Where do you draw the line?

 


As a journalist, I've watched many forms of civil disobedience in the West. I've known EarthFirst! tree-spikers and interviewed armed, tax-evading Freemen. I've seen “green” grandmothers lie down before bulldozers to stop the blazing of new logging roads across public land, viewed the carcasses of dead grizzly bears and wolves shot down by opponents of the federal Endangered Species Act, and reported on the arrest of Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski.

I am not implying that there is any justification for violence. Acts of terrorism are wrong, no matter what the provocation.

But what, today, compels Westerners into action? Don't say "jobs" or "good schools" or "defending private property rights.” Those values are givens, and they don't differentiate people of the West from anywhere else.

Most of us, I'm willing to bet, would say that choosing to live in any of the Western states has something to do with a certain quality of life, one that's influenced mightily by the condition of the open, publicly owned landscape around us.

In recent years, though, it has seemed that activism in our region was in a deep sleep. Civil disobedience -- at least the kind of peaceable law breaking advocated by Henry David Thoreau as a response to slavery -- seems to have fallen out of vogue. This includes both environmentalists and their counterparts on the other end of the political spectrum who, just a decade ago, claimed to be victims of a "War On the West" being carried out by Washington, D.C.

My attempts of political agitation have been meek compared to the deeds of others. During the 1990s, as hundreds of Yellowstone bison were being shot or shipped to slaughter in Montana for doing nothing more than wandering across an invisible national park boundary, I suggested in a newspaper column -- only half in jest -- that readers write a letter of disgust to then-Montana Gov. Marc Racicot. I said they might also want to enclose a rock to challenge the state's Stone Age logic in managing migratory wildlife. Outside the governor's office at the state Capitol in Helena, I was told a table had to be set up to receive the stones of dissent.

I also wrote a column about a landowner's proposal to turn a stretch of the Yellowstone River in Paradise Valley into an RV campground. It was a place where the trout fishing was good and the scenery magnificent. My suggestion was for motorists who disagreed with the development, which needed approval from county commissioners, to honk their horns in protest. The suggestion resulted in lots of motorists beeping their horns, and the developer became so annoyed that he phoned the county sheriff's department. Later, I learned about one unintended consequence: At least one motorist was ticketed.

Looking back, I realize that these recommendations were both lame and futile. Not only did the campground along the Yellowstone River move forward, but the other side of the waterway is now lined by ranchettes. The view shed has been impaired forever and a wall of riprap, erected to defend the residences against floods, armors several miles of the Yellowstone River's banks. As for Yellowstone's wandering bison, which can carry a disease, brucellosis, that is harmful to cattle, little has changed. Buffalo blood is still being spilled, and, after decades of controversy, there still is no resolution in sight.

How can any citizen -- old-timer or newcomer -- halt the destructive patterns that continue to erode the West? The great conservationist David Brower warned that no environmental victories are permanent. They may be fought valiantly to a standstill, he said, but most flare up again, and every time they do they are fated to be lost without citizen vigilance.

But it's inconvenient to be vigilant, it takes courage to act on personal convictions, and it makes other people angry. Yet how is standing up to battle against landscape destruction any less a patriotic calling than what is being asked of our soldiers in Iraq?

I have no regrets about helping to generate a few rocks in the Montana governor's office, or for temporarily disrupting a developer's bliss with a little noise. Still, in hindsight, those gestures were meaningless. If Thoreau were alive today, where would he draw the line?

Todd Wilkinson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in Bozeman, Montana, where he is working on a book about the bison-rancher and philanthropist, Ted Turner.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds
  • LAND ACQUISTIONS SPECIALIST - RENEWABLE ENERGY
    Energiekontor US seeks experienced local candidate, must reside in western South Dakota. Send resume and cover letter to: [email protected]
  • TRANSPORTATION PLANNER
    TRANSPORTATION PLANNER Exciting opportunity to lead the charge on meeting the future transportation demands of our community! This position will develop, coordinate, and implement the...
  • EARNED MEDIA MANAGER WITH WESTERN RESOURCE ADVOCATES
    Founded in 1989, Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is dedicated to protecting the Wests land, air, and water to ensure that vibrant communities exist in balance...
  • WILDLAND FIRE INSTRUCTOR
    Needed: instructor with 5 years *documented* instruction experience, current qualifications, M-410 or equivalent, and able to work as-needed for NM non-profit working with at-risk youth.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Seeking passionate full-time Executive to lead the oldest non-profit organization in Idaho. Must have knowledge of environmental issues, excellent organizational, verbal presentation and written skills,...
  • COLORADO PROGRAM MANAGER
    The National Parks Conservation Association, the leading non-profit conservation organization protecting Americas national parks, seeks a Program Manager for its Colorado Field Office located in...
  • CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Carbondale based public lands advocate, Wilderness Workshop, seeks a Conservation Director to help direct and shape the future of public land conservation on the West...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR FOR WATER PLANNING WITH WRA'S HEALTHY RIVERS PROGRAM
    Founded in 1989, Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is dedicated to protecting the Wests land, air, and water to ensure that vibrant communities exist in balance...
  • TROUT UNLIMITED BIGHORN RIVER BASIN PROJECT MANAGER
    The Bighorn River Basin Project Manager identifies and implements projects to improve streamflows, restore stream and riparian habitat, improve fish passage and rehabilitate or replace...
  • NON-PROFIT OPERATIONS MANAGER
    One of the most renowned community-based collaboratives in the country seeks full-time Operations Manager to oversee administrative, financial, fund development, and board development duties. BS/BA...
  • RUSTIC HORSE PROPERTY
    in NM. 23 acres, off the grid, rustic cabin, organic gardens, fruit trees, fenced, call 505-204-8432 evenings.
  • DIRECTOR OF VISITOR SERVICES & BOOKSTORE OPERATIONS
    The San Juan Mountains Association in Durango, CO is seeking a Director of Visitor Services & Bookstore Operations to lead our visitor information program &...
  • SOLAR POWERED HOME NEAR CAPITOL REEF NATIONAL PARK
    1800 sf home on 4.12 acres surrounded by Natl Forest and recreational opportunities in a beautiful area (Happy Valley) between Torrey and Boulder. [email protected], www.bouldermoutainreality/properties/grover/off-the-grid-in-happy-valley,...
  • 40 ACRE ORGANIC FARM
    potential fruit/hay with house, Hotchkiss, CO, Scott Ellis, 970-420-0472, [email protected]
  • LAND CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Manage, develop and implement all stewardship and land management plans and activities on both private and public lands. Guide and direct comprehensive planning efforts, provide...
  • INTERNET-BASED BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one. 928-380-6570, www.testshop.com. More info at https://bit.ly/2Kgi340.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    If you are deeply committed to public service and would like to become part of our high performing, passionate and diverse team, NCAT is looking...
  • TRIPLEX .8 ACRE KANAB, UT
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...
  • FORGE & FAB SHOP
    with home on one beautiful acre in Pocatello, ID. Blackrock Forge - retiring after 43 years! Fully equipped 5,500 sf shop including office, gallery and...
  • SMALL FARM AT THE BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Home, barns, garage, separate apt, more. Just under 2 ac, edge of town. Famously pure air and water. Skiing, mountaineering, bike,...