In the spring of 1990, environmentalists squared off against the Bureau
of Land Management on a high mesa near Moab called Amasa's Back. The
BLM proposed to chain more than a thousand acres of old growth pinion-juniper
forest for "range and habitat improvement," but many saw the
project as just another government agency catering to the needs of a
local rancher. There to defend the BLM and the rancher was an assortment
of men and women from Moab--the old timers you might call them--miners
and cowmen who had lived in the West for generations, and who saw the
environmentalists' efforts to stop the chaining as so much obstructionism.
As Caterpillar D9 bulldozers moved into the trees and their heavy
anchor chain ripped and wrenched the old pj forest out by the roots,
the rhetoric between the two sides became intense as well. Television
cameras from two Salt Lake television stations caught the shouting and
the screaming for the evening news. Later that evening we saw ourselves
in living color, pointing and poking fingers and barely able to discern
any coherent conversation coming out of the confrontation.
But after the cameras were shut down and the news sharks went
home, I lingered a while at the site; so did a few of my adversaries.
We were all hot and tired and kicking at the dust with our boots. I
looked at the devastation caused by the D9s and shook my head. I turned
to one of the miners and said, "You know, I'm sure there are a
lot of issues that we'll never agree on, but I'll be damned if I can
understand why you guys would support this chaining."
He looked at the fallen trees, and then at the ground and said
softly, "Well...I don't like it much either."
Eh what? I was stunned. "What are you talking about? I asked.
"We were just out there ready to pop each other's lights out and
now you say you agree with me?"
"Well," the miner said slowly, "mostly I don't
agree with you on just about everything. But sometimes we do have some
things in common...but I'll be damned if I'm going to be called an 'environmentalist.'"
That happened more than a decade ago, but I never forgot it.
Here was a diverse group of rural Utahns, from diverse backgrounds and
political philosophies fighting over an issue for which we shared the
same opinion! What a waste of energy, I thought. And what a waste of
a golden opportunity.
Fast forward a decade. Last autumn, some of my enviro friends
and I were discussing the recent confrontation between ranchers and
the BLM on the Kaiparowits Plateau. Drought conditions had forced the
BLM to restrict the use of its cattle allotments and many ranchers were
having a tough time getting their cattle out. Some were trying harder
than others. The truth is, the high desert on the Colorado Plateau is
a terribly inhospitable place to raise cattle. It's dry and unforgiving
and ranchers at the outset know they're taking a gamble trying to make
a go of it there.
As the drought worsened, a few of the ranchers openly defied
the order and you'll find no sympathy for those people here. But many
of the ranchers could see the damage that was being done and were trying
to comply. My friend noted that a complicating factor was the recent
closure of a dirt road by the BLM that the ranchers used regularly to
access the area. "Was it a road that you guys wanted closed?"
I asked. "Not really," he replied. "It wasn't even near
the top of our list."
I encouraged him to pass that information along to the BLM and
maybe even to the ranchers. "Do you realize how much goodwill this
could generate between the two sides?" I implored. "It could
have a remarkable effect."
He nodded but I knew his candor would never get out of that room.
And it didn't. Now in the spring of 2001, the polarization between the
Rural West and the New West could not be more profound. Or more counterproductive.
If it gets much worse, the consequences for the land--the wild country
that both sides claim to cherish and revere--is destined to be
the true and everlasting loser of this hopeless fight. And it's about
time that BOTH sides come to grips with their own culpability, and their
own contribution to the ongoing degradation of wildlands in the West.
And yes...I'm talking about US. Environmentalists. Eco-Warriors.
Non-motorized recreationists. It's time we take a long hard look into
the looking glass and acknowledge our own sins. This is no longer the
black and white, "us versus them" moral war that we have attempted
to promote for the last 20 years. We cannot, with a straight face and
an honest heart, continue to insist that the environmental movement
represents the knights on the white horse, here to save our wilderness
from the Rural Americans who we portray as ignorant at best, downright
evil at worst.
Maintaining the Rural Stereotype
We are now contributing our own kind of destruction to the last
remnants of the Wild West. Our recreation, our money, and our sheer
numbers are poised to do the kind of long-term damage that should be
setting alarms off in our heads. The changes we're making may be harder
to detect and more insidious. But in the next 50 years, we are poised
to recreate the Western landscape in ways our cowboy cousins could never
Certainly environmentalists can always find ignoble adversaries
out there in the Rural West that will lend credibility to the myth we
have created for them. The San Juan and Garfield County Commissioners
rarely let us down when it comes to Dark Ages-style, extreme rhetoric.
Some of them still think nuclear waste is edible and still call young
people with long hair hippies (Oh...for a real hippie in the 21st Century.
We need you.) And we don't have to wander far to find the reckless
damage caused by a small minority of rural yahoos (not to be confused
with urban yahoos) who love to show what they can do to pristine desert
with an ATV. One determined idiot can paint a broad and ugly stroke
for a lot of his friends. And often does.
But it's just not fair to paint all or even most rural Westerners
with such a broad stroke. I like these guys--or at least many of them.
I enjoy the diversity and the opportunity to see and learn a new perspective,
even if I vehemently disagree with it. Ultimately the greatest failing
of the environmental movement may prove to be its self-imposed isolation
from everyone else, and its inability to listen to a different opinion
with an open mind. Its vision is so specific that it cannot see the
Both sides have become victims of their own rhetoric and
their own ideology. They are so entrenched because they have no contact
with each other. If professional environmentalists only talk to other
environmentalists, and cowboys only talk to cowboys, what chance is
there for anyone to learn something? It's a self-inflicted stalemate
on both sides.
As the Old West becomes the New West, many of us have come to
regard the rural lifestyle with contempt and ridicule, content to see
it vanish from the American Landscape. Someone could make the argument
that it's a case of justice and retribution. More than a century ago,
White Americans came West and encountered the Native American culture
and could detect no value to it all...none. And so we set out to obliterate
that culture until now, a hundred years later, Native Americans across
the country struggle to maintain their identity and integrity. It was
a form of cultural genocide.
Now in the 21st Century, many urban newcomers to the Rural West--New
Westerners, if you want--express the same derogatory opinion of the
descendants of those first white settlers. Many of us can see nothing
in the rural culture worth saving.
It's not that I haven't had some awful experiences with the Rural
West over the years. I learned early on that identifying myself as an
'environmentalist' in San Juan County, for instance, would not win me
a lot of new pals at the local hardware store. But when we can all get
past the labels, I have also been impressed and moved by the generosity
and kindness of those same individuals. Simple acts of kindness must
count for something out there and I certainly cannot ignore them.
Some will argue that I've just been lucky. Or delusional. Or
that it doesn't matter. I shared some of my experiences with one of
my favorite environmentalists and he called me "a brainless idiot...What
has that got to do with wilderness?" he yelled. And it's
true that my buddy has had more than his fair share of abuse from Westerners
who'd like to see a Wilderness Society representative heading east with
a Sierra Clubber under each arm. In parts of the West, from Ely, Nevada
to Escalante, Utah, it has become ugly, and I make no effort here to
defend those people in any way. I become particularly discouraged when
I see Rural Westerners, who should know better, and who are better,
failing to condemn the actions of the foolish few who give all of them
such a bad name. But then how can we expect any different behavior from
them when we do exactly the same thing ourselves?
The Great Contradiction
And isn't that the point? How can we continue to condemn the
irresponsible and unacceptable behavior of people that we believe are
damaging our irreplaceable natural resources, while ignoring or playing
down the ever-growing destruction caused by us! Non-motorized recreationists--hikers,
group hikers, bikers, climbers, rafters, kayakers, runners, action tour
groups!--all those enlightened sportsters who wrap themselves in the
environmental flag and send money to the Sierra Club while wreaking
their own kind of enviro-havoc?
The West has changed dramatically in the last decade. A good
argument could be made that the New West is at least, in part, a product
of the environmental movement. More than ten years ago, Rural Utahns
produced a document called the Leaming Report--it was funded by member
counties of the Utah Association of Governments and made the case that
wilderness in Utah would destroy the rural lifestyle, bring an end to
the extractive industries in the West, and cost rural counties millions
of dollars in lost revenues.
In this very publication, environmentalists countered immediately
with their own observations. Among them was the claim that tourism,
linked directly to wilderness designation, would create a new industry
in the Rural West and would bring enormous benefits to the region. "Designated
wilderness," The Zephyr article read, "acts like an
advertisement that says: 'Here is a treasure house of environmental
amenities!' ...This 'advertising' attracts people that economists call
'amenity migrants,' causing twice the growth in rural areas with
designated wilderness than in areas without wilderness."
These pro-wilderness comments from 11 years ago could not have
been more prophetic. But that is the route we took--instead of taking
the noble route and simply stating that the designation of wilderness
was the right and courageous thing to do, we tried to promote the economic
advantages of wilderness. Wilderness Pays in Spades! Since then,
the cumulative effect of billions of footprints and tire tracks, and
the transformation of rural communities into 'tourist towns' from millions
of 'amenity migrants' have left an indelible mark. In short, the natural
beauty of our land was packaged and commodified and sold. By us. We're
not just talking "surface rights" anymore. This goes right
to the soul.
Now, we have created a new kind of speculator in the New West--the
enviropreneur. These are men and women who see a way to make money out
of the beauty of the land and who pay lip service to environmental issues
in order to enhance and legitimize their own credibility. Too often,
it seems all anyone has to do in Utah is to proclaim for the Utah Wilderness
Coalition's 9.1 million acres proposal to gain serious consideration
as a protector of the land, despite the obvious contradictions.
No...that's not quite right--we won't acknowledge the
contradictions. We environmentalists are scared to death of crossing
our own constituents. This isn't consensus building...this is the politics
of acquiescence, pure and simple.
It's been difficult for environmental groups in Utah to acknowledge
these facts. Why? Because these recreationists and enviropreneurs represent
a significant portion of the environmental groups' membership. They
will privately acknowledge the threat but they don't want to say it
out loud. "Look," one of my friends explained to me recently,
"We already get accused of wanting to 'lock up' the land for the
few. If we now come out and express opposition to these guys, we'll
be accused of being against everybody."
But I don't agree; nothing knocks the stuffing out of credibility
like hypocrisy. How can anyone take us seriously when we turn a blind
eye to our own contribution to the destruction? We must speak up and
speak out against anyone who uses the land for profit at its own expense.
If we're going to criticize an irresponsible rancher, then what about
the irresponsible tour guide? Why don't we discourage overuse of pristine
places by hikers and climbers?
It has been 'explained' to me that the fight over non-motorized
damage will just have to wait until we deal with these other threats.
But that's like the captain of the Titanic saying, "It's too dark
to worry about icebergs now...wake me in the morning when I can see
the damn things."
Some environmentalists have recognized and grieved over these
contradictions for years. In 1991, Ken Sleight recorded his oral history
with the University of Utah at the Marriott Library. Part of his comments
from that interview reflect his concerns:
"I always feel like you can use a resource, and if you're
damaging it then you learn how to take care of it...When I took the
Sierra Club down the Escalante once, they had fifty Sierra Club people
coming on that trip. I was going to carry all their gear and so forth.
So I had to get twenty-six horses and seven wranglers to take those
people down the Escalante. I realized at the time that with all those
horses I was really exploiting the area because it is not good for the
sand banks; it was not good for the ecology of the area to have that
big of a group. I went specially to San Francisco to talk to the Sierra
Club, and I said, 'This is not good for the Sierra Club and so forth.'
Well they dropped me from taking the trips anymore because I would refuse
to take big trips."
Those were comments made by Sleight a decade ago about an incident
that occurred in the early 1970s.
Utah environmental groups spend an enormous and frustrating amount
of time trying to stop oil and gas exploration on the Colorado Plateau.
I know that these endless battles can drive SUWA's field reps to tears
at times. But, in a way it's no wonder--ten years ago, the UWC was trying
to keep the extractive industries out of its original 5.7 million acre
proposal. Now with the UWC proposal exceeding 9 million, the challenge
is even more daunting.
But who needs the oil? Old timers have been reminding us forever
that we use that oil too, and we've rolled our eyes and sneered
smugly as if their comments were somehow beneath us. But why
do we dismiss those comments? Energy costs associated with tourism are
enormous. We take pride in the fact that we're non-motorized
recreationists, and I have to laugh. We climb into our gas-guzzling
SUVs and travel hundreds or thousands of miles so we can recreate for
a day or three in a non-polluting fashion. Our defense is weak.
Cloudrock. More hypocrisy. While environmental groups have paid
obligatory objections to the high-end luxury resort development, it
has mostly molded its opposition in the form of mitigatable concerns.
Maintain a low architectural profile, plant native shrubbery around
your parking lots, tint the asphalt red and we can live with it. What
the mainstream enviro-community won't admit is that Cloudrock, if completed,
will someday provide million dollar homes for America's wealthiest environmentalists.
As Cloudrock developer Michael Liss noted in a letter to the Glen Canyon
Group of the Sierra Club, "I'm a Sierra Club member too."
Of course he is.
The Need for Dialogue, if not Consensus
Whether or not we finally admit to our own sins, the idea of
extending some kind of open hand to the rural Westerner causes most
professional environmentalists to recoil in horror. While many in the
environmental community will argue that a hand was extended in
the past, it's a pretty thin argument. But why should it really matter
in the first place? Because there are a lot of those rural Westerners,
the ones who understand the need to be better stewards of the land,
who are appalled by the poor behavior of some of their peers, but who,
like my miner friend at Amasa Back, find no good reason to align themselves
with us. And that is because we give them no reason to trust us.
No town has earned a worse reputation for intolerance than the
little hamlet of Escalante in south-central Utah. Some of its citizens
have vandalized the property of some very outspoken environmentalists
who recently moved to Garfield County. No matter how outspoken anyone
is, Patrick Diehl and Tori Woodard should have the right to speak without
being threatened. But recently I received a press release from those
embattled enviros in Escalante who complained bitterly that they could
no longer even find a local mechanic to service their cars. At the same
time, these new citizens have suggested that cattle ranching as a way
of life should end in southern Utah and they have made it clear to many
that nothing could please them more than the elimination of every alfalfa
field in the Rural West.
But what do Woodard and Diehl consider a higher and better use
of land and water? They are currently in negotiations with SITLA (State
Institutional Trust Lands Administration--the very same people who are
bringing us Cloudrock), hoping to acquire control of 320 acres of state
land to build a planned community of their own. They propose a community
to cater to sufferers of "Multiple Chemical Sensitivity" syndrome.
Their plan calls for 60 homes, 20 cabins and rental units on a state
section that sits directly adjacent to the Grand Staircase/Escalante
All of this is tough talk for a ranching town to swallow. Throw
in their planned "MCSville" on state lands and what Escalantians
perceive as high hypocrisy, and the situation becomes a hopeless standoff.
Why would any of them want to publicly support any position that environmentalists
embrace? And yet, there are areas of concern that we all share.
Even the future of ranching and preserving those ranches should
be of concern to all of us, regardless of whether or not we think ranching
is a viable and responsible use of the land.
Consider an example that cries for consensus from both sides.
In San Juan County, most of its citizens will, if you tell them you're
from Moab, shake their heads and say, "We sure don't want to end
up like you guys." And they don't. They can't bear the thought
of it. But some of their elected officials and some of the bureaucrats
in the BLM and Forest Service continue to make decisions that are putting
towns like Blanding and Monticello in a position to become just that.
In particular, new roads and "improved" roads in San
Juan County will simply create wide-lane conduits for more tourists.
Last summer, San Juan County, in conjunction with the Forest Service,
dramatically expanded the size of the Blue Mountain Road. Hundreds of
Ponderosa Pines were cut down, the shoulders denuded, the pavement widened
and the curves straightened. It paid a few contractors well for a season
and will create an improved road to the Needles.
But to what end? Who benefits and who likes the road? Many Monticello
citizens have privately expressed dismay but will not confront their
elected leaders. Why? Because they don't want to side with the environmentalists.
Farther south, the Forest Service is already looking at the South Cottonwood
Wash road to Elk Ridge and the connecting road over the Bears Ears to
Natural Bridges. They want to upgrade the road, one step at a time,
over a few years, until one day, we'll find the road paved and San Juan
County citizens will find themselves another step closer to the Moabization
of Blanding. This is a battle that could be fought shoulder to shoulder
with San Juan County citizens and won. But if we're ever
going to stop that kind of reckless road building, it will absolutely
require that kind of cooperation.
As for ranching, my enviro-pals will look me squarely in the
eye and swear that they don't want to put any rancher out of business
and they'll laugh at the "cows versus condos" debate. It may
be true that environmentalists want to eliminate public lands ranching,
they'll concede, but they say they don't want to put the ranchers out
of business. Of course, you couldn't hope to find a more disingenuous
argument--without the allotments, the ranches will fail. As for the
condos, of course they won't be built on the grazing allotments, but
they will eventually replace every alfalfa field in the Rocky Mountain
West. What a vision for the future that is.
I've even heard it said that what's happening to ranches is inevitable
and has nothing to do with the urbanization of the Rural West, as if
our efforts are performed in a vacuum and disconnected from the real
world. But regardless of who is to blame, we environmentalists should
NOW be doing everything in our power to work with the ranchers
to find alternatives to development. After all, the Nature Conservancy
can't buy all the agricultural lands in the West.
Where the Line in the Dust Needs to be
I keep thinking about my enviro-pal's "brainless idiot"
comment. He could not understand what being a nice guy had to do with
land stewardship; in fact, when all the chips were laid on the table,
he stated his case quite honestly--the only way we will be able to preserve
the remaining wild country of Utah is to close the roads. My retort
was that we'll never be able to get all those roads closed and that
our own hope is to increase the sensitivity of ALL people to this fragile
desert, whether it's 'designated wilderness' or not. I absolutely support
wilderness and I also absolutely support the respectful and even reverent
treatment of land outside those politically designated wilderness areas.
After 20 years of being an equal opportunity antagonist, I've
now experienced corruption, dishonesty and deceit from both sides of
the aisle. I've observed the crooked politics of dishonest Good Ol'
Boy politicians and I've swallowed a big dose of arrogant, elitist yupster
enviropreneur dishonesty as well. But because we've drawn these lines
in the dust--trenches is more like it--many of us feel obligated
to defend our ideological peers, even when we know we're wrong!
We refuse to acknowledge just how stubbornly similar the two ends of
the spectrum have become.
Rural Westerners look at the damage caused by oil and gas and
overgrazing and logging and shrug and say, "So what?" Then
we look at the impacts from tourism and condo developments and the urbanization
of rural communities and we shrug and say, "So what?"
How can we mock the insensitivity of the other guys when we do exactly
the same thing?
Perhaps consensus between the environmental community and the
Rural West is being too optimistic--consensus calls for a conclusion
and a resolution of differences and I can't imagine such a feat in the
near future. But dialogue is not only possible, it's essential, if for
no other reason than to remind ourselves that we're all human. There's
nothing like a good face-to-face argument over a cup of coffee to de-mystify
the opposition. What do any of us have to lose?
It's time for a new line in the dust, one that makes sense and
recognizes the common bond that many of us share but try to deny because
the labels don't fit. To hell with labels. Environmentalists v anti-environmentalists.
Liberals v Conservatives. Urban v Rural. These labels are just getting
in the way and preventing any kind of united front against the one true
threat that all of us who love the West should unite against.
To me, that threat is Greed.
Follow the money. It has been like this forever and if we don't
acknowledge our common adversary--the voracious and insatiable quest
for material wealth by the few--we will indeed transform the Rural West
into the money machine they want it to be. But all of us who have come
to live in the Back Blocks of the West, simply because we love to be
here, must find a way to speak together against those who simply see
the beauty of the West as a way to make a buck...another buck. To these
people, you can never have too many bucks and they're using us, conservatives
and liberals, to reach that end.
If we ever could put aside the acrimony, what could we hope to
accomplish? I think we can find a consensus (someday) on the future
of our public lands. We have to understand that respect for all
public lands, regardless of their specific designation, is critical
to the survival of the West. We can't create islands of wilderness and
abandon the rest of the land to the reckless and destructive whims of
the foolish few. And that is exactly what our side is doing.
We are so specifically tied into this wilderness battle, that we've
abandoned the rest of the land.
Finally, the only way we'll ever be able to have an honest exchange
with our environmental adversaries is if we can be honest with ourselves.
Some might call these comments divisive and counterproductive at a time
when President Bush seems determined to wreak havoc on environmental
ethics, responsibility and justice. But we weaken our own position if
we speak less than candidly—the unvarnished truth is a powerful ally.
Walt Kelly's "Pogo" first said it 30 years ago, and it's become
a cliche', but the truth is what makes them cliches. When Pogo said,
"We have met the enemy and they is us," he knew what he was
talking about. Are we wise enough to acknowledge the truth as well?