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Hundreds gather as DU conference explores the Next West

Scholars, lawyers, developers, environmentalists and elected officials descended on DU March 3–4 hoping to get a glimpse into the future of the Rocky Mountain region.

The University of Denver Sturm College of Law’s Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute hosted its 20th annual conference on land use in the West.

The event, “The Next West: Landscapes, Livelihoods and the Future of the Rocky Mountain Region,” challenged attendees drawn from across the country to envision how a myriad of pressures — climate, demographics and economics — will reshape the region.

“Land use really does mean something to the future of our communities, to the future of the planet,” institute Director William Shutkin told more than 500 attendees in his welcome address. “Let’s look ahead. That’s what we need to do throughout this conference — examine the truly tough and wicked challenges of our time.”

Sessions covered a range of land use issues. Some, such as “Now That We’re Poor: The New Economics of Land Use,” were technical and rich with economic analysis. Others, such as a keynote address by environmentalist and author Rick Bass, struck emotional chords. Sessions touched on water issues, sustainability and community development, energy, housing, transit, wildfire prevention and food production.

And while discussions were as diverse as points of view, Shutkin said the conference brought everything together to focus on how an extraordinary confluence of forces are changing the way communities in the West are evolving.

Bass read from an essay describing how he came to be part of a community in rural northwestern Montana’s Yaak Valley, describing the surroundings and the challenges in changing the perceptions of the residents there. He is intent on helping set aside 180,000 acres there as wilderness, despite pressures from mining and logging interests.

“The wilderness is the West’s soul,” he said.

On a bigger scale, three experts joined in for the sobering “Now That We’re Poor” session.

Arthur Nelson, director of the Metropolitan Research Center at the University of Utah, described how Americans lost $7 trillion in home equity from 2006–10. That money is simply gone, he said. Those spared by the crash will be looking for smaller homes, not so-called “McMansions.” Those who lost homes will find tighter lending restrictions and may become a generation of renters, he said.

Also on the panel, planning consultant Don Elliot said it will be up to governments to get the United States out of the housing crash by adapting to the new demands of smaller homes. He called on governments to end minimum lot and square-footage requirements and make it easier for builders to divide up unwanted large homes into multifamily rental units.

“We continue to prevent housing from being built that people want to buy or rent,” he said.

If there was a bright spot, David Crowe, economist for the National Association of Home Builders, said people can’t avoid buying homes forever. There is a pent-up demand, even if people took to sharing living units during the recession. Eventually, he said, those people will want their own homes.

“I continue to believe that the 30-year-old living in mom’s basement is not sustainable,” he said.

DU law Dean Martin Katz said the conference is an important part of the University’s commitment to serving the public good.

“This institute and this conference are particularly important to us,” he said. “We want to ensure that the academic work that we do translates into relevant and important policy work … If there is a way we are all going to solve these problems, it will involve collaboration between the people in this room and the people in academics, and the people out there in the world.”

A full list of presentations and a collection of slides from the conference are available at the institute’s website.

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