The 'Niche West' reconnects us to the land


Arguing is one of my favorite sports. I always like to participate, and often I enjoy watching, as with the latest bout between Thomas Michael Power, an economics professor at the University of Montana, and Ed Marston, publisher of High Country News (HCN, 12/17/01: Economics with a heart but no soul) and (HCN, 2/4/02: Post-cowboy economy not a Barbie Doll world).

Power, in collaboration with his colleague Richard N. Barrett, just published another book - Post-Cowboy Economics: Pay and Prosperity in the New West. They argue that if rural places offer pristine beauty that will attract the right kind of people, then rural economies will thrive.

In reviewing the book, Marston observed that Power and Barrett's work "ignores the land except as a backdrop to the kind of suburban development that characterizes the rest of the United States. There are no working landscapes in Power and Barrett's vision," and that we need to connect to the land around us "in more ways than recreation and preservation."

Power and Barrett responded by arguing that "actively developing natural landscapes for commercial purposes is not the only way in which to productively and safely relate to those natural landscapes. For instance, a miner engaged in tearing off the top of a mountain, soaking the crushed rock with cyanide, and then dumping the toxic remains into a valley does not necessarily have a superior cultural or spiritual relationship with the mountain than a hunter, poet, hiker, mountaineer or environmental geologist."

Personally, I've never known a hard-rock miner who wasn't also a rock collector, and this hobby implies a relationship that runs somewhat deeper than a paycheck.

But in an era when miners have pretty much gone the way of the buffalo, one might also ask whether the single-track mountain-bike enthusiast has any relationship with the terrain that goes beyond adrenaline. The same might be asked about the muscular sorts who climb all 54 of Colorado's fourteeners in less than a fortnight, or those athletes who run the entire length of the 476-mile Colorado Trail - which was designed 30 years ago as a leisurely and varied exploration, not as a racetrack.

Are these people coming through because they want to savor our landscape and comprehend our culture, or because they've found an immense outdoor gymnasium?

The Mountain West was designed for two purposes after the Civil War. One was to provide a reliable Republican pool of electoral votes, and the other was to produce commodities for national and international markets - gold, silver, lead, coal, timber, mutton, wool, beef, wheat, to name a few.

The Republicans have done pretty well, but by and large, the West's commodity economy has faded; most of those things can be produced more cheaply somewhere else - Argentine beef, Chilean copper, Canadian softwood, New Zealand lamb, on down the list. It was the commodity economy that provided working landscapes and profitable open space - often at a tremendous environmental cost, to be sure. But if it goes away, are we doomed to subdivided amenity landscapes?

Perhaps not. Mel Coleman of Saguache, Colo., died on Feb. 3, 2002, a little short of his 77th birthday. Until about 1980, he and his wife, Polly, ran a typical family ranch - that is, they got hammered every time beef commodity prices fell.

The extended family was gathered one Sunday for dinner - featuring some ranch beef straight from the pasture - when a daughter-in-law who lived in the city commented on its tangy taste and asked why she couldn't get beef like that in stores. That was the inspiration for Coleman Natural Beef: no herbicides or pesticides on the pastures, no growth-enhancing hormones in crowded feedlots, and now a producing and marketing network of more than 700 ranchers in 17 Western states.

Mel Coleman discovered that he could produce a premium beef that wasn't a mere graded commodity, and in the process, he restored some of the old bond between producers and consumers. His persistence and vision kept a lot of family ranches as open space, rather than 35-acre subdivisions.

It's not the Commodity West of yore, and it's not the Adventure Park West that continues to invade, or the New West of coffee bars and broadband access.

Call it the Niche West. It starts with traditional commodity activities, but the products appear in local and niche markets, rather than national and international commodity markets. I see the Niche West in Alma, Colo., where Bryan and Katherine Lee have reopened the Sweet Home mine, closed over a century ago, when silver prices collapsed.

It now produces gem-quality rhodochrosite crystals for collectors and jewelers. The small pockets of "ore" are discovered with ground-penetrating radar, and the waste rock goes right back into the drifts and adits above Alma.

This isn't somebody ripping the top off a mountain and pouring cyanide onto the pile, trying to compete in the world commodity markets. But it is a mine, it provides a few jobs, and the Lees do appear to know their mountain rather intimately.

Even if the big timber operations have departed, there are a couple of small, custom sawmills hereabouts. One processes beetle-killed pine from the national forests, and some of the scraps help keep my house warm. Another works with private landowners to manage their trees. Both give local construction a connection to the countryside that doesn't happen when a semi-load of two-by-fours from Oregon arrives at the lumberyard.

The lumberjacks can show you where the 1962 White House Christmas tree came from, or which areas appear most fire-prone, or where there's dumb construction because the new trophy house is in an avalanche path. Maybe they don't exactly groove on the trees the way a poet might, but they're not just looking at our forests as so many board-feet, either.

This is just in my little part of the West, but when I converse with friends in other mountain towns, be they in Idaho or New Mexico, I hear about the same sorts of activity, whether it's mining clay for local potters, raising vegetables for the local farmer's market, or fermenting wine from family vineyards and orchards. They're doing honest work that results in tangible products - they're not just selling experiences - and they connect with the landscape in ways that recreation doesn't.

Sometimes this can get a little too precious and cute - just how many genuine hand-dipped beeswax candles can any household absorb? But by and large, this is healthy. We all consume tangible goods, and if we can get some of those goods from the Mel Colemans of this world, so much the better.

Besides, what's the alternative? Should we live in disconnected enclaves, where our vegetables all come from the Imperial Valley and our wood from British Columbia and our beef from Iowa, so that Missoula professors can enjoy a vista unsullied by any sort of productive activity?

Should the rest of us put on authentic rural costumes every morning before we go to work guiding poets and hunters around a sacred Barrett & Power landscape, hoping that these visitors will develop the spiritual and cultural relationship that has so far eluded the single-track bikers, extreme-air skiers, endo kayakers, avalanche-chute snowmobilers and peak-grabber climbers?

To ask that question is to answer it. Honest work producing honest goods in an honorable way is a good start on an honest relationship with our landscape. I don't know about you, but I'd rather have that than a "superior spiritual and cultural relationship."

Ed Quillen lives in Salida, Colo., where he helps publish Colorado Central magazine and opines twice a week for the Denver Post.

Copyright © 2002 HCN and Ed Quillen

High Country News Classifieds