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Know the West

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.