Credo: The People’s West

  How citizens and communities can reinvent their relationship with the American landscape

Lifelong locals know their home. They understand the land's intimate cycles from decades and generations of living in place, a miracle of stability and identity.

We can never hope to restore or sustain landscapes and watersheds without the cooperation of local citizens. They rightfully resent and subvert any management scheme that excludes them from decision-making.

We need mutual trust, respect, empathy, and accountability. The hits and misses of long-term elders can teach us all, while passionate newcomers -- community members by choice -- brandish a fierce love for their new home that can reinspire old-timers. Honor every skill and talent in the community. Involving too many people is always better than leaving someone out.

Economic health is essential for community health. If we don't create affordable housing and decent jobs for full-time residents, the community will lose its multigenerational roots. The working rural landscape will collapse into parody.

Ecological health is essential for community health. Conserve land for the land, and good things will come to people and community, as well.

Rapid, unplanned growth profits only the boomer, rewards only the developer, and will in the long run fail citizens and destroy their sense of place. Leadership must come from within the community. A master plan is the key to the future for each landscape -- an inclusive, place-specific vision conceived in the broadest possible dialogue.

Proliferating roads and off-road-vehicle use fragment the integrity of surviving wildlands. Concentrate development where it already exists. Preserve agricultural land and the wild habitats it holds.

Ranching on public lands contributes to the American cultural quilt. But cows should have no special rights. Where cattle and sheep damage the land, eliminate grazing and manage for restoration.

That public lands make up most of the rural West is a positive -- an asset. Keep public lands public to create a buffer between village and wildland. With privatization of the commons, we lose community access.

Refuse to drown in the deluge of change. Channel those floodwaters to power community dialogue. Continually reassess any plan for a specific landscape and its neighborhoods. Insist on ecological sustain-ability, health, preservation of cultural tradition, and protection of biodiversity. Keep talking, no matter what. Keep listening, no matter what. Restraint is both visionary and conservative.

Wildness is everywhere, but wilderness is a special category. Designate and preserve large wilderness areas on public land wherever possible -- several in each bioregion and connected by corridors. Establish local and regional land trusts to purchase critical private lands and hold conservation easements.

One person, one passionate person speaking out stubbornly and relentlessly, can still make a difference. Hard work by one individual can start a revolution.

Arrogance is the opposite of relationship. Don't hesitate to use words like compassion and love and honor. Depoliticize and humanize the issues, and fling open the windows on bureaucracy and authority. Remove obstacles to healing.

We are stuck with our untidy web of conflicting values. We all have our Edens, our devils, our bargains to strike. We are responsible for planning, making decisions, acknowledging duty, accepting stewardship -- and for wrangling through as a community.

Start the conversation before a crisis. Share information and frustrations and dreams and anger and joy. Stomp along the riverbank together. Work together. Cook and eat together, tell stories together. Laugh together. Thrash through conflict to higher ground. Inclusivity requires trust and openness from old-timers and newcomers alike.

We call it paradise, this land of ours. We call it home. Like our nation, the West is in the middle of its arc. We must remain both vigilant and tender if we wish to preserve its authenticity. We can do this. We are not yet too old, too greedy, or too cynical to take wise action together.

Stephen Trimble makes his home in Salt Lake City and in the redrock country of Torrey, Utah. His Credo is excerpted from his new book, Bargaining for Eden: The Fight for the Last Open Spaces in America, in which he explores how we make our decisions about open space through two stories: the privatization of a public-lands mountain by a billionaire, and the irony of the author himself developing his own small acreage.

What's your credo? Send your vision of the people's West to online editor Marty Durlin, marty@hcn.org, to be considered for publication on hcn.org. Please limit submissions to 500 words.