Dan Dagget, the well-known authority on Western livestock grazing and a seemingly mild-mannered guy, lost his cool and fairly screamed at me: "Why don't all of you go back to the cities back East you came from and give us back our West!'
I didn't know what to say, and I'm not
often speechless. I'm not from a city, and I'm sure as heck not
from anybody's idea of Back East. My sin was to ask the
intellectuals holding yet another conference espousing the pastoral
Northern Rockies as a model for the rest of us in the West, "Why do
we need the rural West?"
I always cringe when
people from the rural West tell the rest of us how to live. There's
an arrogance to their pronouncements, a foolhardy pretension that
they are real and that the 95 percent of us who live in Western
cities somehow don't matter.
The truth is that
they - not us - are the exception. Montana and Wyoming don't lead
and, at this stage, don't have much to teach the rest of us.
They're the ones without a real city. Oh sure, Cheyenne, Bozeman,
and Missoula might claim city status, but by the standards of
Phoenix, Las Vegas, Albuquerque, or even Boise and Santa Fe,
they're just towns. They don't have the sprawling freeways or the
concentrations of retired people the rest of us do. They don't have
real airports. Plus, they're overwhelmingly
In Nevada, more than 1.5 million of the
1.8 million people in the state live in Washoe or Clark counties,
home to Las Vegas, Carson City and Reno. Phoenix and Tucson contain
more than 3 million of the state's 4.5 million people, and that
doesn't even include the corridor effect to Flagstaff and the
autonomous Navajo reservation, one of the last places in the entire
West with a large, diffuse, rural population.
question the rural West can't answer is: Why should the rest of us
subsidize their condescending culture and custom arguments? The
rural West sure doesn't pay the bills - look at tax revenues in any
state and you'll see that clearly enough.
nearly all the water and generates nowhere near the revenue from it
that cities do with a lot less. And its industries, ranching,
agriculture, timber, mining and the like, are tossed on the scrap
heap in our transfer-payment, federal, tourist-based regional
The truth is hard, but clear. The rural
West has become a playground, a colony the rest of us visit when we
want to relax or indulge our fantasies. We camp, hike, swim, boat,
bike, ski, hunt, fish and ATV throughout the rural West, making our
living and our lives in its increasingly stretched out and
stunningly dense cities. We may dream of a home on the range, but
that dream is usually just a way to cope with the traffic on a
freeway headed to or from the office.
importance of the old rural West has ended and it's never coming
back. The Microchip Revolution, which has made information transfer
more important than the raw materials the West used to export and
has turned experience and leisure into currency, is upon us. It's a
little early to declare an end to the natural resources-based world
economy, but at least in the U.S., natural resource extraction is
country's advantage was always cheap land and cheap labor. Since
World War II, land hasn't been inexpensive, and while American
labor remains the most valuable in the world, it's also far more
expensive than in many other countries. In this new world, trees
have more value as scenery than as timber, and a mountain will
likely generate more revenue from the skiers who whiz down it than
from any animal grazing its slopes.
solution, and I'm only half-kidding: Go to the ranchers and farmers
and tell them that we'll give them their best year plus annual
cost-of-living raises to match inflation, and in return they'll
give us their water.
They can pretend to ranch
and farm; they can lay out center pivot irrigation systems that'll
spin around and around, but no water will come out. They can
pitchfork invisible hay from the back of pick-ups to invisible
animals, and they won't even have to worry about inevitable
fluctuation in crop and animal prices.
meantime, that roughly 80 percent of the water in every Western
state can go for job creation, jobs that pay taxes, that don't
require federal subsidies, that have futures for the ever-growing
number of young and immigrants who flood the region. They're the
middle class of the future, the ones whose wages will fund the
Social Security of today's middle-aged workers. The sooner we
propel them upward, region-wide, the better off we'll all
We'll give up something, sure. But discarding
a myth that has deceived us for a century may be the healthiest
thing this region can do.