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 imagine.

     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 bigger picture.

     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.

     More contradictions...

     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 National Monument.

     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.      

Common Concerns

     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 Drawn

     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?


Zephyr Home Page