In the United States there is more space
where nobody is than where anybody is.
That is what makes America what it is.
The late Calvin L. Beale, esteemed senior demographer at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is said to have traveled in well over half of the nation’s 2,304 nonmetropolitan counties (Peter A. Morrison, A Taste of the Country). Perhaps because of his habit of getting into the field as much as possible he was the first demographer to notice, in the late 1960s, that some metropolitan areas were losing population to the countryside. This was the beginning of a return to the trend of the first two centuries of our country’s history—minus the 1940s, ’50s and most of the ’60s. Beale developed the following map and designations of twenty-six economic-cultural subregions.
Northern New England-St. Lawrence
Density and prices have stabilized. This area has been the primary destination of young professionals, environmentalists and homesteaders from the Boston-to-New York area. The region gets a lot of media attention and has developed a self-conscious rural/small-town culture. The main economic base is manufacturing, but many urban professionals have begun small businesses, and tourism is strong. Upper Maine has low prices, rugged winters. The “Great Ice Storm of 1998” likely cooled the plans of some potential residents.
Northeastern Metropolitan Belt
The most densely populated nonmetropolitan area in the U.S. stretches from southern Maine to northern Virginia, averaging about 140 persons per square mile. Most areas are within commuting distances of job centers. There are many second homes and vacation homes in this region.
Mohawk Valley and New York-Pennsylvania Border
Similar conditions to the above. Very little real country—dominated by major cities of Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Albany. High-tech industrial plants. Finger Lakes region.
Northern Appalachian Coal Fields
Long history of polluting industrial and mining operations combined with uncertain economy creates negative environmental and employment conditions.
Lower Great Lakes Industrial
Between and beyond the cities of Milwaukee, Chicago, Indianapolis, Detroit and Cleveland are many small cities and towns. Heavy industrialization near the Lakes. Rural areas are primarily concentrated agricultural operations—farm sizes are increasing. Beware of pollution.
Upper Great Lakes
Negligible agriculture, continued resource-based economy. Strong water-based recreational activity by tourists, second-homers, retirees, previous residents. Northern half of lower Michigan is growing rapidly, creating typical growth problems including water quality.
Stable, predominantly rural area of farms, influenced strongly by the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area.
Central and Southern Corn Belts
Over 85 percent of land is in farms. Many small towns. Moderate manufacturing. Population declining as farms are consolidated into larger agribusiness operations.
Southern Interior Uplands
Thousands of small tobacco farms. The region has lately been characterized by a reduction in agriculture and an increase in manufacturing. Recreational activities have been increased by development of the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers. Large areas of rural conditions. Strong in-migration in central Tennessee is causing rising prices.
Southern Appalachian Coal Fields
Narrow, winding hollows and rugged hills, very little level land. Very rural, many small towns, poor. Beale notes that the deeply dissected Cumberland Plateau country of southern West Virginia, eastern Kentucky and smaller parts of Virginia and Tennessee has been the classic area of white poverty in the United States. As coal prices go, so goes the economy. Heavily mined, the area has suffered severe environmental degradation. Stay far from water that may be contaminated by past, present, future mining operations. The other caution is: bring money with you—this is a very poor place to make a living.
Blue Ridge, Great Smokies and Great Valley
Eminent countryman Wendell Berry said that if he were free to move, he’d look in the mountains of western Virginia (Donald McCaig, American Homeplace). That’s a high recommendation.
Nearly half of all rural residents work in manufacturing. Economic emphasis is on textiles, furniture, new products. Agricultural activity is low and decreasing. Rural densities fairly high and rising. Atlanta is the dominant economic influence.
Coastal Plain Tobacco and Peanut Belt
Rapidly changing area. Emphasis has shifted from agriculture (tobacco, peanuts, soybeans) to industry, with substantial influx of companies seeking cheap labor pools. Wide distribution of business and residences. Nonmetropolitan population outnumbers the metropolitan population. North Carolina is sometimes held up as the example of where we are headed demographically as a nation.
Old Coastal Plain Cotton Belt
Predominantly agricultural. Substantial rural land with low population density. Beware: cotton is a high chemical-input crop and the soil and water of the region eflect this.
Rich soil, high pollution, high poverty rates with distinct racial aspects.
Gulf of Mexico and South Atlantic Coast
Tobacco, peanuts, soybeans. This area has lost much population to industrial areas. High percentage of the widely distributed rural population is black and poor.
More than one-fourth of rural residents are 60 years old or older. Most of the area is dominated by retirement, recreation, attendant service industries. Fast population growth since 1960s has substantially raised rural land prices and living costs. High crime rates in metro areas. No letup in sight to continuing huge immigration rates by Americans, Cubans, Haitians, others. Rural land is disappearing.
East Texas and Adjoining Coastal Plain
Burgeoning Dallas-Ft. Worth area in the middle and Houston in the south dominate socio-economic conditions. Contrary to common perception, this area has substantial rolling, wooded farmland suitable for country living. Beware of mineral rights laws that allow surface intrusion, also use of eminent domain laws for private development.
My beloved bioregion. The Ozarks area is the result of the last of several great uplifts from ancient seas. Hills and hollows, the latter carved by water over 250 million years. Hillsides are mostly covered with oak-hickory forest plus pine and cedar. Generally poor, rocky soil, but garden sites are available in all but rocky hilltops and glades. Except for bottomland fields, farmland is predominantly pasture/hayfield. Population was apparently higher in the past; there are many vacant or unfarmed old subsistence farms. Winters range from harsh in the north to mild in the south. Fast weather changes are common. “If ya don’t like the weather, jist wait a bit.” Rainfall averages 39-45 inches but is increasing. Lots of springs, streams, ponds, man-made lakes. Historic atmosphere. “Even the landscape fosters the feeling that you can simply glance over your shoulder into the past,” wrote Phyllis Rossiter in A Living History of the Ozarks. Popular retirement destination especially around lakes. Low land and housing costs, both in small towns and boondocks. Negatives include low wages, rocky soil, fickle weather, late frosts, thunderstorms, ice storms, tornadoes, humidity, biting insects, venomous snakes, poison ivy. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
A mixture of semiarid to arid plateaus and mountains. About two-fifths of the population are Mexican-Americans, one-tenth Native Americans. Very low density. Water determines where agriculture is possible. Scattered mining activities. Economies are often supported by transfer payments. Southern New Mexico is attracting retirees. Santa Fe has social friction between poor natives and rich immigrants.
Southern and Northern Great Plains
Sparse and declining population. Small towns struggle to survive. Declining groundwater supplies for irrigation may dictate bleak economic future. Lots of empty houses. If you need low prices, can live with flat land and make a living at home with a modem, this might work for you. The cost of houses is very low. The people are so nice it takes getting used to.
Rocky Mountains, Mormon Valleys and Columbia Basin
Dominant Mormon influence in Utah and surrounding edges of other states is being diluted by continued immigration. Economy is basically agricultural—ranching, dairying, irrigated crops and dry farming, plus coal, oil, gas and uranium mining. Strong recreational economy around Lake Powell and national parks in southern Utah. Much of the region is very dry.
North Pacific CoastCome and visit us again. . . .
But for heaven’s sake, don’t come here to live.
when he was governor of Oregon
Heavy rainfall, mild climate, timber, lush ocean coast, valleys, mountains. Timber industry future is uncertain as lumbermen and environmentalists joust for control. Agriculture flourishes in Willamette River Valley. “Cloud Belt” image shows that Sun Belt is an imperfect synonym for population growth. Strong immigration has caused resentment among Washington and Oregon residents, who actively discourage immigrants, especially Californians, although one reader wrote to say that she found Oregonians to be very friendly.
Las Vegas growth continues at very high rate in spite of obvious water dearth. Phoenix growth also strong. Arizona, southern California, Nevada continue to attract sun seekers. California is, well, California—all superlatives and pejoratives fit—I recommend exhaustive research. All weather patterns available. Strong Asian and Mexican in-migration—substantial native-born American outmigration to Rocky Mountain area. Agribusiness operations in San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys continue to poison groundwater. North-versus-south water battles continue.
BioregionsThe valley in which we lived was designed by nature
as an isolated, self-contained economic and social unit . . . .
Helen & Scott Nearing
Living the Good Life
In Dwellers in the Land: The Bioregional Vision Kirkpatrick Sale says the word “bioregion” was “first propagated by writer Peter Berg and ecologist Raymond Dasmann . . . working through an organization called Planet Drum and a newspaper irreverently called Raise the Stakes, who brought the concept to a wider audience.”
On the matter of definition, Sale says: “The natural region is the bioregion, defined by the qualities Gaea has established there, the givens of nature. It is any part of the earth’s surface whose rough boundaries are determined by natural characteristics rather than human dictates, distinguishable from other areas by particular attributes of flora, fauna, water, climate, soils, and landforms, and by the human settlements and cultures those attributes have given rise to. The borders between such areas are usually not rigid—nature works of course with flexibility and fluidity—but the general contours of the regions themselves are not hard to identify by using a little ecological knowledge.”
Sale wrote in 1985 that about forty bioregions had been identified across the North American continent. Examples of bioregions are the Ozarks Plateau, the Sonoran Desert, the Great Plains and the Central Valley of California. Within bioregions are distinct ecosystems, each contributing to and overlapping other systems. Jim Robbins explains their process in Last Refuge: “As charismatic as the grizzly bear is, however, there is a movement among conservationists and scientists to swing the spotlight away from animals with popular appeal, like the wolf, or bear or mountain lion, to recognize instead the myriad and intricately related life-forms—from microbes to fungus to insects to mammals—that make up an ecosystem. Research in the past few decades has shown just how dependent an ecosystem is on each part. Tiny microbial soil dwellers, like bacteria and fungi, decompose logs, grass and other organics into minerals that growing plants can use. . . . And so the goal of a sustainable ecosystem is not just to protect the grizzly bear habitat or wolf habitat, but to keep as much of the ecosystem intact as possible, to preserve biodiversity.”
States and counties have artificial boundaries; bioregions have natural boundaries. This is readily apparent from an airplane; children (and perhaps a few urban adults) are confused to find no state boundaries on the ground. For our purposes here, we can use bioregions to identify our ideal area, but we use states and counties to gather information, as that is how we presently organize data.
The value of thinking on a bioregional level is that we consider natural conditions and natural laws. To fulfill our present mission—finding our ideal home place—we consider human conditions such as taxes, roads, utilities, services, but our greatest consideration should be for the natural conditions of climate, landform, soil, vegetation and water. Thinking in these terms will allow us to think beyond political boundaries during our search. This is a big change for most, so I include the following information classified by states.
StatesStates, like men, have their growth, their manhood,
their decrepitude, their decay.
Walter Savage Landor
Every state has something special to recommend it but certain states are attracting most city-to-country migrants. Fast growth drives up prices, creates growing pains, creates resentment by natives. Oregon, Washington and Colorado residents most notably have lashed back at Californians invading their states. North Carolinian natives are upset with the Florida “halfback” migration (retirees moving half-way back to where they came from originally). It is to be expected that natives or longtime residents of other states will have similar negative feelings against those whom they perceive are negatively affecting the quality of their places.
Since the 1960s, homesteaders and other back-to-the-landers have been moving to rural parts of Missouri, Tennessee, Arkansas, North Carolina, Kentucky, Oregon, Washington, Wisconsin, Michigan, Oklahoma, Maine, Vermont, New York, West Virginia, Virginia, South Carolina, Minnesota and Georgia. The Sun Belt—California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas and Florida—has been attracting retirees for decades. The Texas economy roller-coasts with energy prices but the hill country still attracts urban refugees. Florida has become expensive and crowded and is humid in summer—still the sun lovers flock there.
Colorado is the favorite destination of Californians looking for a Rocky Mountain high. Many of those seeking big open spaces are choosing Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. Most other states have pockets with outstanding geographic features. Water concerns are growing in the West; with the exception of western Oregon and Washington, most western states have inadequate water except along rivers, and even there water rights may preclude use by new settlers.
California is a special state. Blessed with multiple climates, landforms and features, it seems an ideal place. It was. California is perhaps our clearest example of what happens to a place when too many people move there—over 31 million humans have turned Eden into a teeming quagmire. “Californication” is an epithet now used to describe high prices, social disarray and urban sprawl caused by overpopulation. Businesses and individuals are leaving the central and southern parts of California for the same reasons—a souvenir postcard says it all: “Earthquakes, Riots, Wildfires, Droughts, Mudslides, Smog, Gridlock, Overcrowding, Rampant Crime, High Cost of Living—Enough is Enough…I’m Out Of Here!!!” Northern California has some beautiful low-density country but residents there pay high fees and taxes to keep the floundering state financially afloat.
California is having horrendous budget and deficit problems. The irresponsible state legislature will tax anything they can. Be very cautious about moving to this state.
Consider carefully the characteristics of your bioregion: the shape of the land, water resources, the plants and animals (including human), the nature of the soil, the action of the sun. These features will influence the rest of your life.
Use the states’ map to outline your initial regional preferences—those states that fit your topographic and climate criteria. You may find you are attracted to several. Mark them all.
Chambers of commerce
The World Wide Chamber of Commerce Directory is out of print but is available in many libraries. For a nominal fee you can purchase a directory of the chambers for each state from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, 1615 H Street NW, Washington, DC 20062, or phone 202-659-6000. Most state and local chambers will send you packets of information including maps and real estate company listings. Also, the annual World Almanac & Book of Facts gives addresses and phone numbers for each state’s chamber or department of tourism.
States, cities, even small towns have created sites on the Internet. Use your browser’s Search capability, type in the name of the place you want to investigate and, voila, you will have substantial information on that place.
State chambers and tourism departments are usually located in each state capital. They are good sources of maps, tourist guides, demographics, climate information, industry, taxes, etc. Tell them what you want. The volume of material you receive will show the priority placed on attracting tourists and residents, an indication of growth probability.
Real estate company
Several real estate franchise companies deal in rural property. I conducted cooperative sales with various Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate offices for many years and have observed their operation since they started in 1978. They have offices in all of the states—over 1,400 offices nationwide. Their computerized referral center gives you quick access to agents in any area. Use them as research resources for area information as well as listings. After you identify your ideal area, call the referral center. Ask your referred agent to send you information on all available properties meeting your criteria. It will save headaches to both sell your city home and buy your new place using BH&G agents. A big advantage of using BH&G agents on both ends is that each agent will constantly be checking with the other, so selling and buying transactions can be coordinated. Escrow closings can be coordinated even to the extent of having funds automatically transferred from your sale escrow to your purchase escrow.
Better Homes and Gardens® Real Estate Service
International Referral Service Center
Planet Drum Foundation
P.O. Box 31251
San Francisco, CA 94131
Source for information on bioregions and the bioregional movement.
• Downing, Joan, editor. America The Beautiful. Chicago: Childrens Press, 1990. This is a set of books, one for each state. Although classified as juvenile literature, I found them in the adult book section of a library, and the ones I have used appear to be well researched, written and designed, totally suitable for adults. Of course I’m just a large, semi-old child. Subjects include geography, history, government, economy, industry, culture and population density, distribution and growth.
• Sale, Kirkpatrick. Dwellers in the Land: The Bioregional Vision. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1985.
• Shattuck, Alfred. The Greener Pastures Relocation Guide: Finding the Best State in the United States for You. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1984.A strong sense of identification with a particular place
means making a bond with the other people who live there
—whether you always agree with them or not.
Common ground in the geographic sense
creates common ground in the social sense.
mayor of Missoula, Montana
Go back to Chapter 21 – Prices.
Go on to Chapter 23 – Real country, boondocks, old subsistence farms.
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