LOOKING at the results of the United States census in 1890, bureaucrats - and shortly thereafter historians - declared the American frontier to be closed. Sturdy, courageous, and independent European immigrants and their descendants - yeoman farmers, ranchers, miners, and traders - had settled the land from sea to shining sea. Communication and transportation links were in place. Natural resources were under full and enthusiastic development. Unruly natives had been pacified or relocated. The West - that vast and largely arid region the other side of the 98th meridian from the nation's cultural and political centers - had been won. A century after that historical watershed, the past - and the future - of the American West are the subject of vigorous rethinking and debate.
A new generation of historians is picking apart long-held notions about the burdens and glories of westward expansionism. Economists and social scientists are arguing over where the region is headed. Essayists and fiction writers are exploring the new intellectual and artistic possibilities of the West as a distinctive place in American landscape and history.
``We live in historic times in the West,'' says Ed Marston, publisher of the Colorado biweekly High Country News and one of the most insightful contemporary observers of the region. ``The rules are changing, arrangements are breaking down.''
The two fundamental questions are these: To what extent has the myth of the West, fed over the years by romantic novelists, advertising copy writers, and Hollywood, distorted the reality of the past? And in an age of increasing environmental awareness, decreasing federal budgets, and important demographic shifts, how relevant to the future of the West are the region-identifying notions of frontier and independence?
There is no doubt that change is under way. Some trends:
Federal agencies once beholden to Western economic interests and their friends in Washington, D.C., are shifting emphasis. The US Bureau of Reclamation has stopped building dams, which means that big, new federal water projects are a thing of the past. The Bureau of Land Management and the US Forest Service, which oversee millions of square miles throughout the West (most of the acreage in some states), are going through reorganization. Some, in fact, say there's a quiet revolution in which land stewardship is being asserted from within against the agencies' traditional commodity-driven philosophy of resource extraction.
National political leadership on Western resource issues is shifting from the likes of former interior secretary James Watt (Wyoming), James McClure (Idaho's retiring senator), Paul Laxalt (former governor and senator from Nevada), and Californian Ronald Reagan - all conservative Republican leaders of the ``Sagebrush Rebellion'' against federal control - to Democratic lawmakers like Rep. Jim Jontz of Indiana, Rep. Bruce F. Vento of Minnesota, and Sen. Wyche Fowler Jr. of Georgia, who are using their positions on powerful congressional committees to direct policy on federal lands out West. Federal laws enacted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries regarding grazing, mining, and water resources are coming under serious scrutiny as well.
There is a population shift from those who work the forests and fields and high desert country to urbanites who view natural resources almost exclusively in lifestyle terms of beauty and fun. Some of these latter Westerners are transplanted, but others are homegrown, a generation or two removed from those with direct economic ties to the land.
Says Charles Wilkinson, a law professor at the University of Colorado and a prolific writer on resource issues and native Americans, ``We in the West have reached a rough common ground about how we should treat the land - that it should be sustainable, that beauty and wildlife ought to be preserved, that subsidies are bad and ought to be used only as a last resort.'' Rough common ground is correct, for there are many spotted owl-type battles yet to be fought.
Such political and demographic indicators add up to the potential for profound social change.
``The West is going to have more people, that's clear enough, and it's going to have less capital coming in from other parts - at least from Washington, D.C.,'' Prof. Donald Worster of the University of Kansas told a recent gathering of the Western History Association in Sparks, Nev. ``The ensuing squeeze that follows is going to mean that the rural West loses.'' Dr. Worster refers here too to the end of the cold war and the impact that will have on communities tied to military bases throughout the American West.
``Most of what we have heretofore taken as the traditional identity of the American West comes out of those rural communities, out of the relationship with the land and with each other - Indians, whites, the whole racial and ethnic mosaic found in the Western countryside,'' Worster continues. ``So the vanishing of the rural West is the largest change that we have to contemplate.''
Two very different visions of how to handle such changes are offered by Frank and Deborah Popper, a husband and wife team from Rutgers University, and Philip Burgess, president of the Center for the New West, a Denver think tank. The Poppers predict that ``large chunks of the rural West will be abandoned and eventually drift into public or quasi-public holding'' where tourism and recreation are virtually the only main human activities. Mr. Burgess scoffs at the Popper's idea of a largely humanless ``Buffalo Commons'' across the Great Plains. Instead, he envisions thriving ``urban archipelagos'' where manufacturing along with business and professional services - especially small, entrepreneurial firms with a keen interest in international trade - overtake extractive industries as the dominant force in the West's economy. (See accompanying stories.)
WHILE the future of the West is being debated, its past is getting dragged through the sagebrush as well. A younger generation of historians is questioning the whole concept of ``frontier,'' particularly the idea put forth in 1893 by Frederick Jackson Turner that as Europeans moved West, ``the frontier [was] the outer edge of the wave - the meeting point between savagery and civilization ... the line of most effective and rapid Americanization.'' When the frontier officially disappeared in 1890), that process seemed to end.
But, argue many contemporary historians, there are two problems with the Turner thesis and therefore much of the traditional Western history on which it is based. First, it largely ignores women, nonwhites, and the key role that Eastern investment, federal subsidies, and cooperation played in the settling of the West by ``rugged individualists.'' And even if one accepts the idea of frontier, it is far from closed.
``In the second half of the 20th century, every major issue from `frontier' history reappeared in the courts or in Congress,'' points out University of Colorado historian Patricia Nelson Limerick. Indian tribal autonomy, relations with Mexico, questions about the origins of Mormonism, boom-and-bust cycles in energy and resources, water rights - ``all these issues were back on the streets and looking for trouble,'' says Dr. Limerick, one of the most outspoken of the historical revisionists.
Part of this has to do with who was writing Western history at the turn of the century. In 1890, says Gerald Nash of the University of New Mexico (who recently finished a year as president of the Western History Association), there were about 100 Western historians, ``a homogeneous group of men.'' Today, says Dr. Nash, the group numbers about 2,000 and is marked by ``pluralism, diversity, and disagreement.''
The problem for some traditionalists is that historians like Limerick and Richard White at the University of Washington not only cast a more inclusive rope around Western history (in terms of gender, race, and ethnic groups), but they also go on to conclude that white men pretty much made a mess of things. Limerick's next book, for example, is titled ``Troubled Land: Failure and Defeat in Western Expansionism.''
But the debate is healthy, says Professor Nash, who talks of being on a threshold of ``a period of reflection, reevaluation, reinterpretation, and rethinking in the field ... blending the best of the old and the new.''
The vigorous intellectual discussion among historians and futurists is paralleled in the work of more literary writers exploring the West as a unique place in thought as well as landscape. The best known of these is Pulitzer Prize-winner Wallace Stegner, whose highly readable blending of history and fiction has become a model for such authors as William Kittredge, who writes: ``Out in our West, artists are trying to run their eyes clear of mythic and legendary cobwebs, and see straight to the actual.''
That's true, too, for the historians and visionaries. For as Donald Worster says: ``Some radical changes are coming to the American West, and the problem for all of us - futurists and historians alike - is to determine what part of the past, its culture as well as its landscape, we can and should try to preserve for the future.''