...and the words from the meaning on the Nevada range

  • Cartoon of gunman wearing a sombrero, protecting a cow


"We had fed the heart on fantasies.
The heart's grown brutal from the fare."

- W.B. Yeats, Meditations in Times of Civil War

"This is a war we're in. We're choosing up sides," thundered Gene Gustin, chairman of the public lands advisory committee for Elko County, Nev. Shouts of approval rose from a crowd of 350 people in cowboy hats and gimme caps, jammed into an old theater in Alturas, Calif., near the Nevada border.

This was not a group of militia men bent on overthrowing the U.S. government by armed force. No one was dressed in camouflage; no one carried a weapon in plain sight. They had come from surrounding ranches to hear what Nevada's current Sagebrush Rebels were doing to fight federal environmental regulations.

The war metaphor has laid siege to the Western imagination for at least a century, but it has overrun the West in recent years. Now members of the wise-use movement of ranchers, miners and loggers routinely accuse the Clinton administration and environmentalists of waging "war on the West," and environmentalists have taken up the battle cry, accusing industry and Congress of declaring "war on the environment." Federal agencies have been bombed, and there is so much talk of war that some people worry whether real war is breaking out.

Does violent talk lead to violence? How can it? How can it not? These questions bandied about in a national debate can never be resolved. Violent acts are facts; violent talk is talk. The two often come together in stories, but, thank goodness, less often in reality.

Like many journalists, I have dreamed of being a war correspondent. But I never imagined I might get the opportunity close to home. And I confess I have used the war metaphor, too. I have written about "range wars' and "water wars." But the more I've covered environmental issues, the more I've found the war metaphor too easy and too distorting. Unfortunately, when I resolved to abandon the metaphor and find new ways of telling the stories of change in Western towns and on the ground, I quickly discovered that the metaphor was here to stay. It's not just the media's lazy language: People on both sides help create and perpetuate the rhetoric. The metaphor validates their struggles as warriors.

The war metaphor is only the most glaring way that debates over environmental issues are polarized by rhetoric. Borrowing an exclamation point from Earth First!, a group calls itself People For the West! The Sierra Club promptly dubs them People For the Worst. Environmentalists counter calls for "wise use" by saying it's "wide abuse."

The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, an environmental group, came out with an "interpreter's guide for members confused by the rhetoric of the wise-use movement." "They mean the nearest anti-environmentalist," when they say local people, the guide explained, while "rich newcomers who don't have to work for a living" is how they describe environmentalists. When they say wise use of our natural resources, the guide says, they mean "any extractive use of natural products, especially if that extraction makes lots of noise, uses motors or goes moo."

It is probably no coincidence that around the same time, the Blue Ribbon Coalition, a group advocating the widest possible access to public lands, came out with a Green Dictionary, subtitled: What they say ain't what they mean. An ecosystem, the dictionary said, is "any land that someone wants to develop or utilize for profit or recreation." Overgrazing is "any grazing, according to environmental doctrine." And since "enviros have a superstitious fear of chemicals," the dictionary explained, hazardous materials include "sodium chloride (table salt), H2O (water) and Coors."

The most discouraging experiences for me have come when I called friends and acquaintances on both sides of the so-called war and found them dissembling - attempting simple spins on complex stories. The most rewarding experiences have come when I have found people who are interested in talking about what is going on, even if it does not spin their way.

I thought I had found a way out of the spin cycle with a story that I wrote on mining reform. I got an opportunity to enter a dialogue between two acquaintances, a gold miner and an environmentalist in Nevada. They were John Livermore, a geologist who discovered the Carlin Trend gold bonanza in Nevada, and Glenn Miller, chair of the mining committee of the Sierra Club (HCN, 10/4/93).

Here was a rich discussion going on outside of the environmental movement's complaint about the $2.50-an-acre mining patent giveaway and industry rhetoric about environmental regulations shutting down mining in this country.

I was gratified to find this story right in my backyard. But I was also frustrated to see the story disappear quickly. So I invited some other environmentalists and miners to participate in a public forum at the University of Nevada, Reno. I was warned that it would be impossible to pull it off, that people would "get Western" in the aisles, a quaint regionalism for getting violent.

That didn't happen. But I got a sense from the 300 people who showed up - from both sides - that they preferred the word wars. The questions they asked and the statements they made furthered the divisive rhetoric. The word wars weren't coming from the speakers; they were coming from the audience.

When Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt first tried to build a consensus on grazing reform he ran headlong into a similar wall erected by ranchers and environmentalists. While the ranchers and environmentalists that Babbitt pulled together in Colorado seemed to come to a consensus, those talks were attacked by both sides.

Environmentalists constantly called up the image of welfare ranchers; ranchers said reform would turn them into paupers. Both sides drew lines in the sand and said, as one environmentalist told me: "We cannot work with these people."

If war is what we want, we may get it. Lately, it has seemed that we are getting awfully close.

The history of the West is full of bravado, but cultural studies of the Western frontier, such as Richard Slotkin's Gunfighter Nation, and crime studies, such as Roger McGrath's Gunfighters, Highwaymen and Vigilantes, show that stories of violence are almost always bigger than the real violence. Nevertheless, when violence seems the only way out, bullets will fly.

I take some consolation in the number of people who seem to be tiring of the current word wars. And I have found some hope in conversations with young people.

When I talked to a group of eighth graders who had been brought by their social studies teacher to the "Win Back the West" rally in Alturas, Spencer Smith, a ranching kid from Surprise Valley in northeastern California, said he didn't think a range war was inevitable.

"And we don't want that," his friend Connor Nolan added. "We need compromise and communication so you can work with (environmentalists and public-land managers) and they can work with you. I don't want to sit back while they annihilate our way of life. But I think if they look at it positively, we can too, and we can come up with a compromise."

Another boy, Tommy Harris, said, "We can live together in peace, but it will take time. We have to give up something."

"We'll all have to give up something in exchange," Connor added.

I was heartened to find that these kids were seeing beyond the rhetorical war that adults in their community, including some of their parents, were promoting. But I also glimpsed how slender their hopes were.

As a journalist, I know I have to report on the word wars in the West. But I also believe journalists need to get beyond the rhetoric to get the real stories.

I believe we all have a responsibility to tell true stories about how the West is changing. Our job is nothing less than telling our own story, and that goes for environmentalists, wise-users and any of us caught in the middle in the West.

Out of the changes we're living through, we may find and create new myths and metaphors, new stories to live by. If we do not find ways to talk about and understand changes, we could find ourselves at war over the wrong stories.

Jon Christensen reports from Carson City, Nevada.

A version of this essay will appear in the collection A Wolf in the Garden: The Land Rights Movement and the Renewal of the American Environmental Movement, to be published in spring by Rowman and Littlefield.

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