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Know the West

Where do you draw the line?


As a journalist, I've watched many forms of civil disobedience in the West. I've known EarthFirst! tree-spikers and interviewed armed, tax-evading Freemen. I've seen "green" grandmothers lie down before bulldozers to stop the blazing of new logging roads across public land, viewed the carcasses of dead grizzly bears and wolves shot down by opponents of the federal Endangered Species Act, and reported on the arrest of Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski.

I am not implying that there is any justification for violence. Acts of terrorism are wrong, no matter what the provocation.

But what, today, compels Westerners into action? Don't say "jobs" or "good schools" or "defending private property rights." Those values are givens, and they don't differentiate people of the West from anywhere else. Most of us, I'm willing to bet, would say that choosing to live in any of the Western states has something to do with a certain quality of life, one that's influenced mightily by the condition of the open, publicly owned landscape around us.

In recent years, though, it seems that activism in our region has been in a deep sleep. Civil disobedience - at least the kind of peaceable law breaking advocated by Henry David Thoreau as a response to slavery and the Mexican War - seems to have fallen out of vogue. This includes both environmentalists and their counterparts on the other end of the political spectrum who, just a decade ago, claimed to be victims of a "War On the West" being carried out by Washington, D.C.

My attempts at political agitation have been meek compared to the deeds of others. During the 1990s, as hundreds of Yellowstone bison were being shot or shipped to slaughter in Montana for doing nothing more than wandering across an invisible national park boundary, I suggested in a newspaper column - only half in jest - that readers write a letter of disgust to then-Montana Gov. Marc Racicot. I said they might also want to enclose a rock to challenge the state's Stone Age logic in managing migratory wildlife. Outside the governor's office at the state Capitol in Helena, I was told a table had to be set up to receive the stones of dissent.

I also wrote a column about a landowner's proposal to turn a stretch of the Yellowstone River in Paradise Valley into an RV campground. It was a place where the trout fishing was good and the scenery magnificent. My suggestion was for motorists who disagreed with the development, which needed approval from county commissioners, to honk their horns in protest. The suggestion resulted in lots of motorists beeping their horns, and the developer became so annoyed that he phoned the county sheriff's department. Later, I learned about one unintended consequence: At least one motorist was ticketed.

Looking back, I realize that these recommendations were both lame and futile. Not only did the campground along the Yellowstone River move forward, but the other side of the waterway is now lined by ranchettes. The view shed has been impaired forever and a wall of riprap, erected to defend the residences against floods, armors several miles of the Yellowstone River's banks. As for Yellowstone's wandering bison, which can carry a disease, brucellosis, that is harmful to cattle, little has changed. Buffalo blood is still being spilled, and, after decades of controversy, there still is no resolution in sight.

How can any citizen - old-timer or newcomer - halt the destructive patterns that continue to erode the West? The great conservationist David Brower warned that no environmental victories are permanent. They may be fought valiantly to a standstill, he said, but most flare up again, and every time they do they are fated to be lost without citizen vigilance.

But it's inconvenient to be vigilant, it takes courage to act on personal convictions, and it makes other people angry. Yet how is standing up to battle against landscape destruction any less a patriotic calling than what is being asked of our soldiers in Iraq?

I have no regrets about helping to generate a few rocks in the Montana governor's office, or for temporarily disrupting a developer's bliss with a little noise. Still, in hindsight, those gestures were meaningless. If Thoreau were alive today, where would he draw the line?

Todd Wilkinson lives in Bozeman, Montana, where he is working on a book about the bison-rancher and philanthropist, Ted Turner.