What is "the West"?

Unlike regions of the nation that are precisely defined politically, such as the six New England states or the 11 states of the Confederacy, which compose Dixie, no two scholars of government bureaus agree on a precise definition of the West.

Geographically, the West is best defined by the 100th meridian, which runs north to south through the western portions of North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. East of this longitude, rainfall is generally abundant; west of it, water is a scarce and precious commodity.

Culturally, some would exclude California, the nation's most populous state. Others would separate the northwestern states of Washington and Oregon. But the most generally accepted definition, at least if one follows political boundaries, would include the 11 states that are the focus of this series on the "Embattled West." They are Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Idaho, Washington, Oregon and California.

On a bright, cloudless Utah day, Kent Briggs is sipping a drink at the exclusive Wasatch Front Club and talking about a new nation of the West.

Briggs, administrative assistant to the moderate Democratic governor of Utah, is the son of an Idaho reclamation farmer. He sees not a farmer's future, however, but an industrialized West that will be developed and in control of its own resources within a decade.

The water to make this dream a reality could be developed readily, Briggs believes, were it not for short-sighted federal policies devised in the uncomprehending East.

"We see the Yankees putting restrictions on our development and continuing colonial shackles," Briggs says. "My vision is that we might need a new western nation from the MacKenzie River to the Rio Grande."

No one really expects the West to leave the nation in the 20th century, as the South tried to do in the 19th. But the very use of nationhood as a metaphor is a measure of te alienation that divides the emergent West, the nation's fastest growing region, from the rest of the country.

"There's a whole complex of resource issues, especially water, which sets the West apart," says Colorado Sen. Gary Hart (D). "They build on an anti-eastern, anti-government feeling that was already there. I look upon the West as a kind of New South in which there is a basic alienation."

This alienation, replete with contradictions, cuts across ideological and partisan lines in a rising tide of regionalism. Westerners talk incessantly of federal environmental restrictions and federal taxing policies that discourage development. Yet western states, through legislatures and referendums, may have done even more to discourage development by enacting some of the nation's stiffest environmental laws and steepest mineral severance taxes. Some of the same westerners who look forward to industrial development also applaud politicians such as Oregon Gov. Vic Atiyeh (R) when they discourage immigration from California and the East.

In the words of Thornton Bradshaw, onetime New Englander who is president of Los Angeles-based Atlantic Richfield: "All regions are conflicted. But the West is the most conflicted of all."

This conflict reflects the fragility of the West, which is at one and the same time the most abundant and optimistic region and the one in which water and population resources are most precariously balanced. While the West is driving faster than anyplace else, building more and digging deeper, it also has been made most conscious of the thin-edge nature of its own existence. Gasoline shortages, both in 1973 and this year, occurred first in the West. Before that, the three-year drought reminded even the most self-assured westerners of the essentially desert character of their region.

The contradiction between western expectations and western limitations is especially evident in the region's relationships with the central government. On the one hand, westerners always have fancied themselves independent from a faraway government that until recently did relatively little to manage or control the expanses of timber, grazing and desert lands technically under its jurisdiction. On the other, westerners have depended on the federal government in fundamental ways - first, to subdue the Indians and Mexicans and lay the telegraph lines and provide the homesteads, and then to build huge dams that produced subsidized water for agricultural development.

The nerve ends of this contradiction were touched by the Carter administration's original decision, in 1977, to weight future western water projects on a strict cost-accounting basis. In Washington, the action seemed prudent and necessary. In the West, the decision generally was viewed as a betrayal.

But the administration's water-policy decision also helped define the regional character of the West, which throughout most of its history has been a collection of frontiers settled at different times by different types of pioneers.

East of the 100th meridan longitudinal line, rainfall is abundant. West of it, except for relatively small portions of the Northwest, water is as precious as life itself. Defining this vast American region a generation ago, historian Walter Prescot Webb wrote: "The heart of the West is a desert, unqualified and absolute."

The desert quality of the West has always been there. What has evolved now is a regional consciousness, caused first by the drought-induced consciousness of limitations and second by widespread realization that the region is becoming the "energy breadbasket" for the entire nation.

This new consciousness is almost colonial in nature, reflected in the common western statement that the region should develop its resources for itself. Like the original colonists who broke away from Britain, westerners increasingly see their own region as potentially self-sufficient and capable of determining its own destiny, an attitude that in its extreme form evokes expressions of potential nationhood like those made by Kent Briggs. While this colonial consciousness predates the Carter administration, it has been enhanced by what many westerners see as a steadfast presidential insensitivity to western problems.

Whatever else Jimmy Carter may have done or failed to do, he at least has effectively demolished the notion of the "Sun Belt," a mythological horizontal region comprised of New West and Old South. When Carter won the presidency by carrying nearly every southern state and losing every state in the continental West, it was political ratification of the enormous differences of economy, climate and life-style that divide the two regions.

The South is the nation's poorest region, the West its wealthiest. The federal government owns no more than 10 percent of any southern state; in the West it is the majority landowner. Southern soil and mines are depleted by centuries of use, while the West remains rich in agricultural and mineral wealth. The South has such abundant rainfall that floods are a perennial danger, while the West thirsts.

No one has attested to the regional differences more strikingly than Hamilton Jordan, the White House chief of staff. To a Democratic group in San Francisco that had expressed concern about administration water policies, he candidly declared: "You have to remember that for us in Georgia water is only a word and a dam is a boon-doggle."

The water policies stemming from this attitude are the principal source of federal-western conflict. But the same sort of conflict exists on almost every issue and is likely to continue irrespective of who occupies the White House. While a president more understanding of western ways would be appreciated in the region, it is unlikely that any person or party would be able to dispel easily the fundamental conflicts that have arisen.

In Nevada, a so-called "sagebrush rebellion" is brewing. Legislation laying state claim to most of the 87 percent of Nevada owned by the federal government has been signed. Similar movements have been launched in Utah, Oregon and California. Miners in the later two states are suing to accomplish the same purpose. In Wyoming, a proposal to raise the 55-mile-per-hour speed limit failed only because the federal government threatened to withdraw highway funds.

No issue epitomizes the regional-national conflict more than the compromise solution for the nation's forests, in which the Carter administration set aside 15.4 million acres for new wilderness. Conservationists, especially in the East, criticized Carter for not allocating more wilderness. Yet the prevailing view in the West was that the federal government had tied up additional land needed for grazing, farming and timber-cutting.

The differences are most extreme on the most important issue - energy. More than two-thirds of the nation's coal and 87 percent of its uranium are west of the Mississppi, concentrated in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and North Dakota. With Montana leading the way, these western states have staked out claims to their resources that defy both the federal government and the multinational corporations.

There are signs of thoughtlessness in the western approach, such as prideful Montana references to being "blue-eyed Arabs" or bumperstickers in the Southwest that read: "Drive Faster, Freeze a Yankee."

But the underlying attitude is not regional oneupmanship. It is the belief expressed by Kent Briggs that the West should no longer allow itself to be an eastern colony. Insular western Americans recently have become aware that their attitude is not dissimilar to residents of northern Mexico or western Canada, who also feel neglected by their federal governments.

The West's newfound sense of its own importance is based on a demographic reality - the steady westward shift of the American population. According to advance census estimates for 1980, eight of the 11 congressional districts that will change will move westward, with the other three going to the South. Both California and Texas will be allotted two new House seats, while Arizona, Utah, Oregon and Washington will gain one apiece.

By other measurements, too, the West is growing far faster than the rest of the nation. Nine of the 10 leadings states in new housing starts in 1978 were in the West, with most of the southern states lagging far behind. Irrigated western land accounts for 12 percent of the nation's farmland but produces 27 percent of the gross farm income.

Many westerners would like to see the region's dramatic agricultural development continue. Settling the land is a western tradition, and making the desert bloom has been a romantic inspiration from the time of Brigham Young to that of John Steinbeck. But westerners complain that the federal government's control over dams and other water development is imposing water shortages that force the region to choose among the three mainstays of its economy: energy-industrial development, agriculture and housing.

Since the administration's policy seeks to find the most profitable use for developed water, it pits the farmers against the other two, higher-paying competitors.

"The president's 'hit list,' the decision to go after everything that's most economic, is driving out agriculture," says Jack Barnett, director of the Western States Water Council, headquartered in Salt Lake City. "Originally, we decided that the West would be settled and farmed. Now, the president's men are going for the projects that pay bucks - municipal, industry and energy-producing uses - and freezing out agriculture."

Having to choose among the competing uses for water infuriates westerners who are not used to putting limits on anything. They tend to feel betrayed by federal policies that insist that water be put on the marketplace to the detriment of their operations. They sneer at charges that their water is subsidized by the federal taxpayers without giving the nation commensurate benefits.

"The development of the West was promoted by the federal government," says John Smith, a central Arizona cotton grower who migrated there in the 1930s from the Oklahoma dust bowl. "It was deemed in the national interest. What do they want now - for us all to come back?"

Smith says he can get two to three times more yield from his cotton land than growers in the president's home state of Georgia. He insists that agriculture holds the key to the nation's attempts to reduce its enormous trade imbalance.

Some Arizona growers talk openly of the need to buy or seize the rights to Canadian, Alaskan and Pacific Northwest water as the long-range solution to their acute problems. Some have even endorsed such visionary schemes as the $120 billion plan to tap remote sources like the Yukon River and bring it down to the arid American West.

Known as the North American Water and Power Alliance, this proposal has received a uniformly negative reaction from the federal governments of Canada and the United States.

In their refusal to recognize economic reality as their federal governemt sees it, these Arizona farmers express the characteristic western view that any problem can be solved by thinking big. It is an attitude that has resulted in some of the biggest dams and best farmlands in the world. It also is a way of thinking that has produced Los Angeles.

At the same time the many in the West express an unrestrained desire for development, others are attracted by the holding patterns of limited growth or even limited immigration. They fear that the natural resources of the region as well as its open life-style inevitably will be destroyed or altered beyond recognition by the growth anticipated within the next decade.

But the very individualism that makes the West such a desirable place to live also makes it difficult for westerners effectively to control their destiny. Even where they need it, they are apt to be resistant to zoning, as in Houston, or to land use planning, as in Utah and Arizona. When a western state does establish some limits, as California did in setting aside a controlled-development coastal zone five years ago, it is apt to find that even mild controls seem chafing and restrictive.

"The paradox of the West is that people consistently destroy what they came out to seek," says Colorado Gov.-Richard Lamm, a conservationist who won reelection largely because he became a staunch defender of the water projects the Carter administration refused to approve. "It's like Daniel Boone. He wanted to open up the wilderness but if anyone came within 10 miles of him, he'd move on. Now there are fewer places to move to." CAPTION: Picture 1, Casa Grande farmer Jim Hennis: "Arizona grows where water flows."; Picture 2, Industry meets agriculture near Hayden, Colo., as cattle graze against a backdrop of a power plant. Photos by John McDonnell - The Washington Post; Picture 3, Cris Luckett surveys a coal mine site near Craig. Colo.; Map 1, Federal Land Ownership, By Richard Furno - The Washington Post; Map 2, Rate of Population Growth, By Beth Ann Thornburgin for The Washington Pos