October/November 2012: Blast from the past: Revisiting the origins of The Western Planner

Where it All Began: 208 N. 29th Street in downtown Billings, MT. (Latitude 45° 46’.57.71” North, Longitude 108° 30’.29.36” West) Photo by Ben Orbson.

Oftentimes looks can be deceiving. In this rather unimposing building in downtown Billings, MT, something truly momentous took place on Nov. 29, 1979.

by Brad Stebleton, Bernalillo, NM
Western Planner Editorial Board Chair

On that date, seven individuals met at what was then the office of the Western Coal Assistance Center. From North Dakota came Allan Merta, from South Dakota Ben Orsbon, from Wyoming Dale Pernula, and from Montana Art Greenberg, Jim Richard, Fred Roach and Stan Steadman. The group discussed the idea, which had been circulating for some time, of starting a network for planners in the intermountain West. Then as now, planners in our region faced daunting challenges, were spread across a huge swath of geography, and were not well served by other professional planning organizations with more of an eastern and urban emphasis. The huge impacts of energy development in our region at that time were a further impetus behind the formation of a network.

From that simple beginning, the idea took off like a western wildfire. The Journal began publication in January 1980 and the first annual conference was held in August 1981. Both have continued without letup since. From the four original states, the network has grown to include 13 and has spread from the oil patch in southeastern New Mexico to the North Slope of Alaska, covering more than 1.7 million square miles of territory in between.

Over the past three decades, the Western Planning Resources Inc. network has survived massive changes in our region, our profession, and in the communication technologies that affect how we all interact with one another. The wave that started with a small ripple in 1979 has grown larger and larger over time. Thousands of lives improved, at least that many careers assisted (and in some cases, rescued), and countless communities throughout our region benefitted and improved from the hard won knowledge shared.

It was only fitting that, as we returned to our birthplace, we were joined by two of the individuals who helped to launch it all back in 1979. Ben Orsbon, who served our network continuously as a board member for more than three decades, was recognized for that tireless service with a President’s Award. Stan Steadman, who now lives in Alaska, was also on hand in Billings. Stan was the sole proprietor of the WP during the first decade of its existence and is considered by many to be the father of our organization. If anyone doubted the continuing relevance of our network, a quick look at this year’s conference program quickly put those doubts to rest. Along with sessions on legal issues, neighborhood planning, federal lands, and transportation were several addressing energy impacts in our region. Many of the challenges of planning in the West, it seems, never go away but return in different forms. Thankfully, the WP network is still here to help us as we struggle with them.

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