The Pacific Northwest & Pacific Rim Regions

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

America's West Coast is part of multiple regions. In this lesson, we're going to explore the Pacific Northwest and Pacific Rim regions and see how they connect people in, and beyond, the United States.

Western and International Regions

Geography can be a funny thing. Sometimes, it seems pretty rigid. Cities have borders, states have borders, and nations have borders. We can map these things out in clear and defined ways. Other times, geography feels a lot more flexible. No, the actual location of mountains and rivers isn't up for debate, but our understanding of physical space is. Humans around the world often understand geography in terms of regions, or spaces connected by common elements. Some regions are small, some are huge, and many have little regard for the formal boundaries we place on maps. One place we can see this on America's West Coast, where a few important regions define the way people here understand the world and their place in it.

The Pacific Northwest

When looking at the regions along America's West Coast, the most obvious one is the Pacific Northwest. Roughly containing the states of Oregon, Washington, and parts of Idaho, this region is defined by a number of factors. Physically, it describes high-latitude states that have high amounts of rainfall and trees. . . lots of trees. Economically, it describes an area that is heavily reliant on natural resource extraction, especially in terms of lumber and fishing, as well as other forms of agriculture. Historically, this region was owned in part by Spain, Russia, Britain, and the United States at various points in time, as well as numerous Amerindian nations. Culturally, the Pacific Northwest is a land of both lumberjacks and urban coffee aficionados, united in a love for the rainy climate and unique cultural productions of Northwestern artists.

Logging is a common factor across the Pacific Northwest
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Despite these defining traits, it can be hard to get a firm grasp on exactly what the Pacific Northwest includes. Many regions are like this; their borders are not always clear. For example, this region features sharp political and ideological divisions between urban and rural populations. The coasts rely heavily on shipping, while the interiors rely on extractions. Even people of this region do not unanimously agree on who belongs under the label of a Pacific Northwesterner.

To make this even more complicated, it's important to note that this region realistically expands beyond the borders of the United States. Washington was, through the mid-19th century, part of a larger territory jointly owned by the USA and Britain. In 1846, this territory was split into Washington and British Columbia, but that division is a political one and, in many ways, arbitrary. British Columbia is covered by the characteristic terrain and climate of the Pacific Northwest, relies on the same industries, and the people of both regions interact frequently across the border. This broader definition of the Pacific Northwest is supported by the Pacific Northwest Economic Region (PNWR), an economic organization that oversees collaboration, economic trade, natural resource conservation, and other common concerns between British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, the Northwest Territories and Yukon, Alaska, Washington, Idaho, Montana, and Oregon. All of these states/territories/provinces came together in mutual support, bounded by the shared interests of people within a large and international region.

The Pacific Rim

As it turns out, the Pacific Northwest may be a larger region than it first seems, but that's nothing compared to the West Coast's other international region. The Pacific Rim is a broad region that officially includes all nations that border the Pacific Ocean. While that means that the USA is technically a Pacific Rim nation, we generally only use this term to refer to the five states that physically border the Pacific: Hawaii, California, Oregon, Washington, and Alaska.

Since this is such a large geographic region, it's hard to speak of a common culture (although it should be noted that historically, America's West Coast has had the highest ethnically Asian population in the country). While there is some degree of cultural sharing, the Pacific Rim region is really united through trade. A great deal of the world's trade crosses the Pacific Ocean, and the coastlines along this ocean are responsible for managing some of the world's leading export and import industries.

Cultural sharing can be found in places like San Francisco
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