Look for the best — and keep it

  • Montana's scenic US Highway 93 as it leaves the Jocko River Valley at Ravalli Hill

    Montana Department of Transportation
 

This country has been built on the idea of running away, of escaping whatever makes us dissatisfied, uncomfortable or ill-at-ease. It’s a vision of entitlement that began with the founding of the Plymouth Colony four hundred years ago and caused us to spread ourselves resolutely across a continent. But more than a century after the closing of the frontier we’re in a bind: We’re running out of room. Not land that can hold a plow this time, but land that soothes our psychic longings.

Ideally, the impetus for safeguarding our special places would come from those of us already settled in such desirable locales, from fabled spots like Malibu, Calif., to tiny regional gems like Half Moon Bay just south of San Francisco, from places precariously on the edge like Jackson Hole, Wyo., and Aspen, Colo., to communities in danger from impending assault such as Moab, Utah.

But instead of investing our best in these places, we exhale a contented sigh of relief at having found Shangri-la and slam the door behind us. We fall backward into self-righteousness and vow to "send a message to developers." When that doesn’t work, we sue.

We need to jettison our obsession with what we don’t want and begin to think about how to make the developer’s impulse work for us. Developers understand the bind they’re in. Let’s show them new ways of doing things — and then use the old stand-up and fight routine to show them this is where we mean business.

Take Montana, for example, where the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes dug themselves into a hole with the old stand-tall strategy. Faced with the widening of two-lane, accident-prone U.S. Highway 93 into a sleek, four-lane interstate, the Native Americans balked and said no. When negotiations between the tribes and the state of Montana stalled, the federal government threatened to intervene.

Then the tribes got smart. They hired landscaping, administrative and traffic consultants to help transform their environmental concerns into a design for a viable highway. "Having a picture for everyone to look at made a huge difference," says Mary Price, the tribes’ wetland-riparian ecologist. The result is a staggered-lane highway with wildlife crossings every mile on the first 46 miles of new road — and more to come as the highway continues to be built.

The Salish and Kootenai’s solution was patterned after the animal-friendly interstate that crosses Canada’s Banff National Park. There are plenty of good models for highways and housing, storm water management and wastewater disposal, solid waste and recycling, methods of generating electricity — for the whole range of activities that threaten the scenic places we fancy.

The challenge is that it takes time and trouble to dig these out. But in this brave new world of positive vision, organizations that defend the environment will become clearinghouses for information and advocates for new technology.

A positive vision for local action requires setting priorities for the natural landscape that gives a place its special appeal. The Nature Conservancy is doing just that, right now, in Southern California. They call it conservation by design. Their specialists itemize the resources that need to be protected, from oak trees to cougars to streams full of steelhead trout, map the parcels required to accomplish their mandate of preserving biodiversity, then set out to buy the land outright. As E. J. Remson, the man who does these deals, points out, the research and the mapping also provide hard science to influence planning commissions and boards of supervisors what to build and when — and when and why to leave the land alone.

A positive vision for the future means making land acquisition a line item in a community’s budget, right up there with fire and police protection. A positive vision means scrapping the city arborist or city archeologist or geologist, gratuitous staff positions typically meant to suggest a community’s commitment to the environment, and hiring instead a director of development just like any other nonprofit organization, someone who will research grant opportunities and actually apply for the money.

A positive vision is realizing what is special about the natural landscape in which the community is established, and creating commercial activities that introduce outsiders to its uniqueness while coincidentally generating income.

The small seaside community of Malibu, where I’ve lived, spends time and wastes civic brain power trying to figure out how to keep outsiders off its beaches when it could be planning how to constructively exploit what it’s known for: from the surfer culture to the wild Santa Monica Mountains to the Chumash, the most advanced of California’s native cultures who have been here for centuries. Where are the surfer clinics, the archeological conferences, the custom surfboard makers, the children’s surfing classes? And if we managed a state-of-the-art "wastewater" treatment plant? If we installed storm water controls that keep urban runoff from our creeks? Think of the tours we could give, the expert consulting we could offer … the fees we could charge!

None of this is easy. But environments must be managed if they are to be sustained, and this begins by identifying what’s best about a place, then getting down to the hard work of keeping it special.

Penelope Grenoble O’Malley has written about the Santa Monica Mountains for over 15 years. She recounts her struggle to live an authentic life close to nature in Malibu Diary: Notes from an Urban Refugee (University of Nevada Press).

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