The Wasatch Front will be running out of room with a baby boom that shows no signs of abating

"Babies are God's opinion the world should go on." -- quote posted at the nurse's station outside McKay-Dee Hospital's neonatal intensive care unit.

May 10, 1998

By SUSAN SNYDER
Standard-Examiner staff


OGDEN -- Todd Weston leaned on the nursery window at McKay-Dee Hospital, admiring the delicate, blanketed bundle on the other side.

Pink, sleeping, perfect.

Christine. Eight pounds. Three hours old.

The Westons' fifth.

By 2020, little Christine will be old enough to start a family of her own.

But will she want to do it here? What will Utah be like then?

Crowded, according to all the projections, statistics and experts.

Crowded, not just from transplants from California or New York or the places in-between, but from Utah-born babies. As a state with the nation's highest birth rate, few would argue that Utah could be considered the nation's Mother's Day capital.

It's cultural. Families are as much a part of Utah as red rocks and perfect snow.

It's continuous. Although Utah's fertility rates have declined over the decades, they have consistently remained the nation's highest.

Utah mothers gave birth to a record 42,398 babies last year, breaking the 1996 record of 40,371, state figures show. And state officials expect another record this year.

So as Utahns fret about highways, huge subdivisions and disappearing open space, they might consider that those out-of-state neighbors next door aren't the ones most responsible for the population explosion. It's a homegrown dilemma.

Last year, Utah gained more than twice as many people through birth than through people moving into the state, according to figures from the Governor's Office of Planning and Budget.

If no one had moved here from out-of-state from 1990 to 1997, Utah still would have gained almost 200,000 new people, the figures show.

And over the next 50 years, experts say, two-thirds of the state's population growth will depend on Utahns' family planning decisions.

"There is no silver bullet to solve this," Gov. Mike Leavitt said last month in an interview about Utah's overall growth rate. "You can't solve this problem because it's continuous. You have to manage it."

Leavitt, a father of five, is among the government officials and planners reluctant to talk about Utah's birth rate. Family planning is a personal decision, they say.

Officials from the LDS Church, to which about 70 percent of Utahns belong, including Leavitt, emphasize the sanctity of the family unit. But they also say decisions about having children should be left to individuals.

Unlike the Roman Catholic church, the LDS Church has no policy against birth control. Couples are encouraged to have only as many children as they can physically, emotionally and financially afford, Don LeFevre, church spokesman, said.

However, children are a blessing, LeFevre said, and some members say having children increases their blessings. LDS followers also believe in all souls having a premortal existence, and by giving birth to children they give these spirits the opportunity to live in a Mormon family.

Still, Utah's internal growth cannot be ignored, said Kerrie Galloway, director of Planned Parenthood of Utah. Nearly half of all births are unintended, she said, and Utahns could learn more about planning a family.

"What distresses me, is people's unwillingness to talk about the relevance and importance of family planning," Galloway said. "If we don't deal with it at a family level, how are we going to deal with it at a statewide level?"

Historically, Utah's fertility rate -- the number of live children to which a woman will give birth from the time she is 15 until she is 44 -- has been as high as 4.3, recorded back in 1960.

It now stands at about 2.64, according to the most recent figures available. That is higher than the national average of 2.0.

Nobody knows for sure why Utahns have more babies than other folks, said Carl Haub, of the Population Reference Bureau in Washington, D.C.

If Utah's current trends continue, state experts say today's babies are going to have less elbow room and more neighbors.

By 2020, about 2.7 million people will live in the greater Wasatch Front region, defined by experts as a 10-county area from Brigham City to Nephi and Park City to Tooele.

By 2050, about 5 million will live here, according to projections calculated by technicians working for Envision Utah, a statewide growth management think tank.

Those experts predict 43,000 new residents -- most of them Utahns' children and grandchildren -- will call the Wasatch Front home annually. It's like adding a town the size of Bountiful every year.

If Utahns do nothing to manage the population surge, air pollution and traffic will increase, and urban areas will continue to sprawl.

"I don't know of any area it doesn't affect," Leavitt said. "With more people you get more crime. With more people you get more cars. You get more pollution. These are serious problems."

Today's babies will be able to find jobs, but they will face longer commutes or may have to move out of state to get them.

"The employment generation has been as high in some years as the population growth. There are about 2 million people in Utah, and about 1 million got up and went to work this morning," said Thayne Robson, University of Utah Bureau of Economic and Business Research.

"But the notion that people are born in a neighborhood, will be educated in that neighborhood and will work in a neighborhood for a lifetime is increasingly unlikely," he said.

The work commute that took 24 minutes in 1995 is expected to take 34 minutes in 2020, projections show, and drivers are expected to buy more vehicles and make more non-work-related trips over the next 50 years.

Growth also threatens the way Utahns play, said Rick Vallejos, of the U.S. Forest Service Ogden Ranger District.

Locals account for most of the Wasatch- Cache National Forest's 7 million annual visitors, with many visiting its campgrounds and other areas 10 or 20 times a year, surveys show. Some campsites are reserved more than 200 days in advance for summer holiday weekends.

"You drive up and down the streets and it seems like almost every house has an RV or a boat parked out front," Vallejos said. "We're just lucky that we have any public land."

Future Utah students may even consider themselves lucky to have classroom space. The current pinch will get worse, if schools don't plan properly, said Patty Bowles, statistician for the Utah Department of Education.

The first five years of the 1990s showed a leveling trend in statewide school enrollment, as the last of the Baby Boomers' children graduated from high school, and the first of their grandchildren entered school.

But as 2000 approaches, steady student population growth should resume, she said.

"We can't start thinking our expenditure for pupils is going to be

© Ogden Publishing Corporation, 1998


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