Seven years ago, Daniel McCool, a political science professor and director of the American West Center at the University of Utah, wrote an eloquent essay for this magazine, in which he said, "A dam slated for the wrecking ball is a kinetic form of politics -- falling concrete that embodies the energy of a whole new concept of river management. As dams fall, hopes rise -- a stark exchange of the past with the future."
McCool's words still resonate here in the West. The story of this region is a story of the quest for redemption, one that is repeated endlessly. It's not just a personal quest we're talking about; our entire landscape is in serious need of healing. From the Gold Rush pioneers to the modern energy boom, people have always fought to extract what they can from our forests, rivers and plains. And once they succeed, they usually abandon the land, leaving others to try to repair the damage. But it's not always straightforward -- fixing one problem often creates others.
This year's special books and essays issue focuses on the Western search for redemption. Montana journalist Brad Tyer lived in a cabin near Anaconda for six months, exploring the "sacrificial landscape" of the ironically named town of Opportunity, which bears the weight of pollution from old copper mining -- and also from nearby restoration projects. Tyer's essay is derived from a forthcoming book, which is, he says, "about deciding where waste goes, the ways in which we find our own places in the world, and the consequences of those choices. It's about falling in love with a place and coming to terms with the fact of its fucked-upedness."
Kim Todd finds a more realistic shot at redemption in the biggest dam-removal project in U.S. history, a rare chance to undo a part of the past that no longer works. Last week, the Glines Canyon and Elwha Dams on Washington's Olympic Peninsula started coming down. It'll take three years to fully dismantle them, but scientists are eager to return salmon and steelhead to the largest watershed in Olympic National Park and restore its native vegetation. Todd explores the contradictions and challenges inherent in such a massive project.
Other essays and book reviews delve into more facets of redemption. Author Shann Ray talks about how his flawed characters achieve a kind of grace. Montana-born Mary Clearman Blew saved herself from the narrow path that women were expected to follow in the '50s and '60s, becoming a prominent author and teacher. And H. Lee Barnes writes fiction in which men bearing both physical and emotional wounds seek reconciliation.
Wallace Stegner once wrote, "One cannot be pessimistic about the West. This is the native home of hope." Late in life, he came to question that belief. There's no doubt we are living in difficult times; the litany of problems is long, the reasons for pessimism many. And yet we can still strive for, as Tyer puts it, "remediation, reclamation, restoration." Our hope is that this issue gives you some hope as well; heaven knows we can all use it.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at email@example.com.