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Know the West

The Postal Service stamps the mythic West


Wyoming has declared war on Montana. Why? Wyoming officials say their northern neighbor has co-opted an icon behind which the state tries to perpetuate long-gone traditions. The stimulus for the feud was the U.S. Postal Service and its 50-state commemorative stamp series.

The Montana stamp features a cowboy atop a bucking horse. Wyoming says it owns that symbol, which has been its registered trademark since the 1970s. The University of Wyoming uses the image on its logo, the Wyoming National Guard carried the symbol onto the battlefields of World War I, and the silhouette of the hat-waving cowboy and horse has been imprinted on Wyoming license plates since 1936.

Wyoming Secretary of State Joe Meyer told the Associated Press that attributing the image to Montana made about as much sense as "using the Texas Lone Star on a Louisiana stamp."

I agree. But it makes even less sense for Wyoming to think a horseback rider truly represents the state. Let's face it: The age of the romantic cowboy is long gone. Rather than try to perpetuate myths about the West, the Postal Service would better serve all Americans by projecting modern images of the states.

Cowboys no longer represent the spirit of Wyoming. Nor does the majestic elk chosen by the Postal Service to grace the Wyoming stamp. Why choose elk to represent Wyoming when the state works hard to turn over its legislative reins to coal mining and oil and gas corporations?

The true spirit of Wyoming has always resided in its extractive industries. So its stamp might better feature icons such as a giant earthmover poised above an open-pit mine.

Other state stamps designed for the West also need some updating. Surprise: Idaho's stamp fails to depict an Idaho potato. Instead, the stamp features a kayaker paddling near a waterfall on the Snake River. This is the same river that is confined by a series of dams, which turn portions of the river into playgrounds for motorboats and Jet Skis. Why not showcase the motorboats and salmon-blocking dams? Better yet, how about some of Idaho's abandoned mines that are polluting the state's waterways, and whose danger to the environment state officials consistently underestimate?

Ho hum, Arizona features a saguaro cactus and blossom. State promoters must have nixed the original design - a plain beige stamp. That was a photo of the Grand Canyon on a hazy and polluted day.

For Utah, the government chose a scene of the Wall of Windows at Bryce Monument Valley. I'd alter that pristine canyon scene, adding a valley of smiling faces to convey a certain church's seeming desire to populate the world.

On the North Dakota stamp, wild horses run across the badlands of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Why not a white stamp with a single black line running across it? The white to represent 10 months of snow; the black line illustrating the quickest way out of a state which has, sadly, seen declining populations for the last few decades.

What better way to represent Colorado than the skier that graces its stamp? Well, how about Denver traffic and sprawling developments that spread out along the Front Range?

Of course, Wyoming officials have a right to be miffed, and Montana should back off from infringing on Wyoming's archaic cowboy image. A Wyoming elk would have been better suited for Montana, since people in Montana seem more intent on trying to preserve wild places.

Intent, however, doesn't indicate outcome - not when you have Montana's Republican Sen. Conrad Burns plumping for aggressive gas and oil exploration along the Rocky Mountain Front and the Sweet Grass Hills.

I nominate trophy homes as the symbol for Montana - those arrogant monster houses mounted high in the hills for all of us to envy or disdain.

Let's face it: the natural places and wide-open Western vistas depicted on Western stamps are becoming more and more like the rest of America. Instead of celebrating an Old West that is gone, will never return and may never have been, let's represent our region by a wild animal we just about finished off - the bison. The Postal Service can part out the beast with Wyoming taking the head, Montana the tail, Oregon the back and so on until a picture of the beast is complete. The stamps might not be scenic, but they'd be the true West.

Mark Matthews writes in Missoula, Montana.

Copyright © 2002 HCN and Mark Matthews