It was the ghost towns and gold rushes — the raw frontiers with sparse, renegade residents — that gave the West a reputation for being mythically wild and independent.

But now, as the Wasatch Front and four other "super regions" of the Intermountain West begin to come of age, it's time to set the "lone cowboy" ideal aside.

According to a newly released report from the Brookings Institute studying the growth and potential impact of the Wasatch Front, Phoenix, Denver, Las Vegas and Albuquerque "megapolitan" regions, the Intermountain West is America's new, new frontier. But it won't survive unless it pulls together — and gets some help from the federal government.

"We celebrate the Western 'can do' spirit, but these places can't do it alone," said Mark Muro, policy director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institute. "They in themselves can't knit the whole Southwest together with state-of-the-art transportation linkages, freight corridors and major shipment routes. They can't stabilize immigration or set up a national carbon reduction framework and climate change response. We want Washington to do the things it can do and empower these places to solve problems."

With 2.3 million residents in 2007, the Wasatch Front is the third largest of the five Intermountain West megapolitan regions — as defined by Brookings as areas where two or more metropolitan areas are combined into a single economic, social and urban system. Put together, the five regions are the fastest-growing in the country, with the potential to change America's economic future.

But pervasive challenges threaten to defeat the West before it ever arrives, unless changes are made. The area needs a more complete transportation network with roads, high-speed trains and intercity rail, the report says. Better regional planning that is not as heavily car-dependent and integration of immigrants are needed. A unified conservation effort toward water and electricity — limited resources in the West — are a necessity, according to the report.

Failure of the government to help resolve these challenges could be catastrophic for the whole country, according to Brookings Institute nonresident senior fellow Robert Lang, who participated in the study.

"We think the country is so deteriorating in terms of quality of its infrastructure — that they're so behind — that there will be a moment of shock when the country understands this under-investment will jeopardize its economic development," Lang said. "You would hope that there would be enough at stake that the federal government would gain a recognition of this and realize that this pattern that we're on is at the nation's peril."

Lang and Muro say one way for these five regions to gain the attention of the federal government is to band together — something that's not historically been done in the West, says Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.

"The West is very unique in that regard," Huntsman said. "This is the West, where people go to make their dreams come true and the large expanses of land are unlike anything you find elsewhere in the world, and we don't care much about what those next door are doing. As we continue to grow, we find there are a lot of regional issues that we need to get smart about."

Huntsman, who will speak at a conference on the Brookings report on Tuesday in Denver, says collaboration from this point forward will be key, and that a discovery and implementation of the "best practices" of the region will hopefully be a result.

"I sense that we're all going to be looking over the fence at the others to see how to best address the issues that others are also dealing with," Huntsman said. "I assume (the Wasatch Front) will have some of these best practices that are looked on with envy from others."

While Lang and Muro suggest federal involvement is needed to improve the West's future, they believe that local leaders should be taking the lead on change and moving forward.

Envision Utah executive director Alan Matheson, who will join the governor in Denver, agrees.

"The bottom line is, we have people in this region that care very much about this place, and they're willing to invest their time and their passion and their talents to create the brightest future possible," Matheson said. "We're trying to create the best lives for the people that live here so that we can have the best and the brightest workers in this region to lead us into a challenging future."


E-mail: achoate@desnews.com