Imagine a West without heroes


Heroes have always come with the West. When Indians blocked homesteaders, the cavalry came. When cattle barons closed the open range, President Cleveland reopened it with the Unlawful Enclosures Act of 1885. When aridity slowed settlement, the Bureau of Reclamation built dams. When Western forests succumbed to flames and cutting, Gifford Pinchot's Forest Service pledged to build "the Kingdom of God on Earth."

And today, as the health and economies of the public lands falter, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici come from different directions with the salve of range reform - and, in Babbitt's case, a pledge "to protect the whole of creation."

Perhaps because Westerners have been brought up on the movie Shane, we have a penchant to leave our fate to heroes, and of those heroes, one stands out most: Major John Wesley Powell, one-armed explorer of the Colorado River, founder of the Geological Survey, and prophet of scientific land management.

Wallace Stegner was the first to celebrate Powell. He made it clear in Beyond the Hundredth Meridian that Powell was the West's seer, a visionary who understood the basics of aridity and community and who could point the way to a Western society deserving of its scenery. Stegner believed in heroes; he believed in the power of great men to vanquish what writer and legal scholar Charles Wilkinson has called the "lords of yesterday." Stegner believed so strongly in Powell that he blinded us to the most damaging of the West's "lords': heroes we blindly follow.

Stegner meant to inform and inspire, yet his book lulled us with the conviction - partly his and partly Powell's - that "citizens were unable to cope," that anything short of federal leadership "could not be trusted or expected to take care of the land or conserve its resources for the use of future generations." Local community was vital and good, but only when run along federal lines. This resonated with the paternalism spoon-fed to us for generations. We trusted Stegner's word that Powell always took the long view - that he was our kind of civil servant, the "democrat to the marrow," who, had he lived so long, would have fought alongside the Sierra Club to protect Western forests.

That might have been Stegner's Powell, but it wasn't the Powell who roamed the West.

When Powell addressed the 1889 Montana constitutional convention, he held Western boosters in awe with his bold proposal to irrigate every inch of land east of the Continental Divide. "It means," he boasted, "that no drop of water falling within the area of the state shall flow beyond the boundaries of the state. It means that all the waters falling within the state will be utilized upon its lands for agriculture."

To get every drop of water, Powell had a simple plan: Strip the West of its thirsty forests. "The best thing to do for the Rocky Mountain forests," Powell declared, "was to burn them down," and burn them he did. He bragged to Interior Secretary John Noble how he himself "had started a fire that swept over 1,000 square miles." For Powell and his colleagues at the Geological Survey, saving the West meant "cut(ting) away as rapidly as possible all the forests, especially upon the mountains, where most of the rain falls, in order that as much of the precipitation as possible may be collected in the streams." The optimistic Powell wrote: "It may be added that the forests in the arid region are thus disappearing with commendable rapidity."

A visionary to the end, Powell even endorsed overgrazing as "a useful way to keep forest growth down."

Today, Powell's spirit enlivens range reform. Whether to the beat of the "wise-use" slogan or the "society to match its scenery" slogan, paternalism rules. It matters little if the vision of Babbitt or Domenici wins out; both are the Lorelei song of a dependency forged from decades of federal subsidies, work projects and heroics.

It is Congress that must choose between Babbitt's vision and Domenici's vision. Groups and individuals from the West make regular pilgrimages to Washington, D.C., to push one or the other of these visions. I know because I've spent lot of time myself in D.C. campaigning againt the Domenici bill because, for the moment, I see it as the greatest threat.

But both approaches are destructive. Each embodies the Powell-type hero. Each implicitly denigrates the ability of Westerners to manage the land and its communities. Each takes a Big Brother attitude toward the region.

Instead of Domenici-Babbitt, we need something very different. And not just on the public range. The Next West, if it is to be a New West, must reject federal subsidies, federal projects and - most of all - grand federal schemes.

What will the Next West be if we drop heroes and federal dollars? I don't have any grand prescriptions; I'm not about to become one of those grand planners I so want to rid us of.

But I know the Next West when I see it in action. And I see it in Montana's Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, where environmentalists and loggers are joining to save the grizzly (HCN, 5/13/96). I have also spotted it along the Henry's Fork of the Snake River in Idaho, where neighbors are gathering to protect their watershed; and in southwest New Mexico, where ranchers are signing up in a "grass bank" to save their families.

The vacuum is being filled. Like riders on the old open range, a new breed of Westerners is staking claims to a moral and political landscape and by the strength of their care and husbandry bringing it gently but firmly down to earth.

Karl Hess Jr. lives and writes in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

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