Rural Green: A new shade of activism

Ed Marston interviews Steve Hinchman, former HCN staffer and director of the Western Slope Environmental Resource Council, about the different kind of environmental activism and consensus-building needed in rural Western communities.

  • Steve Hinchman of WSERC

    Alexandra Kleese photo/Black Lab Studio

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

Steve Hinchman came to Paonia, Colo., in 1986 as a High Country News intern and stayed on as a staff member until 1994. In 1995, he went to work as director of the small Western Slope Environmental Resource Council. During that time, he fought the AB Lateral project, which would have diverted water from the Gunnison River to the Uncompahgre River; participated in a federal lawsuit against the Colorado Department of Corrections and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which alleged improper diversion of sportsmen's tax funds to buy land for prisons; and helped appeal travel plans on the Uncompahgre and Grand Mesa national forests. He has been at the center of the struggle over coal leasing in the North Fork Valley of western Colorado (see story page 1).

In June, he resigned his job to enter Vermont Law School in September. He is 38, has never made more than $30,000 per year, and is married with pre-school-aged twin daughters. High Country News publisher Ed Marston interviewed Steve Hinchman this June.

Ed Marston: Steve, why are you leaving your environmental job after such impressive successes?

Steve Hinchman: Personally, I am ready for a bigger challenge. Professionally, I was worried about what I would have to do to raise the $100,000-plus per year for the next 15 years.

Marston: But there is an enormous amount of foundation and high-donor money pouring into the West's environmental movement now.

Hinchman: WSERC is too maverick, too local, too willing to compromise the national platform for the sake of local success. And the North Fork Valley isn't like our two neighbors - Aspen and Telluride. There isn't a lot of local wealth here. It's still working people who travel (over passes) to Aspen from the Paonia end and Telluride from the Montrose end to do service work. We're a grassroots environmental group based in a working landscape created by loggers, coal miners, orchards, ranchers, organic farmers and small towns.

Marston: What's the difference between what you're seeking locally and the national agenda?

Hinchman: Local success is evolutionary and gradual. National success is measured by how much new wilderness you convince Congress to designate.

Marston: Are you against the current push to create more wilderness in Colorado?

Hinchman: I'm not against it. I just think it's irrelevant. And that's where I start to get into trouble. The foundations and big environmental groups are pouring almost all their resources into the wilderness fight, at least here in Colorado. I think that's a mistake, both ecologically and politically.

Marston: But wilderness now protects some of the most beautiful places in Colorado and the West: magnificent peaks, high mountain valleys, extensive forests ...

Hinchman: Most of it rocks and ice, or high-elevation summer range. I'm glad that land is protected, but that is not where the biological need is today. What we're doing now is nostalgia. The wilderness tool won't work at the low elevations - below 9,000 feet - where the land has already been massively changed, where people aren't just visitors, and where most of the critical wildlife habitat is, or at least used to be.

Marston: Used to be?

Hinchman: Yeah, ask an anti-wilderness coal-mining hunter or construction worker. They know the big-game habitat - deer, elk, bear, lion - is trashed. It's full of roads, people, ATVs, and now, 35-acre ranchettes. The conditions on the ground are so bad that even the wise-users can see that environmental integrity and the quality of life are going down the tubes together.

Marston: What do they see?

Hinchman: Mostly that they can't go hunting anymore - not the way they used to. Their hunting camps, the ones they've used for generations, are overrun by people from Arkansas and Missouri, and their hunting areas are crisscrossed by people on ATVs. Most of all, there isn't much game.

Environmentalists miss what the locals see because the locals go different places at different times. We go to the high country, or we kayak the river canyons, or float the rivers - all in the summer. But most locals go into the pinyon-juniper or scrub oak, ponderosa pine and aspen - the drier middle-elevation country - during hunting season.

Locals also want solitude and quiet, but in our county the number of hunter-visitor days in the fall is now three times our county population. Locals are being driven out of places they have enjoyed all their lives.

Marston: So why isn't there a natural alliance?

Hinchman: There could be. But they don't trust us, and we don't even bother to talk to them. Local people are angry about wilderness because they know it doesn't create pristine ecological reserves nor does it necessarily protect the game herds. Wilderness is just a recreation designation. All you're doing is favoring backpackers and horse people over ATVs and snowmobiles.

Marston: Doesn't wilderness help?

Hinchman: To the southeast of us is the West Elk Wilderness, one of the biggest in the state, and just to our north is Grand Mesa, with all its roads and cabins. Both are the same size, and both are prime big game habitat. Compare those places using the locals' viewpoint: the number of bucks per 100 breeding does. In both areas, the mule deer herds are averaging a pitiful four bucks for 100 does, and the bucks are just little 2-year-old spikes. Meanwhile, in Montana and Idaho, they have 25 bucks per hundred does, including 4- and 5-year-olds.

If wilderness meant anything, the West Elk would have healthier herds than the Grand Mesa, with its roads and cabins. But both areas suffer from the same problems: too many hunters, an unreasonably long hunting season, high road densities along the buffer zones, and exponential growth and development along the valley bottoms, where the herds try to winter. The only difference is, in the West Elks the hunters are on foot or horseback, and on Grand Mesa they come in with recreational vehicles and ATVs.

Marston: Some would say good riddance to the hunters and their ATVs.

Hinchman: They would be wrong, because the vanishing of the mule deer is a sign of what's going wrong out here. It's the result of Colorado Division of Wildlife's "cash-register" approach to big game management, of 100 years of fire suppression and improper grazing, of ranches converted to suburban sprawl, of more hunters and backpackers, and of lots of elk in the high country pushing deer down into sterile old-growth piûon-juniper, where they starve. These are things new wilderness can't fix.

Marston: Why is the herd crashing now? These conditions have been around for a long time.

Hinchman: Not as intensively as now. There's much more development and sprawl. Ed Abbey's prediction of industrial recreation has come true in ways perhaps he didn't even imagine. Add hunting to that too - there's more than double the hunters, and they're mechanized. And there are no more bulldozers pulling anchor chains through the brush and piûon-juniper to create grass and browse. That can't be done politically anymore, and there aren't enough controlled burns to replace them. Chaining was big through the 1960s, and now the areas they opened up to grass are being taken over fast by brush.

Marston: If the local people are so smart, and the wilderness movement is ecologically irrelevant, why aren't the local people doing something about the problem?

Hinchman: They are, at least here. The example I know best is the local Delta-Montrose Public Land Partnership. It was initially a group with wise-use motives. But they invited agency representatives and environmentalists like me in for political cover. They spent two years learning the Forest Service budget process, trying to find a way to smuggle in money for logging and grazing. I'm grateful that the national environmentalists beat them back in the Congress.

Meanwhile, we were meeting once a month religiously, and it turned into the most fantastic book club I've ever been part of, even if we didn't read any books. They taught us, and we taught them. We were also all being polite and respectful to each other, even as we pursued our own agendas. For a long time, it seemed interesting but pointless. Then, driven by the crashing of the mule deer herd in the Partnership's back yard, on the Uncompahgre National Forest, came the Uncompahgre Restoration Project.

Marston: You mean this consensus group came up with a restoration project?

Hinchman: The group didn't conceive it. The BLM, the Forest Service and the Colorado Division of Wildlife came to the Partnership with the project. But the Partnership recast it into a plan that could be implemented by the community, and they went to the Ford Foundation and got a $750,000 grant over five years.

Marston: Why isn't this just another way to do more grazing and logging - except now the money comes from Ford?

Hinchman: It is going to be used mostly to burn, if we are ever allowed to burn again. I've sat with those people for five years now, and I'm convinced their goal is to restore biological integrity necessary to keep their rural economies alive. They understand what's been done to the land, and I don't think they are going to let more damage be done. They're going to want the timber sales to improve the land, and to help the industry transition to sustainable logging methods and small-timber marketing. The best thing is, these concepts are going mainstream.

Marston: How do you restore that mess up on the Uncompahgre National Forest: small trees, roads as thick as in subdivisions, motorized recreation everywhere?

Hinchman: Some of the solution will come from understanding what drives the Forest Service. It always wants to log in roadless areas because there are the fewest people there. Most people recreate where the roads are. It's how the agency minimizes political opposition to logging.

If we as a community decide to use logging for ecological restoration, we could cooperate with the Forest Service. There is little roadless (area) left anyway. We will have to do most of the work in the roaded areas. If we put timber sales, fires and roto-chopping in roaded areas, then we could level the forest and start from scratch. I know this sounds horrible, but it would help obliterate existing roads and trails, and they could be replaced with a planned system. Then, over the years, as the forest came back, we would be re-creating species and age-class diversity in the vegetation. The ORVers and jeepers might oppose it at first. But people who care about the long-term restoration of the middle level elevation lands should support it.

Marston: But in the end, you'd still have some roads. It wouldn't be roadless.

Hinchman: Insistence on complete roadlessness or wilderness is dogmatic and needlessly antagonizes potential allies. And without those allies you won't get all the other pieces needed to complete the puzzle: reform of the Colorado Division of Wildlife, improving grazing management, protecting migration corridors, restricting growth through (the creation of) more private conservation easements, creating a local land ethic, and so on.

Marston: Aren't you asking environmentalists to give up just as the movement is on the brink of victory?

Hinchman: I'm not saying give up; I'm saying think about what we're after. We should become more like what Dave Foreman and Michael Soulé are advocating with their Wildlands Project - biological integrity (HCN, 4/26/99: Visionaries or dreamers?). To truly achieve that, we have to add local people and economies to their strategy.

But you're right: We are getting close to where recreation-based environmentalism can roll the opposition. The commodity-based Western senators like Ben Nighthorse Campbell and others are anachronisms, and once they go it's all over for the old West. But the current single-strategy wilderness effort will just substitute a kayaking and peak-bagging myth for the ranching and prospector-with-a-mule myth. Let's face it: the wilderness myth is walking hand-in-hand with the real estate developer reality.

Marston: Aren't you trying to have it both ways: biological integrity and economic activity in the forests and grasslands?

Hinchman: No. Economic activity in the woods has changed. Logging and grazing, done right, can be compatible with improved habitat. Wilderness was the right strategy when the enemy was a destructive extractive industry. Now the enemy is us - people, backpackers, anglers, hunters, new houses and resorts. From what I have seen, wilderness exacerbates the problem, draws in more people, more development at the edges.

Let's go back to roads. The problem is not the roads and trails, but people traveling them. Remember that a low density of roads is compatible with biological integrity in the Central Rockies. Some in the environmental movement think the problem is forest fragmentation. But at a conference at Colorado State University a few years ago, the scholars said that the Central Rockies are different from the Pacific Northwest. This area is naturally fragmented by canyons and avalanches and the like. You never had unbroken forest. So the species here are generalists - they've adapted to mixed habitat. A few roads and logging cuts - and I emphasize few - mimic what's already here. And they can be used to speed restoration.

The problem is too many people on those roads and trails. It doesn't matter if they are on foot or on an ATV. In other words, it doesn't matter if it's a wilderness or not.

Marston: For better or for worse, you've come a long way from 1986, when you arrived in Paonia as a hippie with long hair and all the answers.

Hinchman: That was eco-rhetoric. The truth is, you get co-opted when you live in these small, rural towns and see the incompatibility of a one-size-fits-all wilderness strategy with needs on the ground. That's when you move to talking about a more integrated approach: loggers doing restoration, the BLM and Forest Service setting big fires, hunters working on habitat restoration, and putting private-land winter range into protection.

A lot of my friends and compatriots will be very angry at me for saying this. And I know the penalty for traitors. But the wilderness movement has almost gotten intoxicated with the amount of money and power they are bringing in, so much so that they are willing to fight a scorched-earth political campaign in the rural West.

No modern society has ever managed to simultaneously inhabit and preserve fully working ecosystems. The wilderness movement is a great and noble experiment, but it ignores the inhabit part and therefore it will fail, at least ecologically.

Marston: Did this come on you bit by bit, or as an epiphany?

Hinchman: It was an epiphany because of someone else's epiphany. Jeep-ers I know fought to open some roads earlier in the year, in May. They won, and the first time they used the reopened road they drove upon an elk calving. They were horrified. They told me: "We had no right being there." In a way they were apologizing, because I'd been on the other side of that fight.

It made me realize we had the same values. We just had to figure out how to work together.

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