This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
New numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau this week reinforce what we already knew in northern Utah: Point of the Mountain is the center of urban growth in Utah. The numbers from southern Utah, however, are providing some surprise.
Not even San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman anticipated that his county would be the fastest growing in the nation last year. And the growth is not coming the traditional Utah way, from a high birth rate. Instead, it's more than 1,000 people moving into the county of 15,000, a 7.5 percent growth rate between July 2015 and June 2016.
San Juan has been in the news of late, of course, for former President Obama's designation of the Bears Ears National Monument in the county (after the Census period). A similar but smaller effect shows up in Kane County, home to another presidentially imposed monument, Grand Staircase-Escalante.
Kane County saw 201 people move in during the year, but internal growth (births over deaths) in the county was only 7 people.
They're small populations, and that makes small numbers meaningful. When Lyman was asked about it this week, he said he hadn't noticed any new construction, but he had seen rising house prices. If the trend continues, they can expect more housing construction and the jobs it produces.
If Lyman doesn't know what's driving the growth, here's a pretty good idea of what isn't: oil and coal. The four counties most involved in energy production (Uintah, Duchesne, Carbon and Emery) all saw population declines as prices have stayed low.
So do the numbers reflect a growing recreation economy? It's not apparent across all of southern Utah. The more heavily populated Washington and Iron counties saw growth, but Garfield and Wayne stayed even. Tiny Piute County got tinier, losing 37 people.
And how about Grand County, ground zero in southern Utah's recreation growth? (TripAdvisor just named Moab No. 20 on its list of top U.S. destinations, five spots ahead of Aspen, Colo.) Grand added some people, but far fewer than San Juan.
The needle to watch is in-migration, which is sure to change not just the demographics but also the politics in southern Utah. The new residents weren't around when the counties were dominated by ranching and timber, so they don't feel their absence the way county commissioners down there do.
If one year's data turns out to be a trend, the next surprise could come at election time.