'Clinging hopelessly to the past'

The cantankerous gospel of Jim Stiles and The Canyon Country Zephyr

  • A small-town newspaperman tackles big recreation, and runs into a few environmentalists in the process

    Mark Fox
  • Jim Stiles, editor and publisher of The Canyon Country Zephyr on the Slockrock Trail near Moab

    Mark Fox
  • Safari Me

    Jim Stiles
  • Ed Abbey and Moab

    Jim Stiles
  • Jim Stiles, in what he calls his 'Sonny Bono' look, as a ranger in 1976

    Courtesy Jim Stiles
  • Jim Stiles finds signs of the continuing development of Canyon Country around Moab

    Mark Fox
  • Four-wheelers backed up at the entrance to the Slickrock Trail

    Mark Fox
  • Moab today has an increasingly spiffed-up loo, with a gentrified downtown and upscale new development reaching into the surrounding canyon country

    Mark Fox
  • Moab

    Mark Fox
 

Page 6


Stiles says he didn’t set out to pick a fight with SUWA, just to foment a little discussion. Nonetheless, he’s quick to throw gas onto the flames. By holding to its all-or-nothing wilderness philosophy, and repeatedly upping the ante by adding acres to its wilderness proposal, SUWA has guaranteed that the issue will remain in political gridlock, he says. "Ed Abbey said, ‘no compromise,’ but this is beyond no compromise; this is no dialogue, no discussion, no nothing.

"SUWA couldn’t pass a wilderness bill 20 years ago when it was broke, and it can’t pass one now with $5 million in the bank," he says.

It’s hard not to be reminded of another of Abbey’s best-known sayings — this one from One Life at a Time Please: "If there’s anyone still present whom I’ve failed to insult, I apologize."

Given the fact that as recently as two years ago, Jim Stiles was in a bad way psychologically, I can’t help wondering how this current battle will play out in his personal life and, by extension, the life of The Zephyr.

"I feel great," Stiles says. "I am a journalist; it is my job to ask hard questions of everyone, and I do not understand how asking the same kinds of questions I would ask of the mining or development industries of the environmental movement is wrong."

Stiles has his doubters, of course, and not just his old friends at SUWA. "I’ve been here 27 years, and I’ve always liked Jim and The Zephyr, even though I think the main thing about Jim is that he simply doesn’t like change," says Marian DeLay, executive director of the Moab Area Travel Council. "I would say, however, that there are a whole lot more people in Moab who favor the recent changes than oppose them, so I think The Zephyr was more relevant when it started than it is now in many ways."

But many locals say Stiles is doing good work. Taylor, publisher of the Moab Times-Independent, says: "For SUWA to be saying now that he is unfair and that he doesn’t get his facts straight is itself unfair and almost desperate. They’re just not used to being questioned the way Jim is questioning them. Jim is finally asking the right questions."

Adds Sleight: "I think The Zephyr is as good as it ever was. Jim seems to be mellowing out, if anything. The point is that the environmental groups — and I am a big supporter of SUWA — need to think about the impacts of the New West they helped foster. They have helped cause a lot of the social problems in small rural New West towns. It’s as simple as that. But they don’t want to hear it."

SUWA board member Richard Ingebretsen agrees. "Whether the other SUWA board members or its staff understand it or not, Jim has started a very important dialogue," he says. "David Brower once said that environmental groups should not have money in the bank, that they should use it as soon as they get it.

"At the same time, you have to be careful about how you create opposition to an existing idea," Ingebretsen continues. "I keep warning Jim that he does not need to become polemic.

He is not a coalition builder. He works alone. Still, he’s not a necessary evil — he’s a necessary voice."

In the end, it’s important to ask ourselves, as people who love the West, where we would be without the often-thankless efforts of environmental groups large and small, well- and under-funded. But it’s equally important to realize that the answers to those questions are not always simple and black-and-white.

Let me go off on a tangent here. Fifteen or so years ago, then-Colorado Sen. Tim Wirth, D, came to my hometown in the mountains extolling the virtues of "attraction, not extraction" — meaning that the time of the extractive industries was thank-godfully gone, and now it was time for the dominance of the tourist industry. "Hallelujah!" we all shouted. And every environmental group from Colorado to Alaska took up the rallying cry of killing the extractive industries and pushing the New West economy/social agenda as a means of filling the resulting economic hole.

I look out my window now and see amber waves of condos; I see backcountry environmental degradation not witnessed since the late-1800s. I see so many concomitant negative social and environmental impacts it would take a library to catalog them. It makes me long for the old days, where there might have been more cows in the wilderness, but there were a lot fewer ski lifts and a lot less traffic.

I do not lay blame at the feet of anyone, including the environmental groups. How could I? I am them, and they are me. And Stiles is them — as was Abbey before him. In a twist of irony that, in his later years, made Abbey wince, many of the hordes that descended upon Canyon Country bore copies of Desert Solitaire — and they continue to descend.

No one can predict the future. We weren’t all wrong, but we weren’t all right, either. It’s time to re-evaluate the strategies and objectives of this thing we call the "environmental movement." That’s all that Jim Stiles is really saying.

"Abbey did not see this commodification of Nature thing coming," Stiles says. "His last summer in Moab was 1987. I’d said something disparaging about the mountain bikes, and he was annoyed with me. He thought, if it was non-motorized, it must be good. So I drove up to the Sand Flats with him to see the carnage on the Slickrock Trail, and he was blown away. He had always assumed, as we all had, that non-motorized recreation would always have that reverential link. The whole adrenaline, gear-head shit missed him."

It has not missed Stiles. And this man, who quotes Abbey the way some people quote scripture, is still in Canyon Country, loving the land, but angry at what is happening to it, and, increasingly, at those who sit by and let it happen.

Does he think he has all the answers? Not at all. "I don’t know that I could offer a 12-step program on how rural towns can save themselves," he says. What he can offer, with The Zephyr, is a figurative campfire that everyone can sit around, smoke cigars, and talk about the mess we’re in and how to extricate ourselves from it.

"I’ll keep doing The Zephyr as long as it can make a difference," he says, as he leaves Moab to drive back to his new hometown — a place with no hordes of mountain bikers or jeep safaris or Starbucks or brewpubs (and no economy to speak of) a place where one does not have to cling hopelessly to the past, because the past is still the present. For now.

M. John Fayhee is one of the owners of the Mountain Gazette. He lives in a place where there is no longer a past to cling hopelessly to.

To read Jim Stiles’ commentary on the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, SUWA’s retort, and other related stories, www.hcn.org.

For information on subscribing to The Canyon Country Zephyr, see www.canyoncountryzephyr.com.

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