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for people who care about the West

The loneliness of the redneck environmentalist


I don’t have that many friends. I’m not a bad guy; I call my mother, eat my broccoli, and pay my taxes. But I’m a country-music-listening, PBR-drinking, rusty-Jeep-driving good ol’ boy — and I love the environment.

I grew up rural in the Rocky Mountain West and Midwest, where farming and ranching still reign. It was, and is, a culture that values hard work, family, and the land itself. It’s where the land is a tool, used to produce. Farming and ranching are about bottom-line crop yields — pounds of meat and milk. Hunting and fishing are discussed in production terms — herd, harvest, trophy — and environmentalists are “city people.”

Back then, my friends and I were gearheads. The scent of gasoline mingling with amber hues of gear oil and sickly sweet antifreeze was exciting, intoxicating. We took our powerful ATVs “boggin’,” leaving a wake of ruts, scarred tree trunks and petroleum-slicked puddles. And it was fun. Yep, I said it. The thrill of whipping through trees, the challenge of climbing a sandy cutbank, the hazards of crossing a silty-bottomed oxbow and churning its delicately balanced micro-ecosystem into frothy, froggy goo — it was exhilarating. The gratification was immediate and powerful; we bent nature to the will of our machines, and it felt good. We’d return home happy, caked in mud, and wash our machines — sending countless invasive plant seeds down the street.

There was never a question about the consequences of our casual destruction. Even my well-educated parents rarely questioned our forays; at least we were outside, they said.

But I left my all-terrain vehicles and all my buddies behind when I went to college. There, between reading all night and climbing Montana’s mountains all day, my relationship with the outdoors changed. Instead of dominating the natural world, I wanted to immerse myself in its nuances. I enjoyed the physical work it takes to travel overland on foot or skis. I liked how clearly I could think in the quiet, distraction-free vacuum of wilderness. I loved looking at the world, and actually seeing. But this realization — and my growing awareness of my own environmental hate-crimes — left me estranged from my hometown buddies. And my new friends, mostly environmentally conscious outdoor types, found my confused ideals difficult to understand and viewed me with suspicious tolerance.

I was left with clashing values, a tragic love of both the mechanized world and the natural world — as well as a certain contempt from both sides of a passionate issue.

Now, I’m an editor for a magazine dedicated to backcountry skiing, a sport dominated by the green ideals of human-powered travel, quiet wilderness and a healthy environment. At a fundamental level, global warming threatens the future of my sport and my livelihood. Yet I still crave the sound of a throbbing V-8, still find off-road vehicles fascinating, and still sometimes find myself daydreaming about a new ATV or snowmobile. I’m stuck somewhere between a progressive redneck and a cynical environmentalist. It’s like driving a Toyota Prius in a tractor-pull: I just can’t win.

The thing is that there’s far more overlap than either side wants to admit. Many of my old redneck friends spend far more time in the natural world than the self-proclaimed environmentalists bent on protecting it. They farm, ranch, hunt and fish, and intimately understand how natural resources relate and interact. The conservation movement, on the other hand, often seems to be tainted with hypocrisy. Many activists’ only activity outside the air-conditioned comfort of their policy headquarters is to take in nature at a manicured city park, or on the IMAX screen. Does anyone really know what they’re talking about?

I believe this question is the source of my social problems. No one wants to recognize the fallacy of their own thinking or the flaws in their own actions; it’s always the opposing group, the “greenies,” or the “rednecks,” causing the problem. I’m a backcountry skier and quasi-environmentalist, but I’m also a gearhead good-ol’-boy. I empathize with both, and by both I’m almost magnetically repelled, if for no other reason than my empathy with its rival.

That’s how I came to be without friends. And for now, that’s OK. One day, I believe, the people in my redneck past and my environmental present will mingle harmoniously. I hope it’s at a wedding and not at a funeral years from now. Until then, I guess I’m destined to be stuck in the middle, between cultures, and between friends.

Drew Pogge is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is an associate editor of Backcountry magazine and splits his time between Fort Collins, Colorado, and Jeffersonville, Vermont.

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].