Yes, we need the rural West

 

Note: this article accompanies another article in this issue, "Do we really need the rural West?"

Hal Rothman is normally a very cool guy - a history professor fascinated by the culture and economy of his hometown of Las Vegas. But he recently went to a conference about the rural Northern Rockies, and after sitting through a stream of talks about the wonders of living in the place, he wrote an essay which said in part:

"I always cringe when people from the rural West tell the rest of us how to live ... (as if) the 95 percent of us who live in Western cities somehow don't matter."

In truth, he said, it's the rural people who don't matter. We're welfare crybabies, soaking up subsidies to keep our toy economies - ranching, mining, logging - going. He offered to pay ranchers an annual subsidy so "they can pretend to ranch and farm ... but no water will come out." Water won't come out because it will be in Las Vegas, where Rothman says it can do some economic good.

He's right about the arrogance. Those of us who moved to small towns in the West from cities (I came from New York in 1974) can be insufferable about our good fortune. We moved just when small Western towns were in transition from a stultifying rural past, which had caused most rural children to flee to cities, to an urban future. And for this small moment in time, we have it pretty good, even as we shudder at what might be coming.

He's also right that the Old West was subsidized. If he were an environmentalist, he could add that the Old West was especially subsidized by nature, which gave up its soil, its rivers, its salmon, and its forests.

But he is wrong to now consign the West to the trash heap of history, or to think Las Vegas can buy us off. He tells us that Las Vegas is a thriving, creative place, with a population that is attempting to build a strong society behind the glitzy, garish face it presents to us gullible visitors. But he doesn't understand that we are doing the same thing behind the slow-moving, rural-hick face we present to visitors.

Everyone here knows that our traditional economies and customs and cultures are over. Some of us don't admit what we know, so this is an angry, divided place at the moment, but that will pass. We also all know that we need new economic engines and new ways of relating to the land and its wildlife. Because without the land and its wildlife, the rural West is nothing.

High Country News prints its share of obituaries about the Old West: how Plum Creek slaughters forests; how W.R. Grace slaughtered miners at its vermiculite mine in Libby, Mont.; and how dams slaughter salmon in the Columbia River.

Obituaries used to dominate the paper. But today it's mostly birth announcements. The first one we printed was in 1992, about a group of ranchers in central Oregon that was learning to produce healthy organic beef off healthy public and private grasslands. Today, this group is thriving economically and ecologically, providing food to upscale organic markets and restaurants in the Bay Area and the Pacific Northwest.

More recently, we wrote about California's Mono Lake, and how inner city people from LA worked to conserve so that water could be left in Mono Lake. We wrote about the devastated ponderosa pine forest around Flagstaff, Ariz. The forest was originally made up of a dozen or so immense trees per acre. After those trees were cut and milled, millions of sickly, crowded trees grew up, presenting a fire hazard to Flagstaff. So urban and rural people are working together to thin the trees so that a large, healthy, fireproof forest will come back.

I could go on because the main force in the rural West today is restoration. But restoring a healthy landscape requires a healthy, creative and prosperous rural society. So in addition to missing the fact that the rural land and rivers are alive and must be tended, Rothman also misses the struggle we are in to transform rural society so it will be capable of recovering the land.

It is here that we need urban help. It is no accident that all the examples I listed are about urban-rural cooperation. The Oregon ranchers need urban markets. Mono Lake needs water conservation in LA. The forest around Flagstaff needs the impetus of urban concern over fire dangers.

Here's a final example that should be near and dear to Rothman. Utah and the federal government have come together to move a mountain of radioactive mine tailings away from the Colorado River, just outside of the small town of Moab. Rothman and Las Vegas sit downstream of Moab, drinking water that is now polluted by that radioactive waste.

If he cares about Las Vegas, then he must also care about rural Utah, for his health and that of the city he promotes depend on the ability of the Moabs of the West to restore what is now a plundered land.

Ed Marston is publisher of High Country News.

High Country News Classifieds
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE: NEAR CHRICAHUA NATIONAL PARK
    2 (20 acre sites): 110 miles from Tucson:AZ Native trees: Birder's heaven: dark skies: Creek: borders State lease & National forest: /13-16 inches of rain...
  • DIRECTOR - SONORAN DESERT INN & CONFERENCE CENTER
    The Sonoran Desert Inn & Conference Center is a non-profit lodging and event venue in Ajo, Arizona, located on the historic Curley School Campus. We...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field Seminars for adults: cultural and natural history of the Colorado Plateau. With guest experts, local insights, small groups, and lodge or base camp formats....
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Methow Valley Citizens Council has a distinguished history of advocating for progressive land use and environmental values in the Methow Valley and Okanogan County...
  • ACTING INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS DESK EDITOR
    High Country News is seeking an Acting Indigenous Affairs Editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk while our editor is on...
  • GRANTS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation seeks an enthusiastic, team-oriented and knowledgeable Grants Program Director to work from their home in Montana. Established in 1983, the Cinnabar Foundation...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Artemis Program Manager will work with National Wildlife Federation sporting and public lands staff to change this dynamic, continue to build upon our successful...
  • ALASKA SEA KAYAK BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Well-known and successful sea kayak, raft, hike, camp guiding & water taxi service. Sale includes everything needed to run the business, including office & gear...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND EVENTS PROGRAM COORDINATOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a detail-oriented and enthusiastic Membership and Events Coordinator to join our small, but mighty-fun team to oversee our membership...
  • PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT FACILITATOR
    ABOUT THE HIGH DESERT MUSEUM Since opening in 1982, HIGH DESERT MUSEUM has brought together wildlife, culture, art and natural resources to promote an understanding...
  • LAND STEWARD, ARAVAIPA
    Steward will live on-site in housing provided by TNC and maintains preserve areas frequented by the visiting public and performs land management activities. The Land...
  • DEVELOPMENT WRITER
    Who We Are: The Nature Conservancy's mission is to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends. As a science-based organization, we create...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Driggs, ID based non-profit. Full time. Full job description available at tvtap.org. Submit cover letter and resume to [email protected]
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • SPRING MOUNTAINS SOLAR OFF GRID MOUNTAIN HOME
    Located 50 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada in the pine forest of Lee Canyon at 8000 feet elevation. One of a kind property surrounded...
  • MAJOR GIFTS MANAGER - MOUNTAIN WEST, THE CONSERVATION FUND
    Cultivate, solicit and steward a portfolio of 75-125 donors.
  • NATURE'S BEST IN ARAVAIPA CANYON
    10 acre private oasis in one of Arizona's beautiful canyons. Fully furnished, 2123 sq ft architectural custom-built contemporary home with spectacular views and many extras....
  • HEALTH FOOD STORE IN NW MONTANA
    Turn-key business includes 2500 sq ft commercial building in main business district of Libby, Montana. 406.293.6771 /or [email protected]
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.