The United States is presently a frontier nation without a frontier. But we can change that.
We can re-create a real frontier by properly managing the vast and lightly populated tract of federal land in eastern Nevada, southern Utah and the Four Corners. This area is referred to here as the Bright Angel Frontier, after the stream at its southern edge.The original Western frontier had three defining qualities. It included areas of both settlement and wilderness; it was large enough to keep those uses from interfering with one another; and it was marked by a progressive "thinning-out" of civilization.
We can re-create such a frontier by identifying suitable tracts of federal land, 200 miles across - far larger than current management units - and then dividing them into a series of graduated, con-cen-tric development rings. The use of these different rings will allow us to fully accommodate both conservation and local development and then progressively thin out development toward the center of the area.
The Bright Angel area would have five rings. The first would facilitate growth, and each ring inward would take visitors farther away from the modern world and farther back in time.
The outer ring would be more open to private development than federal regulations now permit. Some land here would be sold to private owners for ranching, forestry, mining and other traditional Western uses. All American Indian lands would remain parts of their reservations, however. A few important zoning rules would ensure that open spaces remain open. Other, very limited rules would gradually restore the signs and storefront architecture in the towns to the style of the 1950s, to preserve the feel of an important period and to differentiate the frontier area from the outside. The towns would otherwise continue to govern themselves as now.
The next ring in would continue current land-use policies. Most lands would remain public and some would be leased to commercial users. Zoning rules might call for public areas in the towns to take on the appearance of an earlier period, say the 1920s.
The third ring would take visitors back to a pre-industrial period. This would be an area of open countryside and turn-of-the-century towns. Cars and electricity would be banned, and transportation would be by horse, bicycle or foot. Steam trains or other public transportation would serve the principal destinations.
The fourth ring would also have pre-industrial settlements but of a still earlier, pioneer period and with fewer amenities. There would be hotels in the towns but no public transportation.
Finally, the center of the tract would be a mix of trails and wilderness areas. A campground at the very center might be developed as a signature feature of the Bright Angel area and a worthy destination for hikers.
The development rings would not be perfect circles. They would take account of the locations of existing towns and resources. They would also permit some anomalies. There might be some wilderness areas within the outer ring and some irrigated agricultural valleys in the pre-industrial rings.
This frontier area would benefit all the groups involved. Ranchers and loggers throughout the largest, outer ring would benefit by owning land that they are now only leasing from the government. Residents of existing towns would benefit from increased employment, both in traditional industries and in tourism. Visitors to pre-industrial towns would be able to experience earlier, quieter forms of settlement. Walkers or bicyclists in the pre-industrial areas would enjoy the wild countryside and the sense of being far from the modern world, while still having comfortable accommodations at the end of the day. And dedicated backpackers would enjoy the large wilderness at the center.
There are two places where such sets of circles will fit. One is in the redrock canyons of southeastern Utah, and the other in the deserts and "island" mountain ranges of east-central Nevada. These tracts would almost touch and could be connected by a short corridor of land that would pass between Cedar City and St. George.
Connecting the two tracts would bring about a spectacular result. The combined area would be bigger than England and would have a perimeter longer than the distance from Canada to Mexico. Establishing it would effectively re-create a Western frontier, permanently, and with very little disruption to current residents or current uses.
We should do this while we still can.