Over the past two decades, a "New West" literature has arisen that argues that amenity-driven population growth is leading to a new set of expectations among westerners regarding the purpose of land. This literature describes changing human-land relationships that cause westerners to prefer preservation of the natural environment to resource extraction.
This dissertation tests the expectations of that literature by examining the changes that have occurred since 1990 in formal land-use regimes in the rural American West. If human land/relationships are changing in a durable fashion, a measureable institutional change should occur as new westerners implement their expectations and values in local law and policy. This research approaches institutional change at both the macro and micro scales. The macro scale is examined through a regionwide survey of 173 counties to identify the extent to which their land-use regimes have changed since 1990. The survey's results are compared to a suite of demographic, economic and social data to determine which characteristics explain institutional change. The micro-scale component focuses on county-level case studies to test the conclusions reached via the survey and extend the analysis by considering contextual qualitative data. Although the macro-scale approach identifies a statistically significant relationship between population growth and the evolution of land-use regimes, the case studies describe a more complex set of relationships.
By using insights from several disciplines - including law, rural sociology, rural geography, and institutional economics - this analysis creates a more complete picture of the factors that influence local land-use regimes and allows for a better understanding of how rural counties respond to demographic change. This research determines that although rapid population growth can lead to changing land-use regimes, the nature of that change depends on a variety of factors, including the preexisting institutional structure, cultural history, and the power of local development interests. Contrary to the expectations of the literature, rapid amenity-driven population growth can lead to a relaxation of land-use regimes as the "growth machine" exerts influence on local government. Consequently, this research suggests that the New West literature is too simplistic in how it conceptualizes the relationship between demographic and institutional change.