We can't save the land without first saving the West


Once a month I spend several hours with what I affectionately call my "wise-use" group. It's not really a wise-use group but at first glance it resembles one. Members include the six county commissioners from Delta and Montrose counties here in western Colorado, a rancher, a timber mill employee, a coal miner, a banker, and a BLM and Forest Service employee.

Changes in the Forest Service created the group. Traditionally, county commissioners had only to clear their throats and the local Gunnison National Forest scurried to prepare timber sales, cut new roads, and accommodate ranchers' grazing requests.

No longer. Even when the commissioners go beyond throat clearing to foot stamping, goodies don't flow off the forest. So this group was formed to show how important public-land commodities are to the area, and to put together a diverse membership to make the findings credible.

The meetings are polite pushing matches. Much of the emphasis is on the economic importance of public land logging, mining and grazing. My self-appointed role is to emphasize the importance of the health of the land. I argue that instead of asking the agencies for more trees or coal, we need, for example, to burn invading brush and juniper trees to restore grasslands and watershed. And in order to burn, we need to plan where houses are built. It was the West's inability to plan that made this summer's fires so expensive and fatal to fight.

I've learned a lot from the group, and they've listened to my views. We get along, but we have differences. Our November meeting was the day after the election and the group asked, with undisguised glee: "How did you like the election?"

So I told them how George Bush had been an environmental president. He vetoed the $1 billion Two Forks Dam outside Denver. And during his four years, the making and testing of nuclear weapons stopped, the wild flows out of Glen Canyon Dam were tamed, the Central Utah and Central Valley projects were reformed, no new dams were built, and old-growth logging in the Northwest ended.

Some of this was done with Bush's assent; some was done despite him. The point, I said, is that the West is being changed by powers greater than those exerted by a president and Congress.

After that, we got to work - figuring out how to live together in Delta and Montrose counties.

Only connect

Environmental attorney Grove Burnett of Glorieta, N.M., believes activists suffer from impoverished spirits. We work far from the land, among people who do not share our values. So Grove established the Vallecito Mountain Refuge, where activists can come for two weeks, away from telephones and faxes and intense conversation. There, he believes, they reacquaint themselves with who they are and with the land.

For a New Yorker raised on concrete, Paonia, with its population under 2,000 and proximity to public land, brings me close enough to the land. I nourish my spirit by visiting cities. But I find that talking only to people like me isn't enough. A gap, perhaps Grove's spiritual gap, was partially filled when I connected with Doc and Connie Hatfield and their fellow ranchers in Oregon (HCN, 3/23/92). And now I also get nourishment from my local multicultural group.

I learn from them that we environmentalists are up against foes, but not implacable, demon-like foes, eternally hostile to us and to the earth. In our mutual loyalty to community and to modest, low-key lives, we have much in common. Where we differ is that they are accustomed, I believe, to support their lives by leaning too heavily on the land and on the federal treasury. And I am quick to minimize the difficulties people face when economic conditions change around them.

I learned more about our supposed enemies in October, at a board meeting of the Pacific Rivers Council. The Eugene group created a near-riot this fall when its lawsuit evicted a few cows from Oregon's Umatilla National Forest. The reaction from eastern Oregon seemed out of proportion to the event. So Pacific Rivers Council hired a consultant to visit Oregon, Idaho and western Montana to see what was what.

Despite the public nature of the lawsuit, the consultant found it had taken rural Oregon by surprise. And similar actions, perhaps a bull trout listing in Montana and Idaho, he predicted, will take those communities by surprise. In general, he said, the rural interests we see as so fearsome and effective are often disorganized, poorly informed and mostly reactive.

The consultant had to sit through a chunk of our board meeting before giving his report. He told this typically beleaguered and overworked environmental group that it struck him as well-informed, with a strong sense of long-range mission and short-term tactics. Relatively speaking, the council seemed a powerhouse. It all depends on your vantage point.

Slogans and stereotypes

There are rich and arrogant ranchers, and mine and mill managers who would rather trash the land than care for it. But the West also has many people of modest means who feel helpless in the face of forces they do not comprehend.

Environmentalists don't help when they publicize slogans like "Livestock Free by "93," which translates directly into "Rancher Free by "93," and by inference into "Miner and Logger Free by "93." The "Livestock Free" slogan was never contested by mainstream environmental groups. From outside the environmental movement, it looked like all of us were united in wanting to drive ranchers off the land.

That impression was reinforced when Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and Colorado Gov. Roy Romer convinced some courageous environmentalists and ranchers to make a run at consensus early this year - and incidentally combat the War on the West talk. The group was met in Denver by full-page ads in The Denver Post and New York Times condemning the consensus effort. The ads were signed by a slew of national, regional and local environmental groups.

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