Last summer I spent several days in Salmon, Idaho, as part of my research on the human dimensions of ecosystem management. I expected to hear the same sort of petulant threat-mongering that Jon Margolis mocked - something I've heard increasingly often in my years of listening to the voices of the rural West (HCN, 2/20/95).
Instead I found a community where it was still thought proper to be polite to strangers bearing notebooks. Salmon was a working town where mining and logging were honorable occupations, but where folks also were proud of the contribution that river rafting makes to the local economy. It was a place where the Forest Service and BLM were said to be part of the solution as well as part of the problem ... a place where county rights activists talked of "local custom and culture" but insisted that local environmentalists be represented on county land-use committees ... a place where conservative Mormon farmers and ranchers set up a phone tree so they could quickly turn off the irrigation pumps when a salmon or two were seen waiting to head up the Lemhi River to spawn.
I'd hoped to be able to do a follow-up study this summer to try to discover what made Lemhi County different. Why was it still possible in Salmon - but not in Joseph or Kalispell or Republic or Silver City - for there to be civil discourse between people who care equally about the land but want such different things from it?
Now I can forget that idea. Folks in Salmon are polishing their six-guns just like their counterparts across the West - thanks to the Wilderness Society, Pacific Rivers Council, and the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund lawsuit that would block all grazing, logging and mining on the national forests of central Idaho. I suppose it's easy when you're in an office in Portland or San Francisco to forget that living, breathing people are part of the landscape of the West. It may be easy, but it's also disastrous. This sort of one-size-fits-all approach to environmentalism, imposed from outside by people who wield their legal hatchets simply because they know they can, will harm the environmentalist cause just as surely as any dam.
If we lose the Endangered Species Act and other environmental laws in the 104th Congress, it won't be because the bad guys got elected at precisely the wrong time. It'll be because the good guys tried to kill a gnat with a meat cleaver, and in the process managed to slice into their own jugulars.
The writer is as assistant professor of forest resources at Utah State University and a former Montana journalist.