A look at the West, in the funhouse mirror

  • Jim Stiles

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    Jim Stiles

Life was much simpler when I viewed the battle to "save" the West through a black-and-white lens. As a young environmentalist, it was easier for me to condemn my adversaries’ land ethics and beliefs when I was unwilling to honestly scrutinize my own. And it was easier to attack my adversaries when I didn’t know them. I have agonized over this for years now.

At the heart of this land war — and that’s what we should call it — is a fundamental conflict of cultures. On one side stand the "New Westerners," mostly urbanites who consider themselves environmentalists, but whose connection to the land is as observers, recreationists and infrequent visitors. On the other side are the "Old Westerners," most of whom oppose the environmental movement, live and work in small rural communities and make their living from the land.

In the last three decades, each side of the conflict has so savagely caricatured their opponents that they have, in the process, turned themselves into pretty laughable cartoon characters as well. There is nothing like bloated self-righteousness to make people seem ridiculous; to me, everybody looks goofy these days.

Consider this ...

Many New Westerners long for the simple life and want to move to a small town. But they hold the Old Westerners in low esteem and abhor their politics. And when they move to a small town, they build an oversized home, complain about the lack of amenities and try to change everything.

Many Old Westerners actually live the simple lifestyle that their New West adversaries claim to admire. Their homes are smaller and their cars are older and they lack a lot of the luxuries that New Westerners can’t live without. But if they had more money, they would probably live just as extravagantly.

Old Westerners like cows. Millions of cattle still graze on public lands, and some ranchers who hold federal grazing allotments are terrible stewards of that land. They allow overgrazing, destroy rare streamside habitat, and turn some public lands into barren wastelands.

New Westerners hate cows. They think all ranchers are bad stewards. They want to eliminate all public-lands grazing. But when they buy a condo in a New West town, they love the view of the adjacent alfalfa field from their picture window and complain bitterly when yet another development wipes out the pastoral scene.

Cows eat alfalfa.

Old Westerners like their jeeps and their off-road vehicles, and a minority of thoughtless idiots cause a disproportionate share of the resource damage. Many of their peers know this and don’t like it, but say nothing because the one thing they’d rather NOT do is be seen agreeing with an environmentalist.

New Westerners drive hundreds or thousands of miles in gas-guzzling vehicles so they can pedal their bicycles 10 miles and say they’re nonmotorized recreationists. Bicyclists gather for rallies and races just like their motorized cousins and cause extraordinary damage when their numbers are high enough.

Old Westerners like to hunt, mostly deer and elk. Each year, a few thousand hunters get a permit to kill a cougar. They chase the big cat with their dogs, run it up a tree and shoot it. Sounds pretty barbaric to me. New Westerners hate to hunt. They would never kill a cougar. But when several thousand cougar-loving recreationists invade once-empty public lands, it becomes a hunt of sorts — a hunt that eliminates the habitat that wild, reclusive animals like cougars need.

Old Westerners oppose wilderness, since they believe it will limit their access to public lands. On the other hand, Old Westerners understand one key component of wilderness far better than their adversaries do. They understand solitude and the emptiness of the rural West. They like the emptiness.

New Westerners are terrified of solitude. Leave most of them alone in the canyons without a cell phone and a group of companions and they’d be lost. As a result, the search and rescue budgets of many rural Western communities have increased astronomically in recent years. Most members of search and rescue teams are Old Westerners.

Old Westerners agree with the Bush administration that increased production of oil and gas on public lands is necessary to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Many of those same people mock efforts to reduce U.S. dependence through conservation — the attitude is really stupid.

New Westerners oppose increased oil and gas exploration and advocate conservation. Yet most of them are bigger consumers of natural resources than the people who defend drilling in the public domain.

Old Westerners love the owners and major stockholders and corporate heads of oil and gas companies, who are mostly rich, arrogant bastards and personal friends of the vice president. Most field employees of oil and gas companies are hard-working middle-class Old Westerners, trying to keep food on the table.

New Westerners despise the owners and stockholders and corporate heads, not to mention the vice president. But they also detest the field employees, which is about as wrong-headed as the Old Westerners’ admiration of Dick Cheney.

And finally, Old Westerners hate Ed Abbey, who once said, "If America could be, once again, a nation of self-reliant farmers, craftsmen, hunters, ranchers and artists, then the rich would have little power to dominate others. Neither to serve nor to rule. That was the American Dream."

New Westerners love Ed Abbey, even though they despise half of the people Ed honored in the preceding quote. They’ve read all his books and possess cherished, signed copies, but understand far less than they realize.

As long as Westerners, New and Old, refuse to acknowledge the fruitlessness of their own entrenched and inflexible positions, the West will suffer for our stubbornness. This is not about compromise, it’s about dialogue. Discussion. An honest discussion.

Jim Stiles publishes the Canyon Country Zephyr in Moab, Utah.

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