The State of the Rockies
Report card documents changes in Rocky Mountain region

The distant peaks of the Weminuche peek out from the foothills surrounding Vallecito Reservoir, in northern La Plata County. According to “State of the Rockies,” a recent report by Colorado College, La Plata County is the “most livable” mid-sized county in the eight-state Rocky Mountain Region./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

C hange may be inevitable, but for those of us living in the intermountain West, it has become a way of life. Over the last 30 years, the population of the eight states that make up the Rocky Mountain region has grown by three times the national rate. And while that news may bring a mixed bag, residents of La Plata County have reason to celebrate. According to Colorado College's recently released “State of the Rockies Report Card,” La Plata County is the most livable county in the region for counties with populations between 2,500 and 50,000. The ranking was based on several indicators, including income distribution, unemployment, poverty, education and economy.

Following La Plata County was Colorado's Garfield County (No. 2), home to Glenwood Springs, and Wyoming's Teton County (No. 3), home to Jackson. La Plata County also was joined by its neighbor to the west, San Miguel County, which took home top “most livable” honors for counties of less than 2,500.

The extensive report, based on census data and trends, takes a comprehensive look not only at the country's fastest growing region, but the various sub-regions and individual counties that comprise it.

“The report analyzes and studies this unique region of spectacular natural beauty and cultural wealth, abundant resources and fragile environment,” stated Richard Celeste, Colorado College president. “It provides a comprehensive and accessible annual statement on what is happening in the eight Rocky Mountain States.”

How Southwest Colorado stacks up

Colorado College's “State of the Rockies” report card ranks the Rocky Mountain Region's 280 counties in several key indicator categories. Here is how La Plata County and some of the surrounding counties fared:

-San Miguel and Archuleta counties ranked third and fifth, respectively, for having the highest percentage of residents who have moved here since 1997 (both 27 percent).

- La Plata County got high marks in the “Income, Employment and Equity” sector, ranking third for diversity of employment base, first in balance of income distribution and sixth in small business vitality.

- Archuleta County scored No. 1 in the “shifting land-use” category, with an almost 50 percent reduction in farm/ranch acreage from 1987-97.

- La Plata County was the eighth “Healthiest County in the Rockies.”

- Hinsdale County scored No. 2 in “Jewels of the Rockies,” with 317,516 acres of preserved wilderness.

- San Miguel County was rated No. 1 for arts and culture.

- San Juan County took fourth and San Miguel County took sixth among the “Top 20 Most Educated Places in the Rockies.”


As anyone who lives in the Rocky Mountain West knows, growth and development are inexorably tied. In the past 30 years, the population in the Rocky Mountain region, comprised of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona, has grown by 119 percent, remarkably higher than the overall U.S. growth rate of 39 percent.

And with this growth comes development. Sixty-eight percent of all houses in the Rockies were built between 1970 and 2000, while only 50 percent of houses in the United States were built in the same period. Furthermore, 5 percent of housing units in the Rockies are for seasonal or recreational use, suggesting a significantly higher part-time resident base than the United States as a whole.

In addition to residential development, the region has seen a rise in urbanization and modernization, with an increasing number of chain stores like Starbucks and Wal-Mart. According to the report, the prevalence of such entities is greatest in Colorado, which lays claim to one-fourth of the region's approximately 85 Starbucks and one-fifth of the approximately 120 Wal-Marts.

The demographics of the Rockies have also changed notably in the last 30 years, as the region is now younger (median age 33.6), but with a significant and growing portion above age 65 (11.2 percent). Coincidentally, of the “20 Top Retirement Havens in the Rockies,” Douglas County was the only Colorado county on the list. According to the report, by the year 2020, Wyoming is expected to replace Florida as the state with the largest share of residents age 65 or older.

The people in the Rockies have also become more educated in the last 30 years, with 25 percent of people older than 25 having attained a high school degree and another 25 percent with a bachelor's degree or higher. Overall, the Rockies (9 percent) outscore the United States (7 percent) in percentage of the population over age 25 with a master's degree or higher. Colorado counties alone accounted for 12 of the “20 Most Educated Places in the Rockies” in the report.

The report also broke down growth by racial demographics in the Rockies, showing a 78 percent Caucasian population (compared with 75 percent in the U.S.), and a significantly higher Hispanic population (18 percent) than the national average (12.5 percent). However, the region also falls alarmingly short of the national average (12.5 percent) of African American residents, with only 3 percent.

Lastly, changes in employment and income are primary factors in the rapidly growing Rockies. According to the report, farming and resource-based employment has shrunk everywhere over the last 30 years, varying substantially among the Rockies. What is clear is that, at the same time, service-based employment has risen everywhere, from 81 percent to 89 percent in the last 30 years. This means that nearly 90 percent of the people in the region are in service-based jobs. According to the report, “All confirm the shrunken importance of land and natural resources in the contemporary Rockies economy.”

Colorado College plans to make the “State of the Rockies” an annual report, he said, providing perspectives on regional challenges including growth and decay; natural resource extraction; tourism and recreation; cultural resources; and environmental conditions. For more on the “State of the Rockies” report, visit





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