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Know the West

Environmentalists have one big blind spot

  I hope no one yanks my green card for this admission, but I'm beginning to hate the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

It's not that I'm for drilling. There's no reason to drill in a place set aside for wildlife when more efficient vehicles could eliminate demand for the oil.

But as a Westerner newly relocated to the East Coast, I resent that the Arctic Refuge is almost the only Western public-lands based issue that makesthe national news. Here's my tally from the New York Times in a two-month period this spring: Arctic Refuge -- seven stories; all Western land topics put together -- five stories.

Is the Arctic Refuge really that important? To take only one example among scores, what about the oil and gas boom in the interior West? As new gas wells and service roads dissect the landscape, millions of acres of habitat on both private and public lands will be transformed. Countless drinking-water wells continue to be contaminated by leaking methane wells, and the drilling and road building are upending operations at hundreds of ranches and farms.

To take a second example: Congress isconsidering a bill to encourage private landowners to donate or sell development rights and conservation easements on their land. A decision by Congress on this bill -- the Charities Aid, Recovery and Empowerment Act -- could mean the difference between development and open space across important habitat in the West.

When put up against coalbed methane drilling, clean air and water, and overall protection of 500,000 square miles of federal land in the lower Western United States, even the vast and beautiful Arctic National Wildlife Refuge looks small.

So why do the Times and other media cover the refuge almost exclusively, and ignore so many other stories? The fault, I think, lies with the environmental movement. We continue to let the wilderness ethic guide our efforts in the West. That ethic holds that a landscape has the highest conservation value when we consider it to be pristine, virginal and untrammeled by humans.

This ethic squeezes people onto the scene only grudgingly, as brief visitors in a landscape that sets our heads spinning with awe. If wilderness is the quality we value most, it's not hard to guess why the Arctic Refuge, more remote and foreign to most of the nation than the Great Smokey Mountains, Yosemite or Glacier national parks, becomes the most important landscape to protect. This wilderness ethic makes us care most about the land farthest from us, the land we're least likely to ever see.

The catch with wilderness worship is that no landscape is pristine. By setting conservation priorities based on how "untrammeled" a landscape is, we let more complex and potentially significant environmental issues languish. We undermine the importance of, for example, private ranch and timber lands for biodiversity conservation and open space.

We leave people in cities believing that nature is not part of their everyday lives. We neglect the wonderful complexity of human-environment interaction. We lose in the long run because we let our political representatives believe they are fostering a lasting environmental ethic by protecting one wilderness area.

When I first came east from Colorado, I was amazed to learn about the recovery and protection of the great Northern Forest in northern New York and New England. In the face of changing timber and real estate markets, environmental groups and private landowners are coming together to safeguard and restore this vast, but far from pristine, landscape. This is being done in the name of a different kind of conservation ethic, one in which logging may help sustain ecosystems, rural economies and people's connection with the land.

In this unfolding story, environmental advocates and timber companies have forged a still shaky alliance, but one that has nevertheless protected millions of acres of forestland from both development and poor logging practices. In what had been a deepening economic pit, there is now hope for ecological and economic revitalization.

There is no question that protecting fragile and sensitive areas in Alaska and across the West is wise. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is an important symbol of America and its dedication to the natural world.

But allowing the refuge to define the national agenda for Western conservation pushes fascinating, here-and-now stories about private land conservation, ecological restoration and urban planning out of our sight and consciousness. It leads us to ignore what's under our feet and in our lungs. It turns the natural world into something inaccessible, that we can only care about and experience via television and national politics.

That's a terrible mistake, and it's a mistake that's only environmentalists and environmental groups can fix.

Ali Macalady produced this essay for Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (www.hcn.org). She is a Westerner living in New Haven, Connecticut.