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Know the West

Billboard corporations and other big industries make their own rules


There were rumors of night-time guerrilla activity when I lived in Tucson, Ariz., during the 1980s. Under cover of darkness, people scurried around using chainsaws and flammable liquids to destroy billboards. Ed Abbey, the edgy desert author of the novel The Monkey Wrench Gang, was reportedly among them; so were some other founders of the insistent-exclamation-point activist group Earth First! Abbey described the destruction of billboards as "a routine neighborhood beautification project."

Such eco-sabotage has long been a thread on the fringe of the environmental movement. I don't sanction it, but it's helped me understand the visceral reaction that some people have to billboards. Tucson had been shamed by a 1970 Life Magazine story that called one of the city's primary thoroughfares, Speedway Boulevard, "the ugliest street in America," largely because of the thickets of billboards along it. The Tucson City Council, and local voters who passed a ballot measure, imposed regulations in the 1980s, and since then, hundreds of billboards around that metro area have been removed -- legally, this time.

On a fundamental level, the political struggle I saw in Tucson -- a local government passes regulations, and billboard corporations resist by going to court and the state Legislature -- has also erupted in many other Western communities. The battlegrounds range from San Diego, whose billboard regulations were partially upheld by a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1981, to Rapid City, S.D., where last June voters passed measures to ban billboards -- tough regulations that are now being challenged in court by one of the nation's largest billboard corporations.

The storyline of well-heeled and politically connected corporations skirting the will of the people should be a familiar one to High Country News readers. Last year, we ran cover stories on an aircraft-tourism company's domination of local government on the southern edge of Grand Canyon National Park, and on giant meatpacking companies resisting federal regulations that seek to reduce their power over cattle ranchers. In previous years, we've scrutinized the political power of ski companies, mining companies, mega-dairies and more.

These struggles will only persist and likely intensify in the wake of a 2010 Supreme Court ruling that allows corporations to spend as much as they want on political campaigns. The Citizens United ruling by the five most "conservative" Supreme Court justices, vehemently opposed by the other four justices, overturned a federal law that limited corporate campaign spending. It also overturned the limits set by many state governments. One result is obvious: Corporations will now work even harder to elect politicians that support them.

As our televisions, computers and airways fill up with political ads paid for by "third-party" backers this election year, will Westerners rediscover their fighting spirit? The vitality of our democracy might well depend on it.