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Know the West

You ain’t from around here, are you?


Jim Stiles, the itinerant publisher of Moab’s venerable Canyon Country Zephyr, knows that the rural West is in danger. He also knows who’s to blame: city folk.

That’s the gist, anyway, of Brave New West: Morphing Moab at the Speed of Greed. Stiles is obviously a man of character and passion. You want to agree with someone this devoted to the land. You want to applaud his evident knowledge of local and natural history. You want to glean all you can from a fellow traveler and intellectual offspring of Ed Abbey. But damn if Stiles doesn’t make it difficult.

As he traces the development of the “amenities industry” in his adopted hometown, Stiles offers a provocative look at the relationships between adventure tourism, rural displacement, wilderness degradation, and the entrenched environmental movement. He’s a first-rate reporter, and his insights into the dark side of New West economies make the book worth reading.

But Stiles flirts awkwardly with a sort of He-Gets-His-Salsa-From-New-York-City reverse elitism. Illustrating causal loops between outdoor recreation and profit-driven development, he too often spirals into simple us-versus-them pigeonholing (hint: if you own a CamelBak, you’re on the wrong side). Laments over footprints in favorite spots in nature and cheap shots at Lycra devotees outnumber discussions of, say, erosion or species loss. And Stiles can lay the nostalgia on uncomfortably thick. (Sure, modern prefab apartments are a blight — but is a fleet of yesterday’s below-code single-wides really so romantic?) The cumulative impression is of a man angry not that Moab is no longer, but that Moab is no longer his.

We ignore Stiles’ critiques of the amenities economy at our peril, but he brackets recreationists and developers at his. Stiles hints that the salvation of towns like Moab lies in cooperation, not pie-eyed isolationism. But he doesn’t acknowledge that some among those Lycra-clad masses might be better comrades than he’s given them credit for. The grizzled uranium miners of antediluvian Moab reached a truce with bearded bums like Abbey and Stiles after grudgingly acknowledging similar aims. Those who hope to stave off the Brave New West might benefit from a similar realization.

Brave New West: Morphing Moab at the Speed of Greed
Jim Stiles
272 pages,
softcover: $19.95.
University of Arizona Press, 2006.