NOTE: Some of the information in this story can be found in my book ‘Brave New West’ and in previous Zephyr articles, dating back to 1998…JS
On the evening of October 31, 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt faced a standing-room only crowd at Madison Square Garden in New York. The Great Depression continued to grip the country and millions of Americans struggled to survive; yet many of them believed they’d found an unlikely hero in the wealthy patrician who had already given hope to so much despair. His voice lifted their hearts and spirits as he delivered a fiery address to his enthusiastic supporters.
Roosevelt,who had once urged Americans to “judge me by the enemies I have made,” now reminded his audience of those enemies as if they were badges of honor. He ran the list— “business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, organized money.” The crowd was on its feet.
“Never before in all our history,” Roosevelt declared, “have these forces been so unanimous in their hatred for me—and I welcome their hatred.” The people cheered wildly. FDR could barely be heard over the roar. He continued, “I should like to have it said of my first administration that in it, the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match.” He waited for the din to abate……
“I would like to have it said of my second administration,” he added, “that in it, these forces met their master!” A week later, Roosevelt won the greatest electoral victory in the country’s history.
When FDR came to office four years earlier, the country was about to come apart. A third of its citizens were out of work, poverty and despair crossed political party lines–now, in 1936, even Utah’s citizens supported him. Subsequently, Roosevelt and the Democratic Party became symbols of the hope he gave to so many Americans. Franklin Roosevelt, almost 70 years after his death, remains a hero to ‘Liberal/Progressives,’ the Democratic Party, and to working class people everywhere. He was, and still is, loathed by the rich, loved by the poor.
An old friend recently noted to me that, “a ‘progressive,’ (most often found in the Democratic Party) has historically meant supporting the oppressed against the oppressor, labor against the bosses, indigenous people against colonizers, with a progressive media that ‘comforts the afflicted, and afflicts the comfortable.’” According to Wikipedia, Progressivism “asserts that advancement in science, technology, economic development, and social organization are vital to improve the human condition.” But which humans? Which technology? What kind of economic development?
It would be challenging to find anyone worth their “progressive” stripes who could muster a bad word for FDR. But do his values still ring true across the broad spectrum of the Democratic Party? Within its ranks, opinions vary. Of course, there are mild dissenters—the ‘Blue Dog Democrats’—who embrace a more conservative view on fiscal and social issues
But could there be a new faction within the Democratic Party ranks, especially among those ‘progressive/
‘THE NEW WEST’: A DEFINITION AND A SHORT HISTORY
Ever since white Americans pushed across the Great Plains, we’ve been creating the ‘New West.’ Between 1845 and 1895, we transformed the landscape, but for the purposes of this story, the New West is a fairly recent phenomenon. For better or worse, the economy of the American West has always been dominated by the extraction industries—mining, timber, grazing, energy exploration and production—these were the predominant revenue earners for western states and their citizens, going back to the mid-1800s. And the economy has always been subject to a ‘boom and bust’ cycle, as supply and demand for commodities waxed and waned.
Environmental activism in the West is relatively new. Serious opposition to the extraction industries and the environmental damage they can cause has only become significant in the last half century. Efforts to shut down extraction and demands for more stringent rules to reduce their environmental impacts have all been part of the ‘green’ strategy to protect the natural resources of the West. But the newest crop of “progressive/green’ activists have embraced another tactic in its war against the extractive economy of the ‘Old West,’ though it would be unfair to say they initiated it.
As resources played out across the West, many of these booming communities went bust. Once vibrant mining towns with burgeoning populations dried up and almost blew away. Communities saw their citizens move away and their economies shrink. The once bustling boom towns became quaint, run-down relics of another time.
But this is America–the free market capital of the world, where the entrepreneurial spirit burns brightly and capitalism commands more worship than any deity could hope for. In the 1960s and 1970s, as tourism and recreation became ever more significant components of the economy, investors looked for good deals—for steals—and there were plenty of them. Properties in mining towns across the West could be bought for pennies on the dollar. Land was cheap. Buildings, once full of life and energy, lay abandoned and deteriorating.
Only the hangers-on, that stridently independent handful of survivors who had preferred to eke out a marginal existence in exchange for solitude and quiet, stood in the way. Even some of them saw the economic opportunities and profited. The rest were easily pushed aside.
And so change came, and rapidly…to places like Park City, Utah and Telluride, Colorado. And Aspen. And Central City. And Salida. And Flagstaff, Arizona. And Prescott. And Virginia City, Nevada. And Durango, Colorado. And Boise and Coeur d’alene, Idaho and Bozeman and Missoula, Montana.
And to Moab, once the ‘Uranium Capitol of the World,’ in the southeast corner of Utah— my old hometown for more than 30 years. While the New West can be found in scores of places, from the Front Range of the Rockies to the Pacific Coast, this story chooses to focus on the microcosm it knows best…
ENTER…THE ‘AMENITIES ECONOMY’ & WILDERNESS
In the 1980s, Grand County, Utah’s economy went bust. Atlas Minerals, the massive vanadium processing mill, built by the Uranium King Charlie Steen in the 1960s, closed its doors. Falling ore prices and Three Mile Island were its undoing. Moab struggled to find a way to survive. In 1988 its elected leaders proposed the construction of a toxic waste incinerator near Cisco, 40 miles upriver, as a way of generating revenues for the county and bolstering its economy. But Grand County residents, many of them relatively new and leaning more to the Left than its older citizens imagined, opposed the incinerator via a public referendum. And they won. But how to keep the town alive?
The term “amenities economy” was new to me in 1991, when I published a story by Moab’s Lance Christie, in behalf of the Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club titled, “Wilderness Economics: Boom and Bust Baloney.”
Christie noted that, “Studies done on the economic impacts of wilderness on local economies consistently support the idea that designated wilderness in an area acts like an advertisement that says: ‘Here is a treasure house of environmental amenities! And, they’ll be here tomorrow because some treasure-hunter with a bulldozer can’t come and tear them up.’ This advertising attracts people economists call ‘amenity migrants,’ causing twice the economic growth in rural areas with designated wilderness than in areas without wilderness.” Christie added. “Once there, these energetic and educated people develop their own economic opportunities.”
In addition to energy and education, Christie failed to mention another advantage the “amenities migrants” possessed over their homegrown neighbors—Capital. Assets. MONEY.
To create the marketable amenities that would draw tourists to the more intrinsic ‘wilderness amenities’ Christie first described, those migrants must be financially well-equipped to follow through. Lance noted, “If a community uses wilderness amenities as a drawing card, then offers goods and services people want when they come to enjoy the local amenities, wilderness can make the people selling those goods a lot of money.”
But for this kind of economy to “make a lot of money,” its investors need a considerable amount of it at the start. In all of these depressed economies across the rural west, those residents who needed an economic boost the most were the least equipped to benefit from this type of growth. From the start, they were doomed to be the clerks and the servers, the tangential low-wage beneficiaries of a tourism/recreation industry whose primary rewards would be reaped by people who had not yet even arrived in these backwater towns. And in many cases, the highest profit recipients would never step foot there. The era of the New West absentee business owner was about to begin in earnest
And when it came to the idea of preserving the dwindling wilderness in the Rural West, Christie added this final note—and a warning—to the amenities dream: “The whole economic debate over wilderness tends to distract us from the fact that the major reasons for designating wilderness arise from non-economic values.”
Amen. But few noticed.
The New West transformation was slow, and at least in the beginning, many environmental groups resisted the temptation to embrace it. Through most of the 1990s, grassroots environmental groups openly opposed efforts by the tourist/recreation industry to turn the beauty of the land into a marketable commodity. Few, if any, environmentalists took note when Grand County hired an economic development director to promote a strategy called, “You’ve come to play…why not stay?”
Grand County Councilman and Grand Canyon Trust (GCT) staffer (now its executive director) Bill Hedden noted, “Throughout
the region…visitation has grown by more than 400 percent since 1980. This surge of interest has coincided with a proliferation of new recreation technologies–some exotic like modern ATVs, humvees, mountain bikes, climbing gear, jet skis and hangliders; and others prosaic like water filters, sunscreen and dry suits….And though it is common to blame the destruction on a small percentage of lawless visitors, my experience brings to mind the old joke that a mere 99 percent of users give a bad name to all the rest. Make no mistake–we are in this together.” Hedden concluded, “Everywhere we looked, natural resource professionals agreed that industrial-strength recreation holds more potential to disrupt natural processes on a broad scale than just about anything else. It’s a very tough problem affecting all of us.”
But in 1998, as environmentalists grew increasingly frustrated by their efforts to protect wildlands in the West, their strategies shifted. At a landmark ‘wilderness mentoring’ conference that May, attended by scores of the country’s environmentalist leaders, a more aggressive, down-and-dirty strategy was proposed. A prominently displayed quotation by Michael Carroll, now of The Wilderness Society, established the tone and direction of all that would come later:
“Car companies and makers of sports drinks use wilderness to sell their products. We have to market wilderness as a product people want to have.”
That, in its most succinct essence, was the theme of the conference. While the organizers of the event paid tribute to the wilderness activists who had come before, clearly the purpose of the meeting was to propose a new approach. “Although it is important to pioneer new wilderness strategies,” the report explained almost as an afterthought, “we must do so with knowledge of what has come before.”
With that token nod to the “importance of history” and to the “philosophical and political contexts” of the wilderness movement, the conference explored the new territories of salesmanship, marketing and media manipulation to win the legislative wilderness battle. One might think you were being taught how to sell a new Buick.
By 2003, GCT’s Hedden, seemed ready to accept and even embrace the changes. In a Zephyr interview he admitted, “We’ve had some of the most spectacular country in the world, and no one else in it. The fact that those days are just about over is sad, but there are many more people in the world, and they have found this place, and there’s no keeping them away.” And so, suddenly, the idea of embracing an unbridled recreation/amenities economy that had once worried the most enthusiastic supporters of wilderness, achieved political, if not moral, acceptability.
Add to the mix the sudden willingness of mainstream environmental groups like the Grand Canyon Trust to accept huge sums of money from some of the nation’s most celebrated capitalists—industrialists, financiers, bankers, hedge fund managers—in exchange for influential positions on their boards of directors, and anything was fair in the amenities/wilderness game.
FEARS FROM THE ‘OLD WEST’…AND THE ‘NEW WEST’ MOVES IN
Lily Mae Noorlander came from one of Moab’s oldest families. She was as kind and decent a woman as I’ve ever known. But she had no use for ‘wilderness,’ in the legislative designation of the word, and thought even less of some of its proponents. She could not help but note the irony as the New West came to her hometown.
In 1994, Lily wrote a letter to the Salt Lake Tribune: “Long-forgotten ranches, abandoned decades ago, are now front page fare in the full-color marketing pieces of this lucrative industry…Some of the direct consequences of their promotional activities, aside from generating profit from calendars, hiking exposes and membership dues include: more foot trails, bike trails, garbage, human waste, instructional signs, regulations, law enforcement patrols, costs to local government for crowd control, and a general loss of peace and serenity to the plaid clad, waffle stomper crowd.
“The spirit of wilderness,” concluded Ms. Noorlander, “has already been stolen by those who profess to be its savior, but who have, in fact, trampled the life out of its essential serenity and solitude in an orgy of self-indulgence.”
A few months later, The Tribune published another letter titled, “There’s Money in Wilderness.” Its author, Randall Tolpinrud, president of Groupwest Properties Corporation in Salt Lake City, wrote, in part:
“As a real-estate developer and homebuilder in Utah, I have a very strong interest in maintaining the long-term economic foundation of this region…Because of this conviction, I am concerned over the wilderness proposal suggested by our congressional delegation.
“I support the Utah Wilderness Coalition’s proposal for 5.7 million acres (in 2015, the proposal is near 10 million) of wilderness primarily because the long-term economic potential which wilderness designation will provide this state.
“The West is changing dramatically. Lands from Montana to New Mexico are rapidly being developed by people like myself in response to growing migration and population…We must look years and decades ahead. Wilderness designation will grow to represent a powerful economic opportunity as the West’s open spaces shrivel from development. Utah, with its unique beauty and abundant national parks, could be positioned to reap significant economic rewards from masses of people seeking solitude in a wilderness experience from their fast-paced lives.”
In 2002, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) weighed in with its own feature story in their quarterly newsletter. It was called “The Local Economic Impacts of Protected Wildlands: Enhanced Economic Vitality.” It was written by Thomas Michael Power, a Professor of Economics at the University of Montana. Power asserted that protecting the Rural West’s wildlands did not damage local economies; on the contrary, he believed that “protected landscapes are often associated with enhanced economic vitality.” But he followed that declaration with a curious caveat, considering the intent of the article, that was all but ignored by environmentalists. Power warned:
“This does not mean that those seeking to preserve natural areas should base their case for preservation on the economic expansion it will stimulate. That could be a dangerous strategy in the long run and one that may not be very convincing besides. In fact, in the long run, ongoing economic growth may well threaten the ecological integrity of wildlands as growing population, human settlement, and commercial activities and their accompanying pollutants isolate and disrupt natural areas. Even though wildlands may be good for local economic vitality, local economic vitality may not be good for the ecological integrity of those wildlands.”
The remainder of Power’s essay moves away from that warning. Using the data he had gathered, Power struck several blows in support of the amenities economy. He noted that “higher percentages of county land protected by national park, national monument, and federal wilderness status were associated with higher rates of employment.” He discovered that population growth in areas near wilderness areas was higher than state averages. And Power observed that Wilderness “protection was associated with growth rates two to six times those for other non-metropolitan areas.”
Power concluded, despite his early warning, “It is not clear why wildlands advocates would not want to meet the economic critics of wildland protection on their own ground, while also continuing to make the ethical, cultural, and environmental arguments. After all, if you can take away the only powerful argument the anti-environmentalists have, why would you not do so?”
It was as if he was saying, we can let the anti-wilderness people destroy the West on their terms or we can fight to destroy it on our terms. And aren’t our terms of destruction better than theirs? After all, before we destroy the wilderness, we’re going to protect it.
Environmentalists failed to see or would not acknowledge the double-edged sword Power described. In a subsequent issue of “Red Rock Wilderness,” SUWA put its own spin on Power’s report, noting that, “Total employment in Utah has increased by 45% in the last decade…What is fueling Utah’s pacesetting growth? Tourism and related services have been especially robust, and now provides more than a third of all jobs….Growth is not limited to urban Utah. In Grand County, a tourism explosion helped to make it the third fastest growing county in Utah.”
This was written with almost evangelical enthusiasm. None of Power’s warnings saw the light of day in this particular spin. Finally, SUWA noted the ballooning Utah population, which grew by 30% in the 1990s. “This tremendous regional growth, with Utah at its epicenter, is driven by Western quality of life factors like outdoor recreation, open space, and wilderness….There is a very real place for wilderness in Utah’s economic future. Protected by BLM, wilderness can serve as a modest sustainable source for economic well-being and community development.”
But who would benefit from the “economic well-being?” Would it be the people who had lived in the Rural West, in places like Moab, Utah, for generations? Or was this the beginning of a New West purge? The handwriting was already on the wall.
THE NEW WEST’S ‘PORK BELLY’ HOUSING BOOM
When Thomas Power set out to analyze the effects of wilderness on the rural economy, he noted an anomaly that he could not initially explain. “Researchers,” he wrote, “puzzled by the growth of population in western Montana, despite low wages and incomes, studied the location of new residential housing to determine what locational characteristics explained the decisions homebuilders were making. They found that the closer a location was to a designated wilderness area, the higher the likelihood of new construction. The same was true of national parks.”
Power’s bewilderment is old news to the citizens of small communities near parks and wilderness. New home construction, which took off in Moab during the early 90s, targeted part-time residents and retirees, who have no need to seek employment in the area. In fact, these homes and condominiums are, in a way, very disconnected from the socio-economic needs and difficulties of the community to which they have, at least physically, joined. The part-timers exist in a vacuum, oblivious or indifferent to the issues and problems that affect the town, save for the few more narrowly confined issues that affect them personally. They usually don’t know much of the community’s history and know few of its citizens. And until recently, they didn’t get involved in local politics. (That would change.)
As the demand for New West homes grew, so did the price. An existing home in Moab that might have sold for $30,000 in 1985 doubled its value in five years. And doubled again. And by 2008, yet again. Even vacant lots in Spanish Valley—once improbably named Poverty Flats–that sold for a thousand dollars an acre in 1985 quickly increased in price beyond the reach of most low wage earners. (A recent perusal of the real estate web sites showed unimproved quarter acre lots listing for $65,000 and beyond—a QUARTER ACRE.)
Clearly, the housing market in Grand County was now beyond the reach of anyone of modest means and limited resources. But an amenities/tourist economy also requires a large low-wage work force to provide the services to tourists that the visitors demand—servers and cooks and busboys and maids and store clerks and other low-paying tourist amenities jobs. Where would they live and how would they afford it? Even in the early 2000s, a small home in Moab/Grand County could be rented for $500-600. By 2010, the rent had doubled.
This publication reported on the speculative nature of home prices and their stunning rise in Grand County as far back as the early 1990s. Few heeded the warnings or cared. And by 2000, no one among the ‘green/progressives’ was willing to even offer the slightest of misgivings, much less opposition, to the way the recreation economy was affecting the community. The problem would only grow more critical.
Housing data for the 2008-2012 period shows that the “median house value has grown by 96.43% since 2000. The growth rate for the price of a house in the 84532 zip code is much higher than the state average rate of 49.08% and is much higher than the national average rate of 51.67%.” The data also revealed that of the 5,016 housing units available in Grand County, 4,080 were occupied, with almost 20% of them, 916 units, vacant. Of the occupied housing units, about 2700 were owned and 1300 rented.
Home prices continued to rise, rents doubled. Low income citizens attempting to find economic relief in low cost trailers and mobile homes along the river road were evicted for violation of zoning laws. Once affordable rental homes became flophouses, as renters were forced to pack as many people as they could into the space, in order to reduce the per person share of the cost. Desperate to pay the inflated rates, renters even sublet outbuildings as sleeping rooms—illegally but understandably— to make ends meet.
Hedden had once said, “This used to be a hard place to get rich, but it was a real good place to be poor.” Now that was all changing. But to ‘progressives/
Why? Because the changing demographics of Moab, as Lance Christie and others had observed a decade earlier, meant a population more sympathetic to supporters of wilderness. The New West functions like reverse gerrymandering–instead of re-arranging political boundary lines to create a constituency that represents a preferred ideology, you encourage the people with that ideology to move inside those boundaries (or opponents to move out of them) by creating conditions favorable to one and unfavorable to the other.
It would be foolish to suggest that there was any overt conspiracy or pre-planned strategy between mainstream environmental-progressives and no-holds-barred developers in the amenities industry to perpetrate this kind of demographic shift. But once progressives saw the advantages of such a change, opposition to the recreation economy and all its associated impacts vanished.
It was more like detente than collaboration at first. But eventually, many entrepreneurs who, justifiably or not, saw themselves as environmentalists too, embraced the amalgamation. From environmentalists and entrepreneurs, we found a new category—enviropreneurs, dedicated to creating a New West economy, driven by tourism and recreation and squarely opposed to the further exploitation of the West’s natural resources. In Utah, the close ties between ‘grassroots’ environmentalists like SUWA and the GCT with the outdoor recreation industry became inextricable.
One can argue that such a partnership could help achieve the goals of progressives/
THE SEA CHANGE COMETH…NOVEMBER 2008
He wrote: “Dear all, Obama carried Grand County, Utah. The progressive, green, candidate won all three contested County Council seats and the progressives now have a clear majority on the Council…This all reflects the demographic changes that have occurred in Grand County in the last four years… Fallout from the amenities economy I guess…”
He even invoked the memory of Franklin Roosevelt and the old Democratic Party theme song when Erley proclaimed, “How loud can I sing “Happy Days are here again?” At the 1932 Democratic convention, FDR supporters spontaneously burst into song—that melody–when Roosevelt’s nomination was won. It became an anthem for the millions of poor and unemployed victims of the Great depression, who hoped the new president meant better times ahead. Was this what Erley had in mind?
In Dave’s open message, he saved a part of it for me. Noting The Zephyr’s ongoing warnings about the impacts of an amenities economy, Erley wrote, “Jim, this is another aspect of the amenities economy you have been hammering on. I hope you have the courage to discuss the pros and not just the cons of (this) demographic shift…”
Besides the satisfaction of being elected, it was difficult to see the advantages, from an historic FDR— “Happy Days are Here Again” perspective, of their victory. Was this a victory for the oppressed and the downtrodden? The poor and the jobless and the homeless?
On the other hand, from the point of view of an urban environmentalist/anti-
In the area of recreation and tourism and the amenities economy, the council could not have been more accommodating. Newly elected councilman, Chris Baird served as project manager for the multi-million dollar “Colorado River Elevated Bikeway,” (now completed) and played a key role in coordinating bicycle trail development throughout Grand County with local and federal agencies.
Baird claimed to see the inherent risk in placing all of the town’s economic marbles in one basket. In a 2012 conversation he noted, “You make it sound like the recreation industry in Moab is some kind of unstoppable juggernaut. However, it just barely keeps people alive, and has facilitated a 1% growth rate. Grand County is the 4th slowest growing county in Utah.” But then he explained, “I see how many of my friends are dependent on the recreation economy, and it is hard for me to say, to be so self centered, as to deny them that. I think non-motorized recreation is the best industry to push, if we are to push one.”
Noble words. But just how does this economy benefit his friends, especially the lower wage earners that represent so many of the county’s residents? Going back to the 1990s, twenty years ago and more, enough warnings about runaway home prices in tourist-dominated economies were being issued to give everyone pause, especially “progressives” who maintain their concern for the working class. But who noticed?
In Mayor Erley’s 2008 victory dance, there is the suggestion that the “amenities economy” somehow created a political atmosphere that would allow the election of a progressive government and create an opportunity to find solutions for issues like affordable housing, when, in reality, it was the amenities economy that created the crisis in the first place.
Yet progressive politicians continue to talk about affordable housing problems as if they’re as shocked and dismayed as everyone else. Baird, running recently for election again (he won) said, “There’s a lot of people in this community that work three jobs and it’s difficult for them to find affordable housing.” Even higher wage residents struggle—teachers in particular have found housing costs too high to consider a move to Moab. Baird noted, “The entire economy relies on affordable housing…We need to be proactive about it.”
And no doubt that’s true. But isn’t it a bit disingenuous? Progressives/
Realistic efforts by government agencies to provide assistance via low-interest loans can only do so much to alleviate the problem. The Housing Authority of Southeastern Utah discovered in 2014 that they couldn’t even find building lots within their applicants’ price range. Critics have noted that many of these home buyers who take advantage of the low income status are free to flip those homes at a better price. And they do. And despite a lot of hand wringing, there’s very little anyone can do to stop it. And more than any other factor, real estate developers and the contractors who build them are in business to make a profit. As one honest observer noted on a facebook page, “ Money can be made faster by building for the second/third/forth home market, even on speculation. So land gets used up that way because the land owner will make more money faster.”
Other Moabites noted that “NIMBYism”(Not In MY Back Yard) plays a role in keeping prices high. Zoning residential areas for higher densities could reduce the housing costs but efforts to increase density have been met with stiff resistance, particularly from environmentalists, many of whom are relatively new Moab/Grand County residents. Everyone in the New West, it seems, wants to own their little ranchette.
But NIMBYism in the New West extends beyond zoning ordinances and back window view sheds and who lives next door. The issue was expressed succinctly in the local papers by Moabite Carol Mayer, who had no problem sharing her feelings…
“Not in my backyard,” Mayer proclaimed. “Who has the right to say that any more? In these days of rampant oil and gas exploration, very few…I wish I had several million dollars to fund a lawsuit against the oil companies for the wells, pipelines and truck traffic that will cause irreparable damage to land, air and water in my ‘neighborhood.’”
For Mayer and so many other relatively recent Moab/Grand County residents, they believe any energy extraction and production in their new homeland is nothing short of sinful. “For American visitors and concerned locals who live here, we have a big stake in protecting this area.” she says. “We taxpayers own it. To stop the abuse, we must act. Conservation voices, rise above those of the rapacious profiteers. We must protect Greater Canyonlands. Shout…’NOT IN OUR BACKYARD.’”
Many agree. Former SUWA staffer and longtime Moab resident Kevin Walker complained at a hearing last summer, “This is a crazy place to have oil and gas drilling.” If you could leave it to many of Grand County’s newer residents, they’d ban the energy industry altogether. Perhaps they know it isn’t a realistic approach, but it’s what resides in their 3 am hearts. And the shift in sentiment in this once rural part of the West continues…
‘THE WOLF BY THE EAR’
And yet, for every Moabite who actively promotes the complete transformation of Moab/Grand County into a New West tourist mecca, there are a much greater number of conflicted citizens, caught in the whirlwind and unable to extricate themselves from it. They follow the course being set for them more out of necessity and even survival, and less out of enthusiasm and unbridled support.
Sometimes they are the owners of small businesses directly connected to tourism; sometimes it’s the low wage earners who work for them. And sometimes it’s craftsmen and artisans and other businesses that aren’t in the tourism industry per se, but who on some level benefit from its presence.
Maybe they were in Moab before things went crazy and tried to adapt. Perhaps they came in the late 80s, when Moab was still a quiet place and they thought it would be a good town to run a low-key tourist business, where, if the mood struck, you could hang up a “Gone Fishing’ sign and take a couple days off. After all, commercial rent for a decent sized Main Street shop in those days was about $600 a month.
But as the years passed and news of Moab’s ‘success’ spread, and new businesses came to town to compete with the ones already there, and as out of town investors began to buy up as much of the commercial property as they could get their hands on…well…life in Moab changed. It tended to destroy the very reasons living in Moab was once so appealing. It changed the way we define success, it changed our values—in fact, it created a situation where the future we once loathed the most, became the future we absolutely required, just to survive.
And so, we remembered how we once longed for Spring–the warmth of an April sun, the burst of wildflowers, the sweet aroma of cliffrose, the chance to hike and explore—and we cringed at the noise and the congestion and utter chaos that March and April and May brought us. BUT, Moabites needed the latter, because it was the sudden infusion of tourist money, after a long winter, that allowed them to pay the bills.
Store owners who once thought nothing of taking a day off now couldn’t afford the luxury of a quiet 24 hour escape; instead many extended their operations to seven days a week. They needed all the business they could muster to pay their skyrocketing commercial rents. Young Moabites had come to town for the beauty of the place, but needed to work extra shifts to pay their rent as well. Someone longing for peace and quiet had to greet a packed restaurant with mixed feelings–was this why they came to Moab? But it was all those tips that allowed the servers to pay the bills.
The more success Moab found, the more competition it created, as more investors came to southeast Utah (At press time, plans became public for five new motels in Moab, with construction to begin soon–and with four more in the hopper.).
Business owners, seeing their own share of the pie shrink, called for more promotion. The tourist bureau sought ways to “build up the shoulders of the tourist season.” The tourist season had once begun on Easter Week and ended after Labor Day, with a brief shot in the arm for hunting season. But as time passed, the shoulders got closer together. Many sought ways to extend “the season” into December. And then they tried to get the tourists back in February. How much longer until those shoulders touch? It’s the goal of some, a necessity for others.
Thomas Jefferson once said, “As it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.” He was talking about the institution of slavery, but the citizens of modern day tourist towns must feel similarly. To oppose this ‘amenities monster,’ at this late date, would be a challenge for anyone struggling to survive in a town like Moab. Holding onto the wolf is a matter of “self-preservation.”
And the challenge here is greater than just economic considerations; other factors come into play. Our most cherished personal values are sometimes called into question. A tourist town is a tough place to be an idealist.
For example, a couple years ago I was called on the carpet by a young Moab activist, Heila Ershadi. I had written a piece called, “Is There Anywhere Good to Frack?” It was about the NIMBY attitude so many people embrace about the energy industry and their opposition to the impacts extraction and production cause. And I questioned whether the commitment to oppose fossil fuels was as strong as some claim. It was my contention that even the most dedicated environmentalist, who struggles with a modest income and bills to pay, quietly does a “jump for joy” when the price of gas goes down a dime.
But Ms. Ershadi took me to task. In a public comment she wrote, “I personally do a little ‘jump for joy’ when the gas price goes UP. And since I’m not a unique and beautiful snowflake, I’m sure I’m not the only one. I wish it would hit $5. Yes, it will make my life harder; my family of four lives off of about $26,000/year, and that’s gross, not take-home. But I am pretty sure that nothing will change systemically until there is sufficient financial incentive. And systemic change is what we need.”
To read the article and the comments:
But Ershadi was also in the process of running for Moab City Council and since then, trying to represent the people of the community, she’s had a change of heart. She recently explained, “What changed my mind was continuing to read and talk about the subject with people of many different backgrounds and opinions, both on and off the campaign trail…Change is unlikely when people have to go against their own economic self-interest to get there, and mostly NOT due to greed but just the need to get by…The idea behind the idea that higher gas prices could have an overall good effect is that it will make alternative, less energy intensive ways of doing things more appealing. I still fear what will happen to us due to the ecological destruction brought about by the intensive use of fossil fuels. And if higher gas prices could avoid that, it would be a small pain compared to what is likely to happen down the road to lower income people as environmental damage reaches a critical point…The problem is that there’s not a good reason to think that will work at all.”
That’s a change in tone from two years ago, when Ershadi declared, “The current order of things cannot continue much longer. I don’t mean that it shouldn’t; I mean that it can’t.” Her new job requires her to be less global and more local; she represents the people who elected her, many of them are connected in some way to the amenities economy. And nothing, of course, could be more damaging to a town dependent on tourism than $5/gallon gasoline.
Ironically, if Ershadi lived a hundred miles to the north in Uintah County, where the oil and gas boom has been as transforming to that part of Utah as tourism has been to Grand County, she might find herself again supporting $5 gas, but for an entirely different reason. The majority of jobs in Uintah County flow from oil and gas and the recent collapse of oil prices could have a devastating effect on its citizens. Supporting high prices there would ensure jobs.
The simple truth is, most people are too busy just trying to make ends meet to worry about the broader issues. Climate change looms out there, somewhere beyond the horizon, like a gathering storm, but who’s going to feed the kids tonight? How do we find the $1200 rent? How do we make payments for a home in a town where ‘starter homes’ begin at $200,000?
It’s Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It’s about the priorities we create for ourselves, again, more out of need than desire. We need food and water and shelter; we need to know that we’re safe and protected from external threats and risks; and when all those needs have been met, then…maybe…we can worry about the broader implications of an economy based on oil and gas development or tourism and recreation. Consequently, most of us relinquish our responsibility on those larger issues to the relative few…and that’s where the power lies.
In Moab, where the average weekly wage ($553) is barely half the national average, and lower than 26 of Utah’s 31 counties, more and more of its citizens find themselves entrapped in a 21st Century version of a medieval system—a New West Feudalism that drives a large part of the economy. Many of its citizens, its ‘serfs,’ depend on a relatively small number of employers. And though it requires the majority of the residents to make the amenities economy work, its architects either knew this was the future they were helping to promote and didn’t care about the consequences, or failed to comprehend the innumerable warnings that were being voiced more than a decade ago. Which leads us to—now.
MOAB 2015—‘THE FUTURE VIRTUAL GATED COMMUNITY?’
More than a decade ago, this publication interviewed two of southern Utah’s most controversial environmentalists. Patrick Diehl and his partner Tori Woodard had moved to Escalante, Utah a few years earlier and, from the get-go, they expressed an open hostility for the very conservative local culture. The animosity, of course, cut both ways.
In a candid interview with Erica Walz, also a resident of Escalante, neither Diehl nor Woodard was in a mollifying mood. Diehl could find nothing good to say about the town they’d chosen to call home. “I can’t imagine enjoying it. I really loathe this town,” he said. “And you can quote me. Socially it’s a really loathsome place. You can put that in the paper. Absolutely. It’s the worst place I’ve ever lived, and I’ve lived quite a few places. So some people like it–it’s like there’s no accounting for taste.”
He and Tori had moved there for health reasons, they said, but hated it. They liked the landscape and that was the extent of their affections. They opposed farming and ranching; Diehl noted that he’d like to eliminate every alfalfa field in southern Utah. “I don’t have the impression that the people in this town know very much at all about the land around them. They have a very narrow knowledge of a few things that are of practical relevance in their lives, so I’m not convinced that family ranching and family farming fosters a valid connection to the land.”
Diehl proposed a ‘New Economy’ for Rural Utah and explained, “The ‘amenities economy’ idea that the Wilderness Society was putting out is what I think lies behind that. There’s still a fair amount of merit to this concept.” What would happen to the Escalante families who had lived in and near this town for the past century? He wasn’t clear, but thought maybe they could be put to work cutting the exotic plant tamarisk, “if they were paid for it.”
Diehl and Woodard’s comments went unchallenged among progressive/greens, and though few of his peers were, or are, willing to be as candid, there is tacit support for the kind of future they proposed. Like Diehl and Woodard, it isn’t just that many of them dislike ranching and mining and logging, they dislike the people who mined and ranched and logged.
In the last decade, efforts to transform Moab/Grand County into the kind of place Patrick Diehl could call home have met little or no resistance. And they have created some of the oddest alliances one can imagine to achieve their goals.
* When the proposed Cloudrock resort community first raised its ugly head, one could find little opposition from mainstream greens. The Sierra Club, while opposing the idea in general, made it clear that it had no intention of putting up a fight. They wrote to the developers, “We realize you are making efforts to ensure that Cloudrock meets standards above and beyond Grand County’s…we hope you will be receptive to our concerns…”
What kind of concerns did the Sierra Club have and what were their requests? Besides setting structures farther back from the rim of the canyon, spokesperson Jean Binyon made the following demands: “coloring roads and parking lots to match the surrounding soil…utilizing medium to darker earth-tones, and non-reflective materials on all structures…outdoor lighting should be kept to a minimum…” All the requests were literally cosmetic in nature.
The Sierra Club also encouraged restrictions on Off Highway Vehicles…”Next to cows, (this is) the most damaging thing currently happening on the mesa. Please be explicit in not permitting their use on the mesa.” Apparently, keeping out cows and OHVs was an acceptable trade-off for a massive multi-million dollar “wilderness” resort lodge and scores of condos and homes built on $600,000 lots.
* In 2011, when the Occupy Wall Street movement dominated headlines, Moab green/progressives tried to connect wilderness designation with human rights and proudly marched in a well-attended Main Street parade. To cite Franklin Roosevelt again, “The liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerated the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than the democratic state itself. That in its essence is fascism: ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or any controlling private power.”
And yet the major Colorado Plateau green organizations who support the Red Rock Wilderness Bill–the Grand Canyon Trust (GCT) and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) are funded by some of the wealthiest capitalists and industrialists and financiers in the United States. This publication has documented the exploits of GCT’s board member, venture capitalist David Bonderman, for more than a decade.
‘The Green Circle that Eats Its Own’
‘Looking for Green heroes in a Coal-fired World’
‘The Greening of Wilderness…pt 2′
Also consider GCT board member Louis Callister. Callister is a founder, former chair, and counsel to the law firm of Callister, Nebeker & McCullough in Salt Lake City. Their web site is open to the public and details their areas of expertise. Those ‘details’ should give any honest activist a sour stomach.
From its ‘Energy, Natural Resources and Environmental’ section: “The firm has represented developers of gas, biofuels, geothermal, waste coal, coal and wind projects. Our attorneys’ expertise includes obtaining governmental approval and related permits for energy production projects as well as representation for continuing operations and compliance.”
From its Labor and Employment section: “Emphasis is placed on preventative measures…However, even the best of employers are sometimes surprised by litigation filed by their employees. In such situations, the litigators of the Labor and Employment Group stand ready to assist with a vigorous defense against all employee claims.” (Emphasis added)
And so when young activists carried a large banner through the streets of Moab that read:
CORPORATIONS GET YOUR OWN LAND.
THIS IS OUR LAND…
…did any of them realize that the very same green groups claiming to be their allies were funded by the very people they were protesting against?
For more: Read ‘An Honest Response to Bill Hedden, the Grand Canyon Trust & ‘A Just and Healthy Future for the 100%’…by Doug Meyer
& GCT Board Member biographies…
* Progressives/Greens have attempted to frame their support for the tourist/amenities economy as part of a war against climate change. In the recent Grand County election, when progressives solidified their control of government, they argued that a proposal to join a coalition of rural counties to promote energy development could have dire consequences. Candidate Chris Baird argued that, “This won’t just be a local impact, it will be a global impact; millions, if not billions of people the world over, will suffer if this Coalition’s goals are achieved.”
And Castle Valley Mayor Dave Erley, whose 2008 victory letter defended the amenities economy, worried about proposed tar sands proposals and new roads. In a message to fellow members of a tightly controlled, members-only online group called “Moab Area Progressive Network (MAPN), Erley lamented, “I am sorry but if climate change is real, then everything else is window-dressing conservation. What happened last night is potentially the biggest threat to Quality of Life since the uranium boom.” All the while, he and others continued to support unbridled recreation and tourism expansion.
Neither Erley nor any of the other progressives wanted to discuss the impacts that their own preferred economic alternative was creating. Their silence speaks volumes about the total disconnect between “production” and “consumption.” Tourism and recreation and second homes are not forms of clean, non-motorized recreation. Grand County boasted building permits in the first quarter of 2013 totalling $16 million, but no one from the Progressives seemed concerned. Yet these kinds of tourist amenities are inextricably linked to energy extraction. One leads to the other. But environmentalists refuse to consider the unholy bond between them.
A few years ago, a United Nations on the impact of tourism on climate change noted that “tourism’s contribution to global warming was estimated to contribute between 5% and 14% to the overall warming caused by human emissions of greenhouse gases.”
And it will get worse. “By 2035, tourism’s contribution to climate change may have grown considerably. A recent scenario…considers different emission pathways, including a ‘business as usual’ projection based on anticipated growth rates in tourist arrivals, as well as distances travelled by various means of transport.…The development of emissions from tourism and their contribution to global warming is thus in stark contrast to the international community’s climate change mitigation goals for the coming decades.”
To read more: Moab & Fracking & Climate Change & Elevated River Bikeways…by Jim Stiles
So, while most environmentalists oppose extraction and speak endlessly of resource degradation and the dangers of climate change and fears that the end of life on this planet as we know it is near, they seek some comfort in deluding themselves with the myth that if we just build enough wind and solar farms and utilize reusable grocery bags that we can restore the life and vitality—and longevity–of the planet. Yes, we can keep on consuming as we always have. And recreating. And promoting the endless growth of things like tourism.
As Wendell Berry wrote (and I’ve re-quoted time and again…)
“..this is what is wrong with the conservation movement. It has a clear conscience….To the conservation movement, it is only production that causes environmental degradation; the consumption that supports the production is rarely acknowledged to be at fault. The ideal of the run-of-the-mill conservationist is to impose restraints upon production without limiting consumption or burdening the consciences of consumers. ”
There is a certain irony that, despite such strong opposition to the energy industry, Moabites must admit that the remarkable success of fracking and subsequent increased oil and gas production, which has led to cheaper gas prices and cheaper transportation costs, will be a boon to their local tourist industry.
And finally, while progressives embrace social justice causes and rally around popular liberal themes, one can’t help but ask, “Where’s the beef?”
A year before his death, Edward Abbey expressed his own dismay. He was often quoted for saying, “The only thing worse than a kneejerk liberal is a kneepad conservative.” But in 1988 he devoted a page in his journal to “Yuppie Liberalism.” In part he noted:
“They love Negroes, Mexicans and Indians (our official minorities), but prefer not to live near them or send their children to their schools…They support civil rights but seem unaware of or indifferent to the concentration of wealth and power in America (i.e. one percent of the population controls thirty-four percent of the country’s wealth, while ten percent controls sixty-eight percent) as a threat to democracy. (NOTE: Abbey wrote that 27 years ago)…They promote economic Growth while ignoring the effects of Growth upon our air, water, soil, wildlife, open space, wilderness, etc…Neo-racism, yupster liberalism, New Age liberalism.”
Last year, the letters to the editor column in the local Times-Independent was overflowing with demands that a local popular canyon, called ‘Negro Bill’ Canyon be changed to something less offensive. And it’s true that for years, the reprehensible N-word was used in place of “Negro.” But that obscenity was corrected more than 50 years ago. Changing the name again became, briefly, Moab’s latest cause celebre for its liberal constituents. But one would be hard pressed to find those same activists doing anything to resolve the outrageous wealth disparity that their amenities economy has brought to town.
Last November, Moab/Grand County Progressives crushed the old guard, winning all of the seats in the county council it sought. Its first order of business was to rescind the previous councils’s vote to join a coalition of southern Utah counties. Their goal, to coordinate and consolidate efforts to further develop the extraction industry, will continue without Grand County. It was one of the most toxic, ugly elections in anyone’s recent memory and, when the dust cleared, Moab established itself, more firmly and finally than ever, as the latest permanent colony of the New West.
As one Moab veteran of 40 years put it, “We are past the point of no return in becoming the final version of a wealthy, crowded ‘in-place’ to be in the New West. The amenities economy at its best. Retire to Moab, live your lifelong old hippie dream of citizen activism. You don’t need to work anymore, you made your nest egg elsewhere. Save the planet while conveniently ignoring your contribution to the problem.”
SUNSET FOR ‘OLD MOAB’ & THE ‘OLD WEST?’
“Did it ever occur to you that everything we done was a mistake? You and me did our jobs too well, Woodrow…hell, we killed off most of the people that made this country interestin’ to begin with.”
This part is personal.
I came West from Kentucky to make a home in Utah when I was just out of school and still wet behind the ears. I dreamed of the day when I’d need to shave more than once a week. I was raised a Republican but had recently discovered ‘Desert Solitaire’ and had morphed into a fire-breathing Ed Abbey Groupie. I was pretty sure I knew everything that needed to be known about ‘saving the West.’ It had not yet occurred to this young activist that someday I’d feel obliged to try and save it from the likes of myself.
Moab was a quiet place in those days. It survived on mining, some ranching, the Atlas mill and tourism. Like other young environmentalists of the day, I went to the wilderness hearings and attended the public lands debates. Smug and all-knowing–not to mention young and stupid—I laughed at the oldtimers, the Moabites who had lived there for years and decades and beyond, who resented our ilk and warily viewed us as arrogant interlopers.
I remember one town meeting about wilderness designation, when Moab’s Joe Stocks rose to address the crowd. Joe came from one of Moab’s oldest families, going back almost a century, and he was not happy to see the changes coming. And he could not understand backpackers.
Joe said, “I spent two years in Vietnam, carrying an 85 pound pack on my back. It was miserable. So now that I’m home, why on earth would I want to do that for fun? I love this country but I’m not walking my ass off to see it.” We all chuckled, but even then, as otherwise condescending as I could be, I saw some logic in Joe’s argument. Or maybe it was his honesty that I admired. The longer I lived in Utah, the more I came to respect the Moabites who had come before me, even if I didn’t agree with them. I admired their candor. Their integrity. Even if I thought they were wrongheaded.
One day, maybe 25 years ago, I sat down at the counter at the Westerner Grill for lunch. I noticed that the man next to me was glaring at the side of my head—I could almost feel it. He squinted for a moment and growled, “Aren’t you one of those damn hippies at that wilderness meeting last night who wants to lock everything up?”
I gulped. But recovered. “Well…yes I am. Aren’t you one of those anti-wilderness guys who wants to bulldoze everything?”
The two questions hung uncomfortably in the air. Finally he said, “Ah..what the hell. What’s Mae got on the special today? I’m Neldon Lemon,” and we shook hands. We’d stay friends for decades until his death just last year. The last time I saw Neldon, a few years ago, we’d talked about doing an interview; he was a good friend of Charlie Steen and memories of those days are fast fading. I still regret that I didn’t make a stronger effort to meet again.
And I regret that, in those early days, I didn’t try harder to at least see both sides of the public lands debate that was playing out in Moab, and which continues even today. By the time I started The Zephyr, I had come to appreciate my ‘Old Moab’ friends, even when we disagreed. I wished that I could have seen this country as they did when they were boys and young men. I often tried to imagine the red rock through their eyes and their accounts. Maybe that was the problem–I wanted to have been there as a boy too. I wanted things to stay as they had been. Like them, the future scared me. And yet, I’d guess that most of the older Moabites then saw me as an interloper too. And, of course, they were right.
As the years passed and New Moabites became a more prominent force in southeast Utah, I realized that, though we shared similar concerns about the land, many of my new friends had little or no regard for the place’s history or the people who came before them. Stories of Moab’s past drew little attention. When I ran a three part series by Mark Steen about his father, Charlie Steen, called “My Old Man, the ‘Uranium King,’” some of my new progressive friends questioned my sanity. “Why would you waste time and pages,” one asked, “on a guy who mined uranium and tore up the land? And,” he added, “they made bombs out of it.”
Even trying to explain seemed pointless. But I persevered and found it more comforting to remember where Moab had been than where it was going. Nowadays, many of Moab’s new residents think that Southeast Utah itself began on the day of their arrival.
Consequently, I’ve encountered some hostility from Moab’s progressive leaders who believe I’m consorting with the enemy. It’s been a strange experience to be the pariah among my old environmentalist pals; they seem unable to grasp that I can retain my own principles and still appreciate someone with a different perspective.
Recently County Councilman Chris Baird argued, in an email to me, that because, “probably you aren’t from the west,” I was trying to earn my “red-neck merit badge.” He tried to make the argument that I was somehow usurping his authority as an expert on rural life in Utah and complained bitterly on a facebook page, “Try going to church for a few decades, learn to shoot a gun, and drive a motorcycle, go hunting,” he wrote, “Or spend your entire life surrounded by your tea party family members. I’m sorry, but Jim Stiles doesn’t have the right to dictate anything rural Utah to me.” He concluded, “I just get upset that he tries to lecture me on my own turf, as if he knows this community better than I do, knows rural Utah better than I do. I know rural Utah in a way that he will never know it.”
I’ve lived in Utah’s Rural West for 30 plus years and Mr. Baird has been alive for 30 plus years, so when it comes to which of us has had more experience, it seems we should be able to call it a draw.
The difference between Chris (and so many others like him) and me is that while I still find value in aspects of the rural life in Utah, he and his New West allies seem hell-bent on dismantling it. Baird may have endured a right-wing family and “going to church for a few decades,” but I get the feeling it’s not a lifestyle or culture he has much use for.
Fair enough, but he and his ilk don’t seem to think the Rural Westerners have the right to exist anywhere. So, I don’t understand why he would want to claim the role of spokesman for rural Utah when it’s clear he despises every component of it
I’m far from being a ‘tea party guy’ myself and I don’t know how many of my Old Moab friends embrace its core beliefs. What I do know is that, despite our political differences, I still like and respect many of the ‘Old Moabites,’ whose families have been in southeast Utah for decades and who eked out a hard living in an unforgiving landscape for a century, when nobody else wanted to live there at all. To recall Hedden, it was “a hard place to get rich, but it was a real good place to be poor.” They may not claim to have a zen experience when they see a canyon country sunset or wax poetic about the red rocks, but it doesn’t mean they’re indifferent to the beauty of the land they’ve been a part of for so long.
It just goes to show, everyone’s entitled to their own opinion…even the most revered Liberal of the 20th Century.
I don’t know what the future holds for the New West—for towns like Moab. For many of us, it feels like its fate is sealed. How long has it been since our most ardent environmentalists dared to speak out against this transmogrification of the Rural West—its ‘Disneyfication?’
Recently, my old home town has finally been engaged in a debate about affordable housing in Moab/Grand County and the gross inequity of its wealth. There are some good hearts and souls still residing there and their passion and concerns are genuine. But the governing bodies have been slow to respond and, at this late date, I’m not sure what can be done to really change a process that was proposed and embraced and promoted for the past two decades. Perhaps tax breaks could be offered to low income families and a lower percentage rate on loans. Maybe the town can further reduce impact fees for them as well. Maybe they can require the larger businesses to provide employee housing.
But the cost of a starter home in Moab is around $200,000 and, barring some unforeseen cataclysmic economic downturn, that won’t change. And now, the same citizens who have supported the tourism economy enthusiastically embrace plans to establish Moab as a college town. And that will transform the community yet again.
‘Transformation’ is the word to remember. The “amenities economy” was not a device to help a community that was struggling to survive. It was a device to replace the community that was there—to transform it into something else entirely. To replace it. Like I’ve said before, “Moab is assimilated.” Or pretty damn close.
* * *
A few years ago, when social media like facebook began to change the world in ways I could never have imagined, I thought of one of my favorite poet/songwriters, Utah Phillips. His ballad, ‘The Tellin’ Takes Me Home’ still haunts me. He wrote:
“I’ll sing about an emptiness the East has never known,
Where coyotes don’t pay taxes and a man can live alone.
And you’ve got to walk forever just to find a telephone.
It’s sad, but the tellin’ takes me home.”
For me, the West was always about silence and space. Lots of it. About endless landscapes that stretch to infinity, and skies so vast and unbroken that they defy description, and moments of such incredible beauty and clarity that you thought you’d burst if you didn’t share this extraordinary moment with someone right now.
And what made the West so special was that you couldn’t.
The West was about remoteness and unimagined quiet and sometimes it made us crazy trying to decide if we loved it for its solitude or loathed it for its isolation. We really did have to walk forever to find a telephone. No one can truly know the West and love the West without also hating it. But it was the West’s unforgiving nature that also made us feel stronger. We chose to live here with all its emptiness and hardship and unforgiving space. Somehow being able to survive the West, on its terms, gave us a leg up on the world.
Still the West overwhelmed us and filled us with unbridled joy and crushing loneliness, all at once. Like a bear hug from the Universe, we’d stand on the summit of a favorite peak or stretch out on our backs in the middle of a desert valley and for a moment we’d almost be giddy.
And then the silence would sweep over us and we’d search for some sign that we aren’t as insignificant as we feel, and we couldn’t. We’d look around and think—it’s so…big. And suddenly our laughter would sound like the hollow giggles of a mad man let loose in a coliseum and we’d start to cry. Because this was as good and as bad as it gets.
And we’d feel so alone and we’d want to tell someone. We’d want to hear a voice. But we couldn’t. Because this was The West—the big, hard, breathtaking, heartbreaking, unrelenting, unforgiving American West.
The West was more than the sum of its parts; now, for so many, its only value is its parts. Should we exploit its physical resources? Should we mine it and drill it and chop it? Or should we build strip malls and condos and curio shops? Should we run seismic trucks across the desert or ATVs and mountain bikes? And how many more amenities can make the West more attractive? Or profitable?
I always knew we couldn’t save the west via elections or ordinances or pieces of legislation. But I thought there’d be more defenders who understood what it was they were trying to save. One day, I came across this quotation, by the late Charles Bowden…
“Imagine the problem is not physical. Imagine the problem has never been physical, that it is not biodiversity, it is not the ozone layer, it is not the greenhouse effect, the whales, the old-growth forests, the loss of jobs, the crack in the ghetto, the abortions, the tongue in the mouth, the diseases talking everywhere as love goes on unconcerned. Imagine the problem is not some syndrome of our society that can be solved by commissions or laws or redistribution of what we call wealth. Imagine that it goes deeper, right to the core of what we call our civilization and that no one outside of ourselves can effect real change, that our civilization, our government are sick and that we are mentally ill and spiritually dead – that all our issues and crises are symptoms of this deeper sickness.”
Bowden’s right… It goes deeper.
Jim Stiles is Founder and Co-Publisher of the Canyon Country Zephyr.
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