The noisy democracy of the West

  • Old Fences, New Neighbors

    Peter R Decker, 195 pgs, softcover: $15.95. Fulcrum Publishing, 2006

The problem seems unavoidable: Historian Peter Decker wants to write about what he knows and loves, his adopted home in rural Ouray County, Colo. But his passionate prose is sure to spark more visits from outsiders, perhaps helping to destroy the very isolation that he cherishes.

The first edition of Old Fences, New Neighbors appeared eight years ago; it examined the complex land-use issues faced by many small Western towns. The revised edition contains a foreword by novelist and former Ouray resident Kent Nelson, who writes that Decker captures "what has happened across the West in the last 30 years — the disruption and breakdown of the old ranching society and the order of human relationships based on work."

As Decker writes in the new preface, the biggest issue facing the county’s several thousand permanent residents, like those of many picturesque places in the West, has become "how to respond to the pressures of unabated growth." Tucked away in the San Juan Mountains, the southwestern Colorado county draws increasing numbers of urban dwellers looking for a refuge — a second home in a quiet rural setting.

Decker, a history professor, and his wife, Deedee, bought a ranch 26 years ago, when they moved from back East. Now, they struggle to hang on as more and more former homesteads become fancy equestrian centers and hunting preserves. "The newcomers arrive with their horse trailers and computers, ready to take up a new, ‘rural’ lifestyle evoked, perhaps, from the pages of glossy magazines," Decker writes. And ranch kids are not interested in carrying on the business, so the richness of the land diminishes through neglect.

But Decker seeks the positive in the cacophony of competing philosophies and lifestyles. "Democracy continues to thrive in Ouray County," he writes, "but it sure can be noisy from time to time."

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