human settlement make it more expensive to provide essential public services like road maintenance, fire, police protection, education, etc. Rural sprawl can also affect environment negatively. In California the so-called "general plans" on the level of counties and incorporated cities represent the basic planning ordinance. Thus, 18 different "general plans" regulate land use strategies in the Sierra Nevada. Almost all counties include parts of foothill regions as well as parts of high mountain regions within their planning designs. This is why the "general plans" in the Sierra Nevada region are not specifically designed for high mountain areas. Furthermore, in the Lake Tahoe and Truckee/Donner regions, no fewer than four county "general plans" provide different planning policies. Frequently, their boundaries tend to divide homogeneous functional areas, such as human settlement areas SE of the town of Truckee. Lack of coordination between the various planning authorities constitutes a major problem. As a result, it is difficult to develop appropriate planning concepts in these parts of the Sierra. There is, however, one important exception: Since 1969 a special federal ordinance has regulated the planning strategies in the Lake Tahoe Basin. The Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA) overlays the county general plans on the Californian as well as the planning ordinances on the Nevada part of Lake Tahoe. Given the similarity of tourism patterns and population development between the Austrian Alps and the Californian Sierra Nevada, and considering Austria's extensive (positive and negative) experience in preventing non-desirable dispersed patterns of human settlement ("Zersiedelung"), as well as in providing alternative patterns to rural sprawl, one can ask whether it would be possible and advantageous for the high-mountain regions of the Sierra Nevada to adopt the specific land use models applied in the Austrian Alps. Conversely, we should find out whether Austria itself can profit from an analysis of existing land use trends in California - despite obvious differences in the political, cultural, and social backgrounds between the two countries.

First Results

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While the lower illustration in Fig. 1 shows the current horizontal population growth in the Sierra Nevada counties, Fig. 3 presents the increasing vertical expansion of human settlement - insights gained from analyses of official statistics, maps, and aerial photographs as well as from personal observations during several field trips to the area. Thirty years ago, the upper limit of human settlements in the Lake Tahoe/Donner area was below 2,200 meters, while today it has moved up to above 2,400 meters. In the Mammoth Lakes area it is not uncommon for human settlements to be situated even above 2,600 meters. Here, it is particularly the highest-altitude zones near the ski slopes which are especially attractive for newcomers to build permanent and semi-permanent residences. Fig. 2 aptly illustrates the considerable population growth in the this zone.

A future research endeavour should explore the environmental impact of this expansion.

It is true that compared to pre-1990 decades the overall population growth in the High Sierra has become less impressive. In the Lake Tahoe area the Federal Regional Planning Agency was able to curtail immigration substantially. From the early 1990s on, private land has become increasingly scarce as a result of development restrictions imposed by this regional planning policy. Thus, some high-altitude settlement areas, e.g. the "Tyrol Village" south of South Lake Tahoe, as well as the "Tyrol Village" close to the north-eastern shore (part of Incline Village, NV; Fig. 4 ), both generously planned two decades ago, have already reached their upper limit of expansion. Spillover growth is now concentrated in Squaw Valley, in the south-east of the town of Truckee, along the Truckee River, and in the Donner area. Predictably, future human settlement growth will increasingly take place in those areas located outside the purview of the TRPA. It is already significant that many secondary homes there are gradually being turned into year-round residences.

The communities in the Eastern Sierra, on the other hand, serve as a gateway to the Yosemite National Park and wilderness areas, which affects local economy. Throughout the winter months this area is isolated geographically from northern and central California, yet it is closely tied to Southern California through a long history of conflict over water resources development and a continuing economic dependence on tourists from Los Angeles. Unlike the central High Sierra region, population growth here has been limited primarily by the availability of private land and water supplies. The communities are heavily dependent on tourism and recreation activities, although the region's historical connection to cattle grazing is still reflected in the cultural landscape. Local cattle ranchers are now marketing the Old West to tourists.

The lower population flows to the mountains could also be a result of California's current economic problems. Nevertheless, the process of counterurbanization is still going on. Our interviews with "newcomers" proved that the "pull factors" of the mountain regions, as discussed by DUANE (1999: 48-54) in his study about the Sierra Nevada, are still in force. Lower cost-of-living expenses, deconcentration of metropolitan employment forced by telecommunication technologies, increase of metropolitan violence, increasing interest in outdoor recreation, and aging of population are particularly relevant for the decision to migrate to Californian high mountain regions. Eventually, some newcomers of the 1980s also emphasized equity gains of urbanites as essential factors driving the exodus to the mountains: Due to strong consumer demands for housing in the Bay Area, many homeowners there were able to sell their metropolitan homes for significant capital gain. Consequently, they had economic advantages by moving from urban areas with high housing costs to mountain areas with relatively low housing costs, where in some cases they bought new and larger houses mortgage-free. In the meantime, however, house prices between the Bay Area (apart from the Silicon Valley) and our case study areas are not much different.

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