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‘IT’S TIME (AGAIN!) FOR M.A.H.B.U: Mormons & Heathens for a Better Utah’ –Jim Stiles (from the 2004 archives)

EDITOR’S NOTE:  I wrote this almost a decade ago..not much has changed. If anything the polarization is worse. Is it time for MAHBU again???  JS

I am terminally sick of hypocrisy. My own and everyone else’s.

I don’t care which direction the entrenched ideological contradictions are coming from–left or right, above or below–I long for honesty and all things genuine and sincere, even if they are wrong-headed. If you’re wrong-headed, or I am, then let’s be truthful about it. That’s the beauty of honesty. Boneheads talking to boneheads can reduce bone mass. As a self-confessed bonehead, I’m searching for a different and better way to reduce the thickness of my own skull, as well as yours.

I admit, Life was much easier when I viewed the world through a black & white lens. And easier is the critical word to note here; it’s much easier to condemn everyone else’s perspective when we’re unwilling to honestly scrutinize our own. And it is easier to attack our adversaries when we don’t know them. I have agonized over this for years now. I have shared my feelings with my friends and with strangers. Those feelings have been met in a variety of ways–blank stares, outrage, ridicule, silence and sometimes…sometimes with the look of a shared epiphany. “YES…I know exactly what you mean!” As if someone with a secret had just found a kindred spirit.

Those moments have given me some comfort. Not much, but a little.

And so, it is truly, at long last, perhaps in the nick of time, and perhaps too late to nick anything…it is time for M.A.H.B.U.

Mormons & Heathens for a Better Utah.

First, about the name. Not everyone on one side of the mythical ideological fence is a member of the LDS Church. Not all people on the opposite side are heathens. I was looking for an acronym, to begin with, and one that might best suit Utahns. When I stumbled upon MAHBU it sounded as if I’d morphed Nauvoo, the site of the original Mormon temple in Illinois, with SUWA, Utah’s most prominent environmental group–surely a frightening prospect for everyone involved regardless of their affiliation. But then, that’s the point. To force everyone to be uncomfortable with their proximity to each other, instead of exchanging pot shots from the relative safety of across the fence.


At the heart of this war in the American West—and that’s what we should call it—is a fundamental conflict of cultures over the future of its landscape. The vast majority of Americans who call themselves environmentalists, 78% in one survey, live in urban areas. They are the “New Westerners.” Their connection to the land is mostly as observers, recreationists, and infrequent visitors. Most of those who oppose the environmental movement actually live and work in the small rural communities of the West and many of them make their living from the land itself. They still represent the Old West. For the urban enviros, there’s the rub.

What has ensued in the last three decades has been increasingly painful to watch. Each side of the conflict has so savagely misrepresented the other, so excessively caricatured their opponents, that they have, in the process, turned themselves into pretty laughable cartoon characters as well. There is nothing like bloated self-righteousness to make anyone seem ridiculous; to me everybody looks goofy these days.

So what are the contentious issues driving this debate. Basically it’s this: Rural Americans live in small towns and the core of their economies is extractive–ranching, mining, timber. To deny that the extractive industries have wreaked stunning and long-term destruction upon the Western landscape and its ecology is absurd.

Urban Americans want to eliminate these industries, or at least curtail them to a large extent. They believe that another kind of economy, what environmentalists have called the “amenities economy”—tourism mostly in all its forms— is a clean and viable alternative to mining and ranching and timber. They are convinced it can allow the rural West to prosper and prevail, without further degradation to the resource. To deny that this kind of transformation of the rural West has bleak and destructive consequences of its own is equally absurd. The amenities economy is just another extractive industry and should be regarded by environmentalists with the same concern. But they don’t.

And so it’s a standoff. Nobody wants to be honest for 30 minutes. And that is why MAHBU must step into the wide and yawning breach of credibility. We are about to be painfully honest. Let us begin…NOW:

Most Old Westerners oppose wilderness, since they believe it will limit their access to public lands. Sometimes their physical abuse of the land itself is dramatic and the damage is long-term. On the other hand, Old Westerners understand one key component of wilderness far better than their adversaries. They understand solitude. Quiet. Serenity. The emptiness of the rural West. They like the emptiness.

New Westerners are individually more sensitive to the resource but are terrified of solitude. They’ll walk around cryptobiotic crust but leave most of them alone in the canyons without a cell phone and a group of companions and they’d be lost, both physically and metaphysically. And since they need to travel in packs, the collective resource damage is far more than they might realize.

Old Westerners like their jeeps and their ATVs. Among these thousands of motorized recreationists are a minority of reckless and thoughtless idiots who cause a disproportionate share of the resource damage. Many of their peers know this and don’t like it, but don’t apply peer pressure because the one thing they’d rather NOT do is be seen agreeing with an environmentalist.

New Westerners drive hundreds or thousands of miles in gas-consuming vehicles so they can pedal their bicycles for ten and say they’re non-motorized recreationists. Bicyclists gather for rallies and races just like their motorized cousins and cause extraordinary damage when the numbers are high enough; yet environmentalists refuse to acknowledge that many, many bicycles can sometimes cause as much damage as ATVs.

Old Westerners like cows. Millions of cattle still graze on public lands and some ranchers who hold federal grazing allotments are terrible stewards of that land. They allow overgrazing, destroy valuable and rare riparian habitat and turn some public lands into barren wastelands.

New Westerners hate cows. They think all ranchers are bad stewards. They want to eliminate all public lands grazing. But when they buy a condo in a New West town, they love the view of the adjacent alfalfa field from their picture window and complain bitterly when yet another development wipes out the pastoral scene.

Cows eat alfalfa.

A few Old Westerners like to hunt. Mostly deer and elk. Each year a few hundred hunters in Utah get a permit to kill a cougar. They chase the big cat with their dogs, run it up a tree and shoot it. Sounds pretty barbaric to me.

Most New Westerners hate to hunt. And they would never kill a cougar. But when thousands of cougar-loving recreationists invade once empty public lands that are habitat for wild animals (like cougars, deer and elk), it is a hunt of sorts already–a hunt to eliminate the habitat that wild and reclusive animals like cougars need. Conflict is inevitable. Two mountain bikers were attacked and killed recently by a cougar in wilderness near San Diego. The cougar was promptly tracked down and shot by the authorities because the animal had become “a problem.” No objections were heard by New Westerners this time. New Westerners build their homes farther into wildlands, so they can “live amidst Nature,” but when a bear pinches off the head of a favorite French poodle, retribution is acceptable.

Most New Westerners long for the simple life and want to move to a small town. But they hold the Old Westerners in low esteem and abhor their politics. And when they move to a small town, they build an oversized home, complain about the lack of amenities and try to change everything.

Most Old Westerners actually live the more modest and simple lifestyle that their New West adversaries claim to admire. Their homes are smaller and their cars are older. They recycle their junk (or at least don’t throw it away) and generally do without a lot of luxuries that a New Westerner could never endure. They despise the smug arrogance and urban ways of their new New West neighbors. But if they had more money they would probably live just as extravagantly.

New Westerners claim that the uncontrolled growth of the “amenities economy” is out of their hands, that market forces and the whims of American Culture are driving the New West, not them. As one Utah environmentalist said defensively, “It would have happened anyway.” In effect they now refuse to take ‘credit’ (or responsibility)  for the extraordinary “success” of the very economy they claimed would save the West. They actually distance themselves from the “solution” they continue to promote. Every new convenience store, every condo development, every golf course, every four star restaurant in a town with a population of 5000, even every ATV rally is an extension of the “amenities economy.”

Old Westerners long for the “good old days” of ranching and mining, detest the tourists and the New West image of their towns, but never hesitate to make a buck from the “amenities economy” when the opportunity presents itself. Many Old Westerners are millionaires today because land they bought for next to nothing in the 60s or 70s is now worth a fortune.

Old Westerners love seismic exploration work. It brings money to the rural economy. But it also leaves a swath of destruction in its path. While restrictions have reduced the amount of damage that seismic work once caused, its effects can still be seen years later. But once the work is done, the land returns to “normal” as far as the habitat goes. Wildlife is most adversely affected by constant human intrusions. The one good aspect of a seismic crew is that when they complete their work, they leave.

New Westerners hate seismic exploration. They often hold on-site protests and to some animals, their long-term presence is more offensive than the thumper trucks. The fact that desert bighorns have vanished from the Gemini Bridges area near Moab is not because of the seismic work that environmentalists fought in the early 90s; it’s from recreationists, both motorized and non-motorized, that have driven them into hiding. And, of course, many seismic trails never get a chance to recover because bicyclists and ATVs keep using them.

Old Westerners are unlikely to go backpacking or exploring for the sheer pleasure of it. Many of them would think such an effort to be pure folly. Sometimes they seem oblivious to the Beauty that surrounds them. But if they broke down or got stranded in the backcountry, they would probably be able to take care of themselves, because most of them have lived close to the land all their lives.

New Westerners love to go backpacking and exploring, but many of them, urban dwellers mostly, simply don’t have the skills necessary to survive, if something were to go wrong. As a result, the search and rescue budgets of many rural Western communities have increased astronomically in recent years. Most members of Search & Rescue teams are Old Westerners.

Old Westerner advocates insist increased production is absolutely necessary to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Many of those same people mock efforts to reduce U.S. dependence through conservation efforts, which is really stupid. Why would conservatives oppose conservation? Because they’re afraid to be linked with anything remotely supporting an “environmentalist” perspective.

New Westerners oppose increased oil and gas exploration and advocate conservation efforts; yet most of them are bigger consumers of natural resources than the people who defend drilling in the public domain. And while they decry the loss of wildlife habitat, the fact is, most wildlife adapts quite well to inanimate objects, including oil wells. It’s constant human intrusions that can critically disrupt their lives.

Most Old Westerners love the owners and major stockholders and corporate heads of oil and gas companies who are mostly rich, arrogant bastards and personal friends of the Vice President. Most field employees of oil and gas companies are hard-working middle-class Old Westerners, trying to keep food on the table.

Most New Westerners despise the owners and stockholders and corporate heads, not to mention the vice president. But they also detest the field employees, which is about as wrong-headed as the Old Westerners’ admiration of Dick Cheney.

Most Old Westerners hate Ed Abbey, who once said, ” If America could be, once again, a nation of self-reliant farmers, craftsmen, hunters, ranchers and artists, then the rich would have little power to dominate others. Neither to serve nor to rule. That was the American Dream.” Despite such sentiments, they still despise him, and they stubbornly refuse to read his books.

Most New Westerners love Ed Abbey, even though they despise half of the people Ed honored in the preceding quote. They’ve read all his books and possess cherished signed copies, but understand far less than they realize.

OK…my thirty minutes are up…for now. But I’ve barely scratched the contentious surface. As long as Westerners, New and Old, refuse to acknowledge the fruitlessness of their own entrenched and inflexible positions, the West will suffer for our stubbornness.

This is not about compromise, it’s about dialogue. Discussion. Ed Abbey once said, “What our perishing republic needs is something different…something entirely different.” He was absolutely right. The system is not working for any of us anymore. I can no longer tell the difference between the ‘good guys’ and the ‘bad guys.’ It’s become a standoff between well-paid lobbyists—each side trying to outspend the other in the quest for Influence and Power.

For MAHBU, this is either just the beginning of a new global force akin to the “Alice’s Restaurant Anti-Massacree Movement,” or spit in a pond that never makes a ripple. All I can do is write this stuff…

I do not present this alternative way of thinking with a great deal of hope or optimism. The Truth is generally used as a last resort, and surely this is the case here. If these words strike a chord with you, one way or the other, let me know. We invite your comments and criticisms. If you’d like to be a “member,” send me an email c/o The Zephyr. Maybe I’ll start printing a Friends of MAHBU list in future issues. Membership is free, although the price one pays for being honest can be dear. I won’t send you a complimentary backpack with your membership. Or a coffee mug. Or ask you to leave MAHBU in your will. And I promise NEVER to offer “MAHBU Adventure Tours.” If that ever happens, you can kill me.

MAHBU Forever.




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3 Responses

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  1. Pistil Pete said

    Well said.
    Thank you

  2. Dutch zimmerman said

    You may be right

  3. S.Noble said

    Can you tell the difference between an environmentalist and a developer. One has a cabin in the woods and the other wants to build one. Which is which.

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