Free advice for tourists traveling West

  The West’s drought has made us so desperate for moisture, we go outside to sweat. Even sagebrush, a Western icon, is in danger. Experts estimate that 600,000 acres is dead or dying in Utah alone.

But come West, Podnuh! Step up to that gas pump, pretend that nozzle is a Colt .45, and pump away — after all, in England, gas is $5.22 a gallon. But though we in the West need tourist dollars worse than ever, we do have a few new guidelines. While we usually say "drouth" and don’t care how you say It, we’d rather you didn’t moan about a ruined vacation if it rains or snows. We love moisture more than anything, and some us will lose our vocations without it.

"How much rain did you get?" is a preferred greeting these days. Folks who didn’t get any are likely to mumble. Perpetual optimists — the West is full of them — are sure it will rain someday. But everyone appreciates that you’re asking.

Please patronize small town cafés and gas stations, but don’t just use the bathroom. Disposing of your waste in our precious water costs money, so buy something and say thanks. Those locally owned businesses are struggling.

One of the most important drought rules in the West is to be careful with fire. In many areas, campfires are banned. Want to burn a steak? Do it in your back yard, beside a hose. Maybe fear of fire is why some Westerners tend to eat steaks rare, or "just wounded."

A cigarette is just a handheld fire machine. Smash the cigarette, tear it apart with your naked fingers; drown it. If you light up outside, don’t be surprised if somebody throws a bucket of water over you. And don’t flip your butt out the window as you roar down the highway. You may be several states away by the time the fire is out of control. But somebody might have spotted you.

The West is never really empty; that’s a myth. Westerners have to pay attention to survive, and we have cell phones now. When we see a cigarette go out a window, we may report the license number and location. And The Code of the West is no myth: We think people should take responsibility for their actions.

Don’t believe me? Search the Internet for "Jasper Fire, South Dakota." Jail time for the offender won’t bring back 83,508 acres of timber, or the wildlife, but it made us feel better. On Memorial Day, some moron towed a barbecue smoker along the interstate between Loveland and Fort Collins, Colo., showering sparks and starting eight wildfires. That may be the most expensive cookout he's ever hosted.

What else should you know about the dry West? Some rest areas feature composting toilets and signs: "No water for washing or drinking." We’ve never had enough water to waste on urine or lawns, but it took us this long to realize it. Might be time to invest in a composting toilet company.

Be patient with pickups hauling blue or white tanks. Those folks are hauling water for households, for cattle, for trees or other domestic uses. Imagine driving somewhere to fill that tank every time you want to brush your teeth.

Beware of hungry, thirsty antelope and deer grazing the road ditches. (Later in summer, be alert for ranchers mowing those ditches to supplement their depleted hay supplies.) Our cars kill thousands of animals, but they never seem to learn how to judge our speed. In a one-mile stretch of two-lane highway near Lusk, Wyo., I counted 27 dead deer last summer.

If you don’t know why the West looks the way it does, ask questions. Not all bare ground results from overgrazing by greedy ranchers’ cows. The West is naturally arid. Ranchers have been selling down their herds because grass is our most important asset. Without grass, we’re just another homeless family. This drought has taken every rancher several steps closer to that possibility.

Take prairie dogs, for example. Lots of visitors love them, and think ranchers who don’t are just grumpy. But notice that big prairie dog towns in national parks are dusty, bare of vegetation. Cows didn’t do that; prairie dogs are voracious. So even though they are a necessary part of the ecosystem, they’re also competitors for our scarce grass on our private lands.

So come visit, but when you see our dusty pickups, remember we aren’t lazy; we’re just conserving water.

Linda Hasselstrom is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She ranches in South Dakota and writes in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

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