Why bother to save the West?

  Ed Marston's call to save the West (HCN, 12/26/94) was a well-intentioned plea for protecting the population and communities here from the larger forces at work upon them. Sadly, it lacks a historical context and appears to invoke the same type of preservationist mentality that is often damned when it is wielded by environmentalists.

Implicit in every editorial and wire-service feature on the debate over the future of the rural West is the assumption that every community is worth saving - that every population must stay in place. Yet 150 years of history demonstrates that the West has not only survived depopulation in the past - witness our ghost towns - but that it may well have benefited from the dislocation of populations.

Since the frontier period, rural populations have shifted and fluctuated. Now, urban-generated wealth has fueled an influx of retirees and vacation-home owners, and ranchers, losing their children to the lure of distant jobs with good pay and no physical labor, are selling to subdivision-land developers. Viewed within a historical context, the recent changes wrought by heightened environmental concerns are insignificant when compared to the juggernaut of the marketplace.

What is new is the almost universal public demand that life be free from hardship and insecurity. Welfare state policies tend to rob us of any sense of self-reliance in exchange for the comforts of stability. Today it is someone else who is responsible for our problems, and another someone else (usually government) who must come to the rescue of struggling individuals, families, industries and communities.

One consequence of this national dependency is manifest in the rural Westerners who failed to accept this place for what it has always been: a land of trade-offs with beautiful surroundings and lousy pay. As a boy I was told that if money were paramount, you headed for the cities of the East.

This demand for security goes beyond ranchers insisting on predator control and expecting everyone else to build fences for their livestock. It's more than new roads for log trucks driving at race-car speeds and overloaded haul trucks that "customize" our Western windshields. It's also people who demand compensation for damages when a bear chews on their hot-tub cover, parents fearful for their children because cougars still live in their new-found mountain paradise, and commuters who whine about the lack of asphalt on their corduroyed roads.

The West threatens to become a land of opportunity without responsibility, where people insist that their dogs be allowed to run loose (though they may join a pack of similar pets that attack wildlife and livestock). Similarly, remote subdivisions of 2- to 5-acre micro-ranchettes often provide hideaways for social misfits who seek to slip the bonds of civilized society and end up a burden on overextended sheriff's departments. Undeveloped lands, both public and private, are increasingly trashed and trampled by the "grocery store" mentality that demands unrestricted access for every form of diversion and pastime.

In a West where neighbors once helped each other, self-described "property rights' advocates use public intimidation, telephoned death threats and gun-toting militias to drive away those who disagree, forcing them out of their homes, off the land, and out of the communities. Save today's West and you save all this in the bargain.

For a look at the West that might have been, pick up a map or guidebook to the ghost towns of any Western state and try to imagine every one of those long-gone towns as a bustling community full of untrammeled property rights, employment opportunity and social justice. Suddenly the West we take for granted begins to look a lot like New England, the Great Lakes region or southern California.

Why lament the shortage of low-cost housing? Will the West be a better place with a larger minimum-wage work force to further facilitate the growth of the "leisure economy'? In simple mathematical terms, what happens to the "rural lifestyle" and "small-town atmosphere" when every high school graduate is insured a local job and a new home just down the street? Why must we be sensitive to third and fourth generation Westerners who spit the word "newcomer" while selling off chunks of their inheritance to land developers?

How big a burden are those empty "trophy" homes whose owners pay massive property tax bills while not imposing a daily burden on schools, roads, aquifers and the like? Why does the empty "trophy" home only become a liability after the last construction worker has spent the last dollar from their last paycheck? Try standing up in a public hearing and demand a building permit moratorium: You will be instantly vilified as a threat to some of the better-paying jobs in the community.

As a high school graduate with no marketable skills or credentials, and whose employers never offered more than minimum wage plus 10 cents, I have struggled all my life to enjoy the privilege of living in the rural West. Because of this, I have little sympathy for those who insist on receiving a helping hand.

From such a background, I suggest that the hand-wringers take two aspirins, that the Archbishop of Denver get a real job, and that those truly suffering from meager paycheck to meager paycheck seek their opportunities elsewhere. Leave the rest of us to endure our privations in the land we love.

John Walker

Coaldale, Colorado

The writer is a painter.

High Country News Classifieds