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Utah at the end of the 20th century


National Park Service in Utah
National Park Service in Utah

Utah’s dramatic growth has created problems. Drug trafficking, gang violence, and crime have increased within the state. In addition, Utah’s extraordinarily high school-age population, nearly 27 percent of the total population, has created such a demand for public education that Utah is both among the nation’s leaders in the percentage of state funds spent on education and among the poorest in expenditures per student. Nevertheless, Utah ranks highly among the states in graduation rate and standardized test scores, evidence that educators and politicians use to demonstrate Utah’s outstanding public school system in spite of the limited funding. Utah’s higher education system suffers from the same problem. During the 1980s and 1990s Utah’s community college system has greatly expanded, especially with the establishment of Salt Lake Community College and Utah Valley Community College in 1987. Two colleges, Weber State and Southern Utah, were granted university status in 1992. Extensive building programs on all campuses have required a large amount of public money. Large public expenditures for higher education have failed to prevent substantial tuition increases over the last 17 years, making Utah’s public higher-education costs among the highest in the region.

Politically, Utah remains a conservative state. Since the mid-1970s Republicans dominated Utah politics at the state and national level. Recent social and cultural issues centered on moral issues, such as decency on cable television channels, laws governing abortion, and religious influence in secular matters. Utah has had problems with some civil rights issues. The state has a small nonwhite population, and full civil and social rights were often denied to minority groups in Utah. These groups have made progress more recently. In 1978 the Mormon church eliminated one source of tension by allowing blacks to be ordained for the priesthood for the first time.

Utah’s two largest native peoples, the Ute and Navajo, used the courts to recover lost rights and land. In 2000 the U.S. government agreed to return 34,000 hectares (84,000 acres) of oil-rich land to the Ute, the largest return of public lands to Native Americans outside of Alaska in U.S. history.

Environmental issues have also become very controversial in recent decades, particularly the issue of land that was set aside to become wilderness areas, and to a lesser extent the expansion and designation of national parks. A “Cowboy Caucus” made up of conservative legislators and descendants of the Sagebrush Rebellion, a movement in the late 1970s to reassert state control over national public lands, has pushed what they consider the agenda of rural Utah. They see initiatives by environmental groups, the Bureau of Land Management, and the National Park Service as belated efforts by outsiders to interfere with traditional lifestyles and economic activities such as livestock grazing. The designation of a large area of southern Utah as Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996 was opposed by many rural Utahns.

2002 Winter Olympic Games
2002 Winter Olympic Games

Other environmental issues have caused debate but have gained more acceptance in the state. Most Utahns support the Central Utah Project, which is designed to divert water from the Colorado Basin to the Wasatch Front, but some people outside the state have criticized the project, calling it too expensive. Another controversy arose over the environmental safety of the chemical weapons incinerator that is operated by the United States military near Tooele, southwest of Salt Lake City. The high-temperature furnace is the first in the continental United States to burn chemical weapons under the international Chemical Weapons Convention. Efforts by several federal agencies to create an underground storage site for high-level nuclear waste on Native American lands were finally rejected by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 2006.

Like other Western states with rapidly growing populations, Utah faces a transportation problem that has environmental consequences. Tremendous urban population growth has strained the Wasatch Front’s aging interstate highway system and lowered its air quality. Heavy traffic in the narrow canyons leading to Utah’s ski resorts and in areas such as Zion National Park threatens the quality of recreation there. Public support for an efficient transportation system increased after the 2002 Winter Olympic Games were awarded to Salt Lake City. The federal government joined with the state government and other donors to fund light rail construction, highway expansion, and other transportation improvements before the Olympic Games took place.

Utah experienced an economic boom during the early 2000s, fueled by the rising prices of energy and minerals, the construction industry, tourism, and the manufacturing sector. Under the Utah Science, Technology and Research (USTAR) initiative, the state funded programs at the University of Utah and Utah State University to ensure that Utah would continue to gain high-paying jobs in knowledge-based fields. "Utah" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia.

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