Life was much simpler when I viewed the battle to "save" the West through a black-and-white lens. As a young environmentalist, it was easier for me to condemn my adversaries’ land ethics and beliefs when I was unwilling to honestly scrutinize my own. And it was easier to attack my adversaries when I didn’t know them. I have agonized over this for years now.
At the heart of this land war —
and that’s what we should call it — is a fundamental
conflict of cultures. On one side stand the "New Westerners,"
mostly urbanites who consider themselves environmentalists, but
whose connection to the land is as observers, recreationists and
infrequent visitors. On the other side are the "Old Westerners,"
most of whom oppose the environmental movement, live and work in
small rural communities and make their living from the land.
In the last three decades, each side of the conflict has
so savagely 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
people seem ridiculous; to me, everybody looks goofy these days.
Consider this ...
Many 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.
Many Old Westerners actually live the simple lifestyle that their
New West adversaries claim to admire. Their homes are smaller and
their cars are older and they lack a lot of the luxuries that New
Westerners can’t live without. But if they had more money,
they would probably live just as extravagantly.
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
rare streamside habitat, and turn some public lands into barren
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
Cows eat alfalfa.
Westerners like their jeeps and their off-road vehicles, and a
minority of thoughtless idiots cause a disproportionate share of
the resource damage. Many of their peers know this and don’t
like it, but say nothing because the one thing they’d rather
NOT do is be seen agreeing with an environmentalist.
Westerners drive hundreds or thousands of miles in gas-guzzling
vehicles so they can pedal their bicycles 10 miles and say
they’re nonmotorized recreationists. Bicyclists gather for
rallies and races just like their motorized cousins and cause
extraordinary damage when their numbers are high enough.
Old Westerners like to hunt, mostly deer and elk. Each year, a few
thousand hunters 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. New Westerners hate to hunt. They would never kill
a cougar. But when several thousand cougar-loving recreationists
invade once-empty public lands, it becomes a hunt of sorts —
a hunt that eliminates the habitat that wild, reclusive animals
like cougars need.
Old Westerners oppose wilderness,
since they believe it will limit their access to public lands. On
the other hand, Old Westerners understand one key component of
wilderness far better than their adversaries do. They understand
solitude and the emptiness of the rural West. They like the
New Westerners are terrified of solitude.
Leave most of them alone in the canyons without a cell phone and a
group of companions and they’d be lost. As a result, the
search and rescue budgets of many rural Western communities have
increased astronomically in recent years. Most members of search
and rescue teams are Old Westerners.
Old Westerners agree
with the Bush administration that increased production of oil and
gas on public lands is necessary to reduce our dependence on
foreign oil. Many of those same people mock efforts to reduce U.S.
dependence through conservation — the attitude is really
New Westerners oppose increased oil and gas
exploration and advocate conservation. Yet most of them are bigger
consumers of natural resources than the people who defend drilling
in the public domain.
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
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
And finally, 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."
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.
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. An honest discussion.