Truth-telling needs a home in the West

 

Brothers is a store and a highway rest stop 43 miles east of the New West boomtown of Bend in central Oregon. It is also home to some of the most shocking roadside markers we saw in 3,600 miles of Western travel this summer. After days of reading highway signs that painted the surrounding area as a land of milk and honey founded by heroes, we had come on signs that told the truth. Here's what one of them says:

"It usually took about 5 years for a man to arrive, build a house, fence some land, plow it, put in a crop, wait in vain to harvest, lose his money, get tired of jackrabbit stew, and leave."

Not content to turn the usual heroic story of settlement on its head, the Deschutes County Historical Society marker brings the visitor into a not-very-bright present:

"From society's standpoint a serious consequence of homesteading was that it was hard on the land in that most of the acreage should never have been plowed."

The markers say that homesteading began with the arrival of the railroad in Bend in 1911 and was mostly over by 1918. But in those few years, the homesteaders wiped out the wildlife, damaged the native vegetation and left a hardpan, from the plowing, of compacted earth beneath the surface that still prevents water from percolating into aquifers.

How do roadside markers usually read? Like the signs along the 57-mile-long highway between Stanley and Lowman, Idaho, proclaiming it a "Ponderosa Pine Scenic Highway." From the scenic highway, at least, most of the trees looked more like lodgepole pine than ponderosa, and what ponderosa we think we saw were packed in like thin, sickly sardines. A healthy ponderosa pine forest is easy to spot, even at 65 miles per hour: 20 or so large, red-barked, straight pines per acre with a park-like understory. The trees in such stands are so widely spaced that early travelers drove horse-drawn wagons through those forests. We don't think a traveler could walk through the "scenic" forest we saw.

If the Westerners who put up the Brothers historic markers had been in charge of Idaho Highway 21, they might have called parts of it the "Ponderosa Pine Memorial Highway," and described it as an example of careless logging followed by Smokey Bear fire suppression. Visitors would then have better understood this summer's fires.

That is not how we generally do it. In southeastern Idaho, where the Teton Dam collapsed on June 5, 1976, there is a roadside marker commemorating the loss of life and property. But the marker, coyly, does not tell how to find the dam site. When, by hit and miss, we drove up the road leading to the dam's breached, eroding hulk in the Teton River, there was nothing at the site but an unmarked, cracking, asphalt parking lot probably once intended to serve visitors to the functioning dam. In the West, we generally bury our mistakes without benefit of grave markers.

Too bad, because historic markers here could recount how a few underfunded opponents went to court to stop the dam, but were beaten by the local communities and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Visitors could decide if today's strong pro-river, anti-dam movement helps the West make better decisions about proposed dams.

It's a natural urge - this hiding of mistakes and disasters. Or distorting the truth about what visitors are looking at, as on the Stanley-Lowman highway. We're a young region, and in our hearts we know how hard it is to build communities and economies. So we boast and bluster, and then put those boasts and blusters on highway signs and in printed promotional literature.

But there are signs - a few of them even along roadsides - that the region is maturing. Our last stop this summer was in the two-mile-high town of Silverton, Colo., which is in transition from hardrock mining to a different economy. The Silverton Mountain Journal had two historic essays in its Aug. 4, 2000, issue. One was titled "Chinese driven out by force: Ethnic group victimized by racial hatred in 1902." The other described how a mine executive in 1939 used red baiting, violence and the eviction of his opponents from town to destroy the miners' union.

That's the work of one editor. More significantly, we saw the same drive to tell the truth on a community scale in Butte, Mont., at a memorial to the 168 miners who died at the Granite Mountain-Speculator underground fire in 1917. This is no tourist site. You have to know the memorial is there to find its remembrances of the men trapped underground, spending their last hours writing love letters to wives and families as the oxygen vanished.

Why rake this muck? Why should Brothers tell itself and passersby that the land is badly damaged? Why shouldn't Idaho keep a collapsed dam as out of sight as possible? Why shouldn't thick stands of skinny trees be promoted as "scenic"?

Because the West is old enough to stop telling fairy tales. The homesteaders and early ranchers and other first comers were a lot like us: people who left behind know-how and wealth and a colorful history, but who also left busted economies, rivers that run red with acid mine waste, devastated forests and a legacy of social oppression.

We should find it encouraging that we are not walking in the footprints of giants. We can do as well. If we can bring ourselves to look at and learn from the experiences of those who came before us, we can do better.

Ed Marston is publisher of High Country News.

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