Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Population Decline in West Texas Felt Locally

Despite the state's growth, many counties are continuing to decline 
April 12, 2011, 7:29AM

Scene outside Balmorhea in Reeves County, Texas
KERMIT, TX — Jacob Harrison did what he thought kids from rural West Texas are supposed to do. He went away to college and didn't look back. But after working in Central Texas for a while, he called home with a confession.

"There are too many trees," he said. "You can't see the sky."

Harrison, now 26, is back in Winkler County, drawn by a job in the aptly named community of Notrees.

But he is in the minority. The 2010 Census confirmed what anyone passing through the scrublands of West Texas already knew: People are leaving, and no one is taking their place, even with oil at more than $100 a barrel. The people who remain often drive an hour or more to visit a doctor, buy a pair of jeans or see a movie.

So you might wonder why anyone is still there, in this place where natural beauty is defined by dry creek beds and scraggly mesquite, where public transit is a school bus and Starbucks is a punch line.

"The greatest sunsets. The stars are just right there. You hear the coyotes howling," says Billy Burt Hopper, sheriff of Loving County, home to 82 people and the least-populated county in the United States.

"It's the last frontier."

Texas recorded the largest population growth in the nation over the past decade, adding 4.5 million people for a total of 25.1 million. But 79 of its 254 counties lost people, all but a handful of them west of Interstate 35. Even more would have lost population if not for the decade's phenomenal Latino growth; the number of Anglos declined in 162 Texas counties, including much of West Texas and the Panhandle.

The shift to the state's cities and suburbs has been happening since at least the 1960s, as people died or moved away from the vast emptiness of the west and the endless stretches of the Panhandle.

"Young people want to be where there are more amenities and hustle and bustle," says Bonnie Leck, Winkler County judge for the past 17 years, long enough to see both the economy and the population fluctuate with the fortunes of the surrounding oil and gas fields.

For every Marfa, which capitalized on the legacy of artist Donald Judd to reinvent itself as an arts and tourist town, there are a dozen Kermits, Van Horns and Tahokas, barely hanging on as people choose modern life over wide open spaces.

"You'd be amazed how many men would live out here, but you're not going to get their wives five miles from Walmart," Hopper says.

More at Houston Chronical

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