Use this book to get under the West's skin

  • Saguaro at Eagle Mtn. residential and golf development near Phoenix

    Peter Goin
  • Cover of Atlas of the New West


There is nothing historian Patricia Nelson Limerick dislikes more than the word frontier when used to describe the "advance of civilization" across the arid, lightly populated 19th century American West. She built her early career debunking the notion that the West was once an empty land settled by brave white men bearing democracy.

Nevertheless, the Atlas of the New West, which closes with a first-class essay by Limerick, is a late 20th century version of historian Frederick Jackson Turner's theory of the frontier.

Once again, there is a vast, relatively empty Old West.

Once again, pioneers driven by a thirst for wealth and freedom pour into the region, altering it forever.

And once again, the drama and romance of this invasion plays on a national stage, until one hardly knows which is the West and which is the Myth of the West.

If the nation can't keep the two apart, it won't be because this book doesn't try. From attorney Charles Wilkinson's opening essay on Native Americans and environmental consensus, through the maps and charts by cartographer James J. Robb that are the bulk of the book, to Limerick's closing words about the use and abuse of Latin American immigrants working in the region's ski resorts, the Atlas is gritty and on the ground.

And fun. This isn't an atlas that tells you how to drive from Deer Lodge to Sedona, or how many people live in Deming, or what their respective elevations are. But if you also have a road atlas, this cultural atlas will direct you to a cup of espresso and a current copy of the New York Times, tell you where gay people have established a presence, and show you places that have had notable books or essays written about them. If you have a private jet, one of the maps shows where you can land it. Overlay the airport map with the rodeo map or the map showing the West's cultural hot spots, or the map of ski areas with the highest, longest runs, and you're ready to party.

There is also food here for quieter tastes. I was most startled by a modest graph showing how Colorado-Big Thompson's water is used. CBT is the essence of the Old West, diverting water from high mountain streams on Colorado's Western Slope of the Rockies into huge structures beneath the Continental Divide. The diverted water made the dry plains east of the Rockies and north of Denver bloom and became the foundation of a farming and ranching economy.

But today, the graph shows, almost half of the CBT water flushes toilets and nurtures lawns, which means it has been appropriated by the New West. In a few decades, given present trends, all of CBT's water will go to suburbia.

This book is an account of the retreat of the Old West before the New West's onslaught. There are still some areas, a map shows, where at least 35 percent of the economy is based on ranching, mining or logging. But that same map also shows that these areas have shrunk dramatically from 1980 to 1994.

The book's University of Colorado editorial team, led by geographer William Riebsame as general editor, with help from Hannah Gosnell and David Theobald, does not seem enthusiastic over the New West's advances. But neither does it applaud the Old West's counterattacks, whether it is the county supremacy movement's attempt to enshrine extraction and ranching with county ordinances, the ongoing attempt to build the Animas-La Plata water project, or hostility to protection of endangered species.

This is the heart of the region's dilemma: Must it go forward to a suburban future which will make it like every other part of the U.S. or should it try to hang on to an extractive past that in its very rough way at least preserved open spaces and low population densities?

Wilkinson, who is always hopeful if not optimistic, looks to Native Americans and consensus for a way out of the trap. He is amazed, he writes, at the Indian nations' success in re-establishing their sovereignty, in revitalizing their cultures and languages, and in convincing the larger society to see things their way. Not since 1968, Wilkinson writes, has the Congress passed a bill over Native American objections. And even the Rehnquist court, he says, has stepped lightly when it comes to Indian issues.

Wilkinson finds hope for non-Indians in Quincy, Calif., where some environmentalists and some logging companies have worked out a united - if controversial - approach to the surrounding Sierra Nevada national forests. Perhaps their agreement, Wilkinson writes, will enable that area to keep the New West at bay, or at least give the area the power to approach the New West menu on an a la carte basis, rather than the prix fixe approach adopted by, or forced on, the Moabs and Glenwood Springs.

For those of us who like Hollywood endings, it would have been better to close the book with Wilkinson's essay, because Limerick's is an almost unrelenting catalog of how harshly the private and public sectors have treated the West and its people. But she, too, finds if not hope at least a kindred spirit in Francis J. Stafford, the former archbishop of Denver. She quotes liberally from his pastoral letter contrasting the wonders of the landscape with the poverty of the Latin American immigrants whose grunt work makes it possible for others to enjoy that landscape.

The opening and closing essays are first-rate, but they look at the West from the same perspective. Missing is the song of triumph from those who are winning the struggle to reshape the region. It is as if an Atlas of the West had been written in the late 19th century solely by the defeated tribes. It's as if the editors have forgotten that it is the winners who get to write history.

If the editors could have found room for a third voice, my choice would have been Phil Burgess, the head of the Center for the New West in Denver (Limerick and Wilkinson run the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado in Boulder).

Burgess is a man whose glass is never just half full, but is always overflowing. He believes that the West will eventually take over from the exhausted, bureaucratic, politically correct - and therefore politically and economically doomed - East Coast. The West's work ethic and strong family values make us more like Pacific Rim nations such as South Korea, Japan and Taiwan than like the East Coast or Europe, he says.

Burgess is interesting because he thinks broadly, and because he chooses to see the upside rather than the downside of this economy and culture. Why, he asks, would you seek out the losers rather than the winners in the West? And so it is he who created the Lone Eagle metaphor to describe people who use modems and air travel and entrepreneurial skills to survive in isolated small towns. He overlooks damaged landscapes and exploited workers to point out a larger dynamic that he believes will eventually solve those problems.

Burgess' linking of the American West to Asia also points out the vulnerability of the New West. The Pacific Rim's recent economic decline shows that regions run by autocracies do well for awhile, but that decisions made by and for the powerful and wealthy can eventually undermine the economic advantages of no dissent, no environmental protection and no diverse decision-making.

Although the Atlas of the New West ignores politics, the Interior West it explores is a one-party region, from the congressional delegation down to almost every county commission, and it is increasingly dominated by a single economic interest: real estate development. A fair tax base, decent wages, and investments in planning and education are all sacrificed to the subdividing of land. The most successful political movement in the region is the anti-tax one, which has damaged our collective ability to educate and to take care of other social needs.

And while there is dissent, that dissent comes almost entirely from the environmental movement, and is focused on unpopulated landscapes and wildlife. Environmentalism has been successful in achieving many of its goals, but its neglect of the larger issues facing the West threatens to undermine its success, as subdivisions move up to the borders of the "protected" land and as small towns, once home to people who had connections to the land, become populated by those for whom the land is nothing but scenery.

The fights between environmentalists and loggers and miners and ranchers may ultimately be seen as a waste of time. However much they may dominate the current debate, they are all becoming increasingly irrelevant, as this Atlas shows. It is the subdividers and the recreation promoters who are in the saddle.

Eventually, of course, the bill for this latest economic high-grading of the West will be presented, as it was after the energy boom of the 1970s and all the earlier booms. And once again it will be paid for by a thorough bust. But that bust will not bring back the Old West. It will simply present those who can or who choose to stick in the West with a chance to introduce the reforms so repugnant to the free-market, property-rights anarchists who presently control the region.

Among the stickers will be some of Burgess' Lone Eagles. They may have come here, like many of us, searching for youth, for the open road, and for deep powder and blue skies. But the best of them will stay to help the region achieve what it most needs: a society that helps its citizens to lead decent, just, middle-class lives.

Ed Marston is publisher of High Country News.

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