While most of the world was in pandemic containment last year, Lisa Jeppson and her husband rode more than 2,000 miles on their ATVs side-by-side to explore the natural wonders of Wayne County.
The striking scenery – the county includes parts of Capitol Reef and Canyonlands National Parks – is part of the reason the couple decided to leave Draper about five years ago and move into a house in Loa for their retirement years.
The way of life reminds him of his childhood in the Salt Lake Valley, when county towns weren’t yet united and open farmland still stretched between Midvale and Murray.
“It’s like stepping back in time,” said the 56-year-old.
It’s what longtime Wayne County residents have called “settlements,” said Jeppson, part of a wave of retirees drawn to the area’s natural riches and proximity to two national parks. As the social director of the Wayne County Seniors Center, she is able to meet newcomers who are part of this trend.
By the time she arrived in the county, the senior center was doing little more than lunch once a month, she said. Now it hosts movies, takes group rides in an all-terrain vehicle, and meets for “paint and soup days”.
While Jeppson enjoys living in the community, she knows that neighbors below retirement age have a different experience – and sometimes struggle in a place where well-paying jobs are scarce and entertainment options are available. limited.
“There is nothing to keep young people here,” she said. “There are no bowling alleys, there are no arcades. … We have a movie theater, and it only shows movies on Fridays and Saturdays.
Some of these young families end up leaving for a more urban life or for work opportunities. These departures, combined with the arrival of older residents, have resulted in a decrease in the presence of children and adolescents in this rural community.
Recently released census figures show that adults in Wayne County have grown more as a percentage of the population than anywhere else in Utah over the past decade, from 70% in 2010 to 78% in 2020. That corresponds to an earlier finding from the University of Utah’s Le Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, showing that Wayne County (population 2,486) is one of six counties in Utah – mostly rural – where at less than 1 inhabitant in 5 is over 64 years old.
“Our biggest export as a county is to export our children,” said Wayne County Commissioner Stanley Wood. “And we’re bringing retirees back. “
“Brought out a lot of young families”
Stories of younger families leaving rural communities for lack of economic opportunities echo concerns expressed by state officials in recent years.
Governor Spencer Cox, from sparsely populated Sanpete County, has pledged to invest in communities off the Wasatch Front and opened a rural office at the University of Southern Utah to mark his commitment to the ‘goal. His immediate predecessor, then governor. Gary Herbert, launched an initiative in 2017 to create 25,000 jobs in rural counties and also supported an effort to encourage remote working in non-urban areas.
Wood, a longtime rancher and farmer, said one of his daughters telecommutes from Wayne County, with an occasional business trip to California. But Jeppson said she would like to see a large employer take advantage of the county’s fast internet service as well.
“We have 5G internet. It’s fabulous, ”she said. “Why can’t a company come here and have their employees work in a call center? “
Tourism brings money to the county, but much of the work is seasonal, and Jeppson said some people have to do several of these lower-paying jobs to survive. Many more leave the county during the offseason, according to Wood.
The county once had thriving logging operations and seven sawmills, but that industry has fizzled out, the county commissioner said. It also lost nearly 200 jobs in 2011 with the closure of several wilderness therapy and youth treatment programs owned by Aspen Education Group. At the time, it was the largest employer in the county.
“It took a lot of young families out,” Wood said of the program’s shutdown. “And a lot of kids outside of school.”
He said Hanksville Elementary, one of the county’s four schools, only had 13 students this year.
An aging state
With the changes of the past decade, adults now claim a larger portion of the population in Wayne County than anywhere else in Utah outside of Grand County. According to 2020 census data, only 21.2% of residents in Grand County are under the age of 18, compared to 22% of residents in Wayne County.
The other three counties that complete the top five are also rural: Kane, Daggett and Garfield.
While this aging trend is particularly pronounced in some remote areas, the state as a whole has become less young since the 2010 census. Twenty-nine percent of Utah’s population is under the age of 18, at the time. census of 2020, against 31.5% during the previous decennial enumeration.
Utah still has a higher percentage of children and adolescents than any other state, but its traditionally the country’s first fertility rate has fallen 20% since 2009, according to the Gardner Institute. This pushed Utah below South Dakota and North Dakota in the rankings.
Mallory Bateman, senior research analyst and State Data Center coordinator at the Gardner Institute, noted that this pattern varies across racial groups in Utah. While only 27% of whites in Utah are under the age of 18, about 35% of the minority population fall into this younger category.
“So you have more diversity,” she said, “in these younger groups.”