A few modest principles to help us manage Utah's public lands

 

It wasn't every day that I got to speak at a chamber of commerce meeting, so I tried to be careful. But I must have shown a bit too much green or too many urban mannerisms, and one member of the audience came rushing over almost before I'd stopped talking. In seconds we were going at it like kids in a playground.

Technically, we were arguing about logging. But really we just didn't like each other's looks. I'd probably enraged him simply by being up on the platform in his small town in western Colorado. And he angered me by looking the stereotypical rancher.

Those arguments almost always stay on the surface. But there was something he wanted to know. So after we'd sparred for awhile, he asked a question; it was partly meant to tell me I was the newcomer, but he also really wanted to know:

"Why did you people come here anyway?"

So I told him: "Because you people don't know how to make a living here."

He chose to walk away rather than swing at me. I learned later he was a rancher who had tried a couple of other businesses and gone bankrupt.

I was embarrassed, but also pleased. In those days, I was pleased about almost everything. It was 1986, and the West was in the midst of a reprieve, a stay of its sentence to death by industrial development. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the entire region seemed about to be swallowed by coal mines, power plants, transmission lines, oil shale complexes, oil and gas fields, uranium pits.

Then, on May 2, 1982, Exxon abruptly closed its Colony Oil Shale Project in Colorado, literally stunning the West. People didn't even get sick; the hospital in Rifle, next to Colony, was empty for the week after Exxon declared the oil shale game over.

The hush was followed by a run on U-Hauls, and the workers were gone. After Exxon's announcement came the cancellation of most of the rest of what environmentalists had feared. Exxon itself decided not to divert the Missouri River into the Colorado River, and not to sprinkle 50,000-person cities across western Colorado to house its oil-shale workers.

By 1986, life was good. I had the West more or less to myself, and I was even helping to shape a wonderful future, telling chambers of commerce how to graze the scenery. I predicted that tourism would be clean, benign. It might bring a few more people west. But we would all walk lightly on the pristine land.

It is amazing how much you can learn in 10 years just by hanging around. I've learned what it means that I can make a living here and that rural people can't: subdivisions and weedy, neglected land; dangerous drives by a servant class over mountain roads to low-paid jobs; and the conversion of what had been communities into worker housing or enclaves for the well-to-do.

Each High Country News in 1995 has been about some aspect of the West's reaction to this accelerating change. Now we close the year with the struggle over the ongoing transformation of southern Utah.

Southern Utah participated joyously in the West's energy and minerals boom of the 1970s and early 1980s. As in the rest of the West, synthetic fuels, uranium, oil and gas drilling, and the accompanying dam building all abruptly disappeared.

Towns in southern Utah like Moab - Edward Abbey's "metal-building capital of the world' - had been through busts before. To cope, the men would find jobs in Phoenix or Alaska or Saudi Arabia, leaving the women home to raise the kids and open a beauty parlor or drive the schoolbus. If the family lost its home to the bank, there were always other foreclosed houses to rent.

This difficult but familiar cycle ended in the 1980s. While energy and minerals slumbered, another economy came into Moab and the rest of the pretty West, buying up economically stranded houses and businesses for 10 or 15 cents on the dollar, and making it difficult for people waiting for the next boom to hang on. It is the derailing of the West's natural resource boom-and-bust cycle that has led to the present West-wide struggle. Beneath the wise-use and war-on-the-West rhetoric, the fight is about rural people who can't make a living in the once-rural West, and about urban people who can.

To stem its losses at the hands of the marketplace, the Old West is attempting to turn back the clock by attacking environmental laws, by selling off public-land ski areas, and by logging or mining everything in sight. In Utah, this reaction is embodied in a wilderness bill that would zone the land for energy and minerals as if it were 1950 again.

The Utah delegation's bill is driven by the energy and minerals industries. But it is also a creature of the dream rural people have of escaping from working in service jobs and living in tourist towns.

It's an irrational dream. An anti-wilderness bill, gutting the Endangered Species Act, even cutting down all the trees, won't drive off the New West.

But people aren't always rational. For years I've held two contradictory ideas. First, that the West had been devastated by mining, ranching, logging and dam building. Second, that the West is pristine, and I had arrived just in time to help.

Lately, though, I've been having trouble hanging on to contradictions, and I had to let go of my "pristine" West. Extinction of species, alteration of forests by logging, loss of grasslands to piûon and juniper forests, fire suppression, and the drifting in of exotic species have irreversibly changed everywhere, including southern Utah.

The idea that the West's industrial past is as lost to it as its pristine nature is not good news. It interferes with how we have framed the question and then bucked it to the Congress and president to solve. We had to send it upstairs since we weren't about to settle it among ourselves. And the Congress and president, of course, are perfectly happy to take over. It is where their power, and our powerlessness, comes from.

But eventually, the much-maligned Beltway will fail to satisfy either side. When that day comes, and the issue comes back home to the West, here are a few principles we may use to try to deal with the challenge of the West's public lands:

First, let's admit that those who live near the public land will have a significant say in its management. It's impractical to impose land-use solutions from afar. Look at how Inyo County in California has fought - for 80 years or so - to restore the Owens Valley, which Los Angeles had drained dry. Or how rural northern Nevada just fought off Las Vegas' grab for its water. At almost the same time, in southern Colorado, residents of the very rural San Luis Valley kept their water from grasping Denver suburbs.

Second, or just as easily first, decisions about the public land can't be made solely by the rural residents. Management of the public land must conform to broad national values. The Utah delegation's wilderness bill passes the first principle - that of rural control - but fails the second. It is no longer the industrializing 1950s, and the vast majority of Americans want conservation. The zoning of southern Utah must take place within that broad context.

The third principle has to do with how we talk about the land. It would be helpful if we stopped describing the western landscape as pristine. It may be beautiful. Our love for it may have transformed us. But it is not pristine.

Much of it, in fact, is in need of restoration. Not restoration to its presettlement state but to a healthy ecosystem. That means its watershed should function properly and its ecological niches should be filled. To do this, fire may have to be returned to the land. Juniper forest may have to be thinned or even chained to recreate grasslands. Wolves may have to be reintroduced. Dams may have to be removed.

There is lots to be done - all of it more complex and challenging and invigorating than simply zoning the land one way or the other.

The fourth principle is the need for rural communities, towns whose residents want to work the land and live off it, rather than simply live on it, with the mountains and deserts as a pretty backdrop. The fourth principle is tightly tied to the third principle: Without rural people to work the land, the health of the land cannot be restored.

The fifth principle is that the past is the past, and we must live in the present, and with each other. The New West is here to stay, probably for as long as the Old West lasted. There is no Exxon board of directors capable of emptying out the trophy homes and 35-acre ranchettes and the cute little Swiss ski towns.

But if November 1994 showed anything, it is that the Old West is also here to stay, either as a constructive part of the New West, or as an economically weak and troublesome minority. The challenge is to merge the two for the benefit of both. It is a much more interesting question - a much more realistic question - than whether to draw lines around 5.7 million acres or 1.8 million acres.

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 betsym@hcn.org.