At home in the wasteland

  • The Great Basin: half empty or half full? A broken goblet

    Stephen Trimble
  • Schell Creek Range

    Stephen Trimble
  • Wheeler Peak from Mount Moriah

    Stephen Trimble

Note: this feature article is one of several in this special issue about the Great Basin.

The Great Basin can be seen as the geography of hopelessness. Wallace Stegner might roll over in his grave at this turn of phrase. But at the twilight of the 20th century, the Great Basin is still a social, political and environmental frontier. It is still a wasteland and a colony shaped by forces out of its control. And it is still a home to many people who prefer getting Western - a synonym for violent - to getting civilized.

However, there are also reasons to be hopeful about the Great Basin. The region is part of a larger changing West and changing world. And now change is also coming from within the Great Basin.

The end of the Cold War brought nuclear testing to a halt, and Nevada has united against becoming a nuclear waste dump.

The region's cities have become forces pushing water reforms, along with tribes, environmental groups and even the Bureau of Reclamation.

The Culinary Workers Union is proving that the service industry does not have to run on dead-end low-paying jobs.

While many ranchers are still ready to get Western when it comes to range reform, federal land managers are holding steady. And ranchers such as the Tiptons are showing that they can work to restore ravaged rangelands.

Even that most refractory extractive industry, mining, is paying closer attention to the environmental bottom line.

These are all cases of enlightened self-interest, provoked in part by steady pressure from regional and national environmental groups, and in part by global changes.

But environmentalists must also learn to change. As environmental values are internalized in Western towns, cities and industries, there will be new work to be done.

Fallon and Pyramid Lake provide an example where the tribe, the farmers and the federal government are trying to reallocate water. The Nature Conservancy and Environmental Defense Fund are providing expertise, resources, ingenious approaches and steady pressure in an attempt to keep an intractable conflict moving toward solutions.

The Nevada Progressive Coalition is also grappling with questions that link social, economic and environmental concerns in communities. They haven't found the answers. But they're headed in the right direction.

The Great Basin could still use a strong regionally based environmental movement that can relate to its communities. But the old dream of a sagebrush alliance of environmentalists and rural folks banding together against outside threats - such as the federal government - is running out of steam as the region faces the fact that change is coming from within as well as from without. The federal government is part of the regional community.

Together we helped make the Great Basin a wasteland. Together we can make it a homeland.

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