A dark moment, a glimmer of light

by Ray Ring

The connection might seem tenuous, but I think that the West's most shocking recent event -- the Jan. 8 bloodbath in Tucson, Ariz. -- has a correlation with our Utah cover story.

The "Tucson massacre," as it's being called -- in which an apparently mentally ill young man shot Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 18 other people outside  a Safeway store -- has sparked a national conversation about our deepening slide into inflammatory political rhetoric, with its absolute condemnation of everyone on the other side. Tucson-area Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, a Democrat, will go down in Western history as a philosophical leader who asks us all to reflect on our growing viciousness. On TV and radio shows, on the Internet and at political meetings, "the rhetoric about hatred, about mistrust of government, about paranoia of how government operates, has impact," Dupnik told National Public Radio. Elsewhere, he amplified the point: "People who are unbalanced are especially susceptible to vitriol."

Our cover story was set in motion long before the Tucson massacre. In it, writer Joshua Zaffos explores Kane County, Utah -- a longtime center of the Sagebrush Rebellion, an anti-federal, anti-environmentalist movement. Most of the "rebels" are law-abiding people who happen to have strong views, but as the Twin Falls Times-News points out, the movement's history  includes a 1981 shooting in Idaho, in which an unbalanced trapper, Claude Dallas, gunned down two government wildlife agents. Over the years, federal employees have been threatened and environmentalists denounced as "terrorists" because they are against activities like off-road driving and in favor of things like wolves. In the West, you can still buy T-shirts and bumper stickers that display fake "hunting licenses" playfully authorizing the killing of liberals. It's all in good fun, until it isn't.

Kane County's rebellion has generally shown itself in lawsuits against federal land management, most notably regulations that limit off-road driving. But it has also included acts of civil disobedience: In the 1990s, for instance, the county government sent a bulldozer to blade roads into wilderness-study areas. In a 2009 protest, hundreds of off-road drivers deliberately ignored federal rules against motorized traffic in Paria Canyon.

High Country News has visited Kane County before, trying to understand the reality behind the provocative headlines, listening to rebels as well as to environmentalists and federal employees. For many years, our mission statement quoted the thoughtful Western writer, Wallace Stegner, and we still hold by his words: We want to help create "a society to match the scenery." We think -- we hope -- that such a society is blooming in Kane County, in what many outsiders might see as unlikely soil. In the dark aftermath of the Tucson massacre, High Country News still sees a glimmer of light. Reasonable people can be found everywhere, and that includes the West that we all love.

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