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Idaho lags behind other Northwestern states in new study

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The fact that Idaho is changing isn't a tough conclusion to reach. Just look around. The state—and especially the Treasure Valley—is a testament to growth of all kinds: population, development, industry, culture.

But is that change for the better?

That's the question the Sightline Institute is attempting to answer with its Cascadia Scorecard, an annual report looking at the long-term viability of the Northwest. From the environment and health care to sprawl and income levels, the scorecard, published by the regional watch-dog group, looks at seven indicators to determine the health of a region that includes Idaho, Washington, and parts of Oregon, Montana, Wyoming, California, Nevada, Alaska and British Columbia.

It may not seem like your typical definition of the Northwest (people in central Oregon apparently aren't as Northwestern as the rest of the state) but the Sightline Institute defines Cascadia as the Columbia River watershed.

"This is a region that has similar economic prospects, similar culture and is one of the richest areas in the world," said Leigh Sims, communications associate with Sightline.

Sightline has published the Cascadia Scorecard for four years, and this year's results are a mixed bag for the state and the region. Median income in Idaho has gone up, but it has dropped everywhere else in the region. Idaho's average lifespan has remained steady (78.9 years), although it lags behind other states, including Washington (79.3 years). Idaho has cut its gasoline consumption, but the average resident still uses far more than anywhere else in the study area (17.4 gallons per person per week). And Idaho still has the dubious distinction of having the highest teen birthrate in the region, 37.8 births for every 1,000 women younger than 20.

What do these mean? According to Sightline, it means Idaho has room for improvement.

"The goal of the Cascadia Scorecard is to really look at the trends that are really important to the long-term goals of the Northwest," Sims said. "Other trends don't show how we're making progress.

"What gets measured gets fixed," she said. "[That's why we] measure what really matters."

As part of the study, Sightline sets goals for for seven categories: health, economy, population, energy, sprawl, wildlife and pollution. But when it comes to these goals, the focus turns outward from the region.

Whether it's Japan's health-care system and Sweden's population growth rate, to Germany's 2001 per-capita energy consumption and Vancouver, British Columbia's approach to sprawl, standards are far-reaching, but attainable, Sims said.

"We look for another place—international or local—that really was doing a good job on these trends, and has similar economic development as the Northwest," she said.

Idaho's problems, though, are ones shared by many other states. "Boise has problems with sprawl," Sims said. "It's not a very well-contained city, and it's growing quickly."

Additionally, Idaho's energy consumption needs to be addressed, but Sims admits part of the high use rate may come from the fact that the state is spread out, primarily rural, and there are few options when it comes to public transportation.

This vehicle-centric lifestyle also leads to a higher car-crash death rate, which in turn decreases the average life span since many of those killed in crashes are younger residents, Sims said. And while gas usage is going down, energy use in homes and business is on the rise. Again, this may not be the result of any major change in trends, but simply that there are more people moving to the state, and they are building bigger homes and businesses.

But creating an accurate picture of what's going on is as complex as the numbers themselves.

"Anytime anything is expressed as change, the thing that always screams out is, 'Where did you start relative to everyone else?'" said Stephanie Witt, director of the Boise State Public Policy Institute. "If we're still below everyone else in the region, that's something to worry about."

Boise State conducted its own regional report in 2006, using the same 2005 statistical information Sightline used for the Cascadia Scorecard. But rather than look at a single geographical region, Boise State's, State of the Region report looked at comparable urban areas in the West.

Results of the study show the importance of comparison. For example, between 2001 and 2005, the Boise area, which included Ada, Canyon, Boise, Gem and Owyhee counties, had a 19.8 percent population increase, second only to Sacramento, Calif. with 22 percent. But the area started out with a smaller population than many of the others used for the study. Additionally, while population grew, population density actually declined because outlying counties, including Gem and Owyhee, were added.

It's examples like this that show why deciphering statistical reports can be so tricky, Witt said. "We've seen certainly an acceleration of growth and sprawl in the Boise metro area, but we're not sure if we're not just catching up to the other regions.

"It takes a while for growth set in motion a while ago to be built out. We're still seeing some of that coming in," she said.

Looking within the state though, Witt said Idaho continues to see the same differentiation between urban and rural areas. "There are two to three urbanized areas in the state that are growing and changing in the same way, and the rest of the state is not," she said, "It's rural vs. urban in many ways."

While urban centers, including Boise, are dealing with substantial increases in both population and development, and the issues that come with them, rural areas are losing residents.

"It's uneven change across the counties," Witt said. "It's not the same across the whole state."

Additionally, the fact that more than half of the land in Idaho is federal land dictates where and how growth can take place. "That makes the trajectory of what's going to happen in Idaho very different than in Ohio," Witt said. She doesn't take issue with the Cascadia Scorecard or the Sightline Institute's numbers.

But when it comes to drawing clear conclusions though, that's not as easy. "It's all in what you measure," she said.

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