The environmentalist movement, as usual, is one theoretical jump ahead of the practical results produced by its previous level of ideological development-results it now deplores and blames on the enemy. After arson destroyed three buildings and damaged four ski lifts on Vail Mountain in Colorado last October, Earth Liberation Front took the credit for destroying more than $12 million in property “on behalf of the lynx,” which the Colorado Wildlife Commission wants to reintroduce into the San Juan National Forest. “The 12 miles of roads and 885 acres of clearcuts [the ski resorts want to create] will ruin the last, best lynx habitat in the state,” ELF pronounced. “Putting profits ahead of Colorado’s wildlife will not be tolerated.”
While it’s no news to residents of the Intermountain West that industrial tourism (the phrase was coined, so far as I can tell, by Ed Abbey in Desert Solitaire) and industrial recreationism are a greater threat to the region, socially and ecologically, than the mining, logging, and ranching industries put together, the last to hear it may be mainstream environmentalists themselves, who have done more than anybody to destroy mining, logging, and ranching and replace these hoary Western occupations with tourism and recreationism. “The environmental movement is at least partly responsible for a massive shift away from our traditional industries,” a West Slope trade promoter observed recently. “Tourism is all some of these towns have left. An attack on the ski industry is an attack on the economy of western Colorado.” On the other hand, such is the hypocrisy endemic to the consumerist culture that the reduction of the West’s ski resorts to post-industrial ghost towns might easily prove a bonanza for them in the end, as is the case with the old mining towns in the region where the same people from Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and New York who express outrage at having to witness a coal, trona, gold, or silver mine in operation are eager to explore and photograph the defunct relics of their 19th-century profit-taking equivalents.
The fundamental pretense of organized environmentalism is that human beings have the choice of living in the biosphere without altering it, that there exists some higher “use” for nature than untold human generations have been able to discover. For earlier environmentalists—from Henry David Thoreau through John Muir to Aldo Leopold, and as far forward as Edward Abbey—that use was solitude, atonement with nature, mysticism, encounter, and adventure. Except for Leopold with his managerial expertise, none of these men had a working relationship with the land. Yet to the extent that they regarded wilderness and unspoiled nature as a playground, it was “play” in its higher—meaning simpler—forms they had in mind. Aldo Leopold, if he had managed to survive into the era of the All-Terrain Vehicle, would have ridden a horse in the Gila anyway, while the late Finis Mitchell of Rock Springs, Wyoming—the man who more or less put the Wind River Range on the international hiker’s and backpacker’s map — traveled 20 miles or more of the Continental Divide at a hitch and on foot, carrying with him only a little food and water and a square of plastic to wrap up in when he stretched himself on the ground at night. Abbey vanished into the desert equipped not with $3,000 worth of high-tech gear purchased from REI but just a pair of Army Surplus jungle boots and a daypack containing water, oranges, cheese and crackers, raisins, nuts, a Number Two pencil, and a pocket notebook. None of these people, like other serious environmentalists of their day, rappelled, bungee-jumped, hot-air-ballooned, mountain-biked, sky-dived, snowboarded, or downhill-skied, though some of them did snow-shoe, ski cross country, and hunt, and many were avid Whitewater rafters. Abbey’s generation (Ed was born in 1927) was followed by the leading edge of the Baby Boomers, still fit enough and unencumbered in the 1970’s and even the 80’s to participate in the Great Outdoors and Wilderness Love-In of the period, although for most of them the motive seems to have been fashion-consciousness, not nature-awareness. What they did offer organized environmentalism was bodies, or, more accurately, numbers, and a lot of uninformed—as well as largely unformed—sympathy, some of it inferred by market researchers studying the sales figures provided by the outdoor equipment and catalogue companies. Whether the majority of what Tom Wolfe once called Enlightened Backpackers were really environmentalists or not, for politicians at the national, state, and local levels, they did suggest a yuppie version of Coxey’s Army prepared to mobilize around the country for the purpose of marching on Washington in defense of wolves, trees, rocks, more national parks and monuments, added outdoor recreational facilities, cheap Gor-Tex, free condoms (for effective population control in intimate wilderness areas), and NO INDUSTRIAL DEVELOPMENT.
Because many people in the environmentalist movement of the 70’s and 80’s were outdoor recreationists themselves, the political possibilities of recreationism were not lost on them. They saw a way to achieve political advantage by their own interests and amusements, and they did it, stressing the benign and harmless nature of the outdoor recreation and tourist business by comparison with the rapacity of the traditional industries in the arid, ecologically sensitive Western states. The strategy worked, magnificently, for 20 or 25 years, but the news from Vail last fall suggests that its days are numbered and it is probably failing fast.
As indeed it should, its demise being long overdue. “There will be more impact,” Ken Sleight, Abbey’s old back-of-beyond crony and the model for Seldom Seen Smith in The Monkey Wrench Gang, was quoted as saying recently, “through industrial tourism than all the mining, logging and ranching combined.” (Sleight, as a wilderness outfitter operating in the slick-rock country of southeastern Utah, is a part of the tourist industry himself, though he represents its simpler, gentler, pre-modern stage.) The effects he has in mind are physical — urban and suburban sprawl, resource depletion, pollution, and so forth—yet the displacement by the recreation business —hotels, motels, ski resorts, destination resorts, second-home communities —of traditional Western work means, essentially, the substitution of play for work, frivolity for seriousness, childishness for adult behavior, waste for production, abstraction for concreteness, and unreality for reality, with consequences affecting Western life in its natural and environmental, social, political, economic, educational, and spiritual aspects. Industrial tourism has been a disaster for the West in every respect, and if the monkey-wrenchers have at last discovered their real enemy—well, so much the worse for the enemy, say I: an evil force committed to the destruction not of “wilderness” or “the Earth” alone but of ordered civilization as well.
ELF doesn’t know this, of course: They see only a conflict between “profits” and lynxes, according to superficial formulae characteristic of leftist fanatics and of the ontologically confused and fundamentally dishonest left operating over a period of some 300 years. That is not of interest. What is interesting is the developing antagonistic relationship between recreationism and environmentalism — in particular for what it has to say about the sort of people working as environmental activists today.
What seems to be occurring is the intrusion of a new and exotic type of environmentalist into a movement in danger of being taken over by it, as lake trout, when diabolically introduced by environmental saboteurs, overwhelm a native population of Western cutthroats. In attempting to describe what this new breed is, I begin by suggesting what it isn’t. The neoenvironmentalist is not, first of all, an outdoorsman — not of the Abbey-Leopold-Doug Peacock type at any rate: a survivalist without all the gear and something of a naturalist, competent, comfortable, and supremely at home in an isolated natural setting. It follows that he is also not an adventurer, someone for whom the acrid smell of danger, natural or otherwise, provides a pleasant flow of adrenaline. It does not follow that he shouldn’t be a literary gent—which doesn’t matter because he isn’t one, anyway. The neoenvironmentalist does not write books—not ones you’d want to read, that is—or even articles beyond ranting press releases posing as letters-to-the-editor in the state and local newspapers. In the Great Tradition of nature and travel literature that, in however attenuated form, persisted until quite recently as environmentalist literature, connoisseurs of the natural world proved themselves often to be masters of the written word as well (to the aforementioned Thoreau, Muir, etc., add CM. Doughty, Charles Darwin, and Joseph Wood Krutch, for starters). Ed Abbey, not to mention Charles Doughty, has no worthy successors (or even successor) that I can think of, whether as an outdoor adventurer or a writer. He has, however, plenty of political-bureaucratic-activist types to claim his mantle, if only by invoking his most infamous book.
Here in New Mexico, where I enjoy a temporary residency, environmentalism has taken over state government and the federal agencies like kudzu vine; the same goes —to a slightly lesser extent, perhaps —next door in Arizona. Nowhere in the country have environmentalists filed their suits, won their rulings, and had their way, finally, as in the Southwest—not even in the Greater Yellowstone area, which has received so much of the national attention. Reintroduction of the Mexican Grey Wolf, the virtual shutdown of the timber industry to protect the Mexican Spotted Owl (it isn’t just Mexican human immigrants we’re determined to shelter here in the U.S. of A.), competitive bidding to snatch lands leased from the federal and state governments from under the feet of cattle ranchers already struggling to comply with regulations designated for the protection of the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher—these actions have been the work of the Southwestern Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, the Forest Guardians in Santa Fe, and many other like-minded organizations staffed, all of them, by political activists, lobbyists, arm-twisters, propagandists, chair-warmers, and telephone jockeys —most of whom have no idea, one gathers, how to pilot a dory through a whitewater rapids, saddle a horse, field-dress an elk, avoid a flash flood, build a campfire that doesn’t go out, jack a Jeep out of a mudhole, find water in the desert, pick up a rattlesnake bare handedly. . . . Neoenvironmentalist pagans worshipping Wilderness in the Rocky Mountains have this in common with their unlikely neoconservative cousins offering sacrifice to Democracy half a continent away in New York City and Washington, D.C.: They have no personal, experiential knowledge of their adored idol, which for them is only an intellectual abstraction. To state the situation less politely, they—literally — don’t know what they are talking about. Recreationism was more or less okay for an earlier breed of environmentalist that was happier camping up Navajo Creek Canyon on the Big Reservation than hanging around on the back benches in the Round House in Santa Fe. Now that their successors are urban revolutionary cadres, participants in the long march through the institutions whose goal, ultimately, is not ecological at all but social and political, recreationism has become the enemy too.
This is not to agree that making snow is the economic, moral, or social equivalent of growing beef, that felling trees for ski runs is the same as managing forests for sale, or that Westerners are better off making up rooms in resort hotels than mining coal. The argument has been made for a couple of centuries at least, and refined a few years ago by Garrett Hardin in his “Tragedy of the Commons,” that most people take better care with what they own than with what they don’t. Today a similar, perhaps corollary, argument needs to be added: With the possible exception of a fancy sports car, an expensive golf club, a spirited saddle horse, or a trophy mistress, people treat their work tools better than they do their toys. The earth, the land, wilderness—whatever we choose to call it—is neither an untouchable idol for worship nor a potential playground awaiting development and exploitation but a divinely created home for man, and his livelihood as well. It has all the dignity God conferred on it at the Creation, and it is a means by which we earn dignity for ourselves, suffering with it in a mutual travail of which ELFs and developers know not one single thing.