Knee-jerking in western Colorado
In 1917, during the height of anti-German propaganda in this country, the essayist H.L. Mencken wrote a history of the bathtub. He said President Millard Fillmore had installed the first bathtub in the White House -- a brave act given that medical professionals believed bathtubs to be “certain inviters of phthisic, rheumatic fevers, inflammation of the lungs and the whole category of zymotic diseases." Boston, he added, had outlawed bathtubs in 1845.
All this was, to use one of Mencken’s favorite words, “buncombe,” a fact he admitted decades later. “The success of this idle hoax, done in time of war, when more serious writing was impossible, vastly astonished me,” he wrote. Even later, however, the story was “reprinted, not as foolishness but as fact, and not only in newspapers but in official documents and other works of the highest pretensions.”
I was reminded of Mencken’s bathtub hoax when I recently heard, yet again, the “facts” about the reintroduction of lynx into Colorado. In this story, the ski company and real estate developer, Vail Resorts, leaned heavily on -- or bribed -- state wildlife biologists to release lynx into the San Juan Mountains, 200 miles south of Vail.
For those who tend to see “our” mountain towns in the West threatened by “them” -- Wall Street-traded companies like Vail -- this characterization fits right in. I first saw it circulated in 1999, in the writings of a friend, and it keeps getting recycled in local magazines, books and even national magazines of the greatest pretensions. In a discussion recently held in conjunction with the showing of a film called “Resort to Madness,” I heard this canard stated again. It was said with as much certainty as one might announce that the sun had again arisen in the east.
Just one problem: it is buncombe, claptrap, nonsense.
These are the facts: Lynx, although described in 1911 as “tolerably common” in the Colorado Rockies, were gone or effectively gone from the area by the late 1990s. When the reintroduction program proposed by state biologists was estimated at a cost of $2 million, the final, deal-clinching $200,000 came from Vail Resorts, which then was trying to receive approval from local and federal agencies for a major expansion of the Vail ski area.
Was there a quid pro quo for this money? No wildlife biologist that I talked to, and I contacted most of those involved, said they ever felt pressure or recall anything of that sort. The closest thing to a “string” was Vail’s request for monitoring of any lynx that showed up near Vail, a reasonable request, and one you would expect from a company that acts as though it believes in the compatibility of wildlife and skiing. The company often pays for wildlife-monitoring programs.
The Vail area off Interstate 70 in northern Colorado was never an option. Biologists theorized that many animals would get killed on I-70 and other roads and highways. The only clear choices were releasing lynx in the San Juan Mountains or the Buena Vista-Aspen area. The San Juan Mountains was picked because it had the lowest density of roads in the state, the fewest potential conflicts with livestock grazers and other people, and the largest population of a prey species, snowshoe hare.
“Vail’s wishes or desires were never mentioned” at the key meeting in November 1998, says Gene Byrne, a now-retired wildlife biologist who directed the state program. Gary Patton, a biologist then with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who oversaw the Vail ski expansion case, concurs. “While there may be conspiracy in some places, “ he says, “this is the wrong place to look for it.”
Patton’s remark suggests Vail Resorts may not have a perfectly aligned halo, but neither does it have a skeleton in every closet. As a matter of faith, most self-described conservationists seem to think it does. But this does not square with history. What I have seen clearly is a process of demonization. In Mencken’s time, it was the “Huns” killing babies. Once you have identified the enemy, the facts are secondary. Abetted by sloppy, lazy journalism, you can demonize a place, a people and motives.
We crave simple stories, of Gary Cooper and John Wayne wearing white hats and facing down the bad guys. The modern battles of the West are too often reduced to similar dualities. Vail is bad; Aspen is good. Publicly held companies are bad; privately held companies are good. It’s pulp fiction, folks. Reality comes textured in shades of gray.
Allen Best is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He writes in Denver.