What does it mean nowadays to be a Westerner?


By Steve Bunk, NewWest.net

Former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt’s re-entry in the political fray in recent weeks, which he says was precipitated by fears over the future of the nation’s wild lands, brings up the question of what it means nowadays to be a Westerner.

To many people, the answer probably would be the same as it ever has been: wide-open spaces. Even though relatively few of us actually live in undeveloped areas anymore, wild lands remain central to our collective identity.

It’s hard to think of any topic that gets Westerners going more intensely than wild lands and all they contain. Wolves, elk, salmon, sage-grouse, logging, mining, rivers, off-road vehicles, roadless areas, the list goes on and on. Is there a greater number of special interest groups involved in any other aspect of Western life?

Everyone here believes in the importance of wild lands; it’s a common creed. But how that creed is interpreted varies enormously.

Babbitt, who led the Department of the Interior under Bill Clinton, took the rather surprising step in June of publicly chastising the Obama administration for wavering in its commitment to environmental protections. In late July, he said in a House hearing that a proposed Republican bill was “the most radical, overreaching attempt to dismantle the architecture of the public lands laws that has been proposed in my lifetime,” according to an AP report.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., intends to open about 43 million acres of public land now designated as wilderness study areas and inventoried roadless areas to logging, grazing, motorized sports, and other activities.

Babbit saw it as a major concern, especially coupled with a proposed environmental appropriations bill so extreme in its curtailment of funding and regulatory powers that it has little chance of survival in its present form.

Republicans favoring McCarthy’s bill argue that allowing public lands to be managed for multiple use, rather than being “locked up” as wilderness, promotes responsible resource development and healthy forest management, among other benefits.

The problem with everybody preaching the gospel of Nature is that each side thinks they’re the only ones who are keeping the faith. When the wild is a common church whose congregation disagrees on its tenets, charges of idolatry and paganism are inevitable.

Faith, or belief without proof, may be an attribute central to human contentment, but it also promotes the laying aside of critical appraisal. It doesn’t work on a cognitive level; it taps into other aspects of who we are.

Blind faith in, say, the importance of wolves to the food chain or the endlessly regenerative powers of Nature can’t sustain us without taking away our breadth of vision. In the midst of this paradox, we struggle with multiple use.

Battles of this sort have been waged ever since enactment in 1960 of the federal Multiple-Use Sustained-Yield Act.

During the first decade of this century, which was the heyday of “quid pro quo wilderness” bills in Western states, it began to look like multiple use might finally emerge as a template for resolving wild lands debates. All sides would compromise and everyone would benefit.

Alas, the huge array of competing activities, interests, and investments involved in such ecumenicalism made it hard to keep the faith, and quid pro quo lost support.

Even so, the choir sometimes sings in tune.

Take the various regional collaborative efforts to restore Western watersheds and landscapes, often funded by the U.S. Forest Service. These coalitions draw together such disparate groups as loggers, local government officials, environmentalists, hunters, Indians, and ORV enthusiasts.

Another example is the new national planning rule being developed by the Forest Service, a long process in which unprecedented efforts have been made to involve all stakeholders.

In the end, our choices boil down to confrontation or collaboration. Wallace Stegner famously called wild country a part of the “geography of hope.” He also believed cooperation, not rugged individualism, is the trait that best characterizes the West, and is best-suited to preserve it.

Standing in the woods somewhere listening to the big quiet can make anyone feel like part of Nature’s interconnectedness, and, really, that’s the larger message of multiple use.

It’s not a grid for parceling out each component, wilderness here, mining there, as if everything were a commodity. It’s not supposed to be a power struggle over who gets the biggest slice of the management priorities pie.

It’s a mosaic, in which each thing, sentient or not, plays a part. Done right, multiple use is all about community.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Originally posted at NewWest.net