Census: Americans Moving to Rural Areas

New Mexico, Idaho, Utah and other states blessed with wide-open spaces are seeing steady population growth as increasingly cramped Americans look for ways to spread out.

Overall, the U.S. population grew by almost 3 million people over the last year to just under 294 million, the Census Bureau (search) reported in annual population estimates being released Wednesday. The top 10 list of fastest-growing states was dominated by those in the West and South, with Nevada leading the way for the 18th consecutive year.

While favorable weather and jobs continue to be primary lures, people also are looking for places that offered space, affordability and the great outdoors. That helped place Idaho fourth on the list of fastest-growing states. Utah was seventh and New Mexico 10th.

Robert Lang, a demographer with the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech, said those states are appealing to people who want to escape the urban sprawl of big cities like Los Angeles and Denver.

"This is part of a long diffusion of population of the country because of the interstates, airports and the Internet," Lang said. "We use the whole country now."

Fern Bull, 74, moved from Colorado to Layton, Utah, about 25 miles north of Salt Lake City, to be near her two young granddaughters. In the five years since arriving, a Wal-Mart, a small shopping mall and two new fast-food restaurants have been built on once-empty parcels of land near her home, she said.

Utah's population is 2.4 million, up 1.6 percent over the past year and up 7 percent since 2000. Bull, who is involved in a social group that welcomes new residents, said local officials are trying to keep infrastructure on a pace with the influx.

"We're just trying to get highways and transportation," she said. "As more people keep moving in, we need more."

Idaho's population rose 2 percent over the last year to nearly 1.4 million. There is growth around the capital of Boise and in Kootenai County in northern Idaho.

That is where the shoreline of scenic Lake Coeur d'Alene (search) has been increasingly fenced by million-dollar homes, and subdivisions are climbing higher up the county's hillsides, said Rand Wichman, the county's planning and zoning director.

"We're struggling to keep the infrastructure up with the growth, and schools and roads and all those kinds of things are perpetually behind the curve," he said. "The question is how long we can keep this a great place to live before the pressure overwhelms us."

Nevada, spurred in large part by the sprawling growth around Las Vegas, grew by 4.1 percent to 2.3 million people.

Retired utility worker Lloyd Wicliff, 58, moved from the Los Angeles area to North Las Vegas last year. "Your money goes a little further here," he said. "A nice house in Southern California can be a nicer home in southern Nevada."

Arizona had the second-largest growth, up 3 percent to 5.7 million, while Florida was third with a 2.3 percent increase to 17.4 million. Georgia, Texas, Delaware and North Carolina also were in the top 10.

Massachusetts was the only state that had a population decline — albeit down a slight 3,800 people, or 0.1 percent, to 6.41 million. Demographers speculated it could have been caused by an exodus of people leaving to escape rising costs in the Boston area.

The bureau estimated North Dakota gained population for the first time since at least 2000. The July 2004 population of 634,366 was 966 higher than the previous year.

There also has been small but steady growth in Montana and Wyoming, probably due in part to folks' seeking to leave urban settings for a small-town lifestyle, said William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution (search) in Washington.

"Put yourself in someone's shoes living in Los Angeles," said Marty Bakken, a 30-year veteran of the fast-growing real estate market around Bozeman, Mont. "If they can make a living and provide for their family here, they're probably going to do it."

Also, Frey said, with low housing prices and warm climates, don't expect the popularity of Arizona or Nevada to wane soon.