“Pity the man who loves what death can touch.”
—Eugene O’Neill

Late one summer afternoon, tired and dirty after four days’ camping and a 21-mile ride out of the Wind River Mountains over rough granite trails, 1 swung off the horse and opened the registry book that the National Forest Service places at the boundary of its federally designated wilderness areas. Since I hadn’t signed in, I couldn’t sign out, but a friend had suggested that 1 would be interested in reading the comments obediently inscribed by visitors to the Bridger-Teton Wilderness from Philadelphia, New York, Denver, and San Mateo. I opened the book and read: “Get horses out of pristine wilderness!” “Horse crap on trails spoiled our trip!” “Amen!” Too bad. Using the pencil-on-a-string thoughtfully provided by local agents of our masters in Washington, I appended, “Kids in short pants and sneakers out of wilderness! Easterners and Californians go home! Get a horse.” Approaching the trailhead, I met a pretty girl backpacker, inbound for the mountains, who refused to speak or even look at me. It might have been because I smelled bad, but more likely it was that I happened to be riding a horse.

The Cold War never died, it moved to the Rocky Mountain states of the American West, which have lately been discovered by yuppies, computer programmers, and celebrities from around the rest of the country but mainly from California, arriving to complement the environmentalists who moved here in the 1970’s. The fact having come to the attention of the national media, it was recently celebrated by a cover story in Time and applauded by an editorial in National Review, but it is no news to longtime residents of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico, where stories have been passing up and down the continental spine for two or three years now. The talcs are of strangers invading isolated Western towns where they buy up ranches, open cappuccino bars, and drive up property values and taxes: aliens from the far West, usually dressed in baggy shorts and riding mountain bikes but not infrequently accoutred in Western outfits by Ralph Lauren—who recently bought an enormous ranch near Ridgeway, Colorado, which he visits a few times a year by Lear jet—and driving BMWs. Though the coal town of Kemmerer, Wyoming, where I live is too homely and surrounded by too much sagebrush and bentonite to have to worry about attracting the attention of sophisticates, the owner of the Red Dog Saloon in Cokeville, a ranching town of 1,500 people 45 miles away on the Idaho border, reports that the local Chamber of Commerce averaged 13 calls a week this summer from Californians looking to relocate there. Fortunately, the land surrounding Cokeville is entailed by prospering ranchers and by the federal government, so the likelihood is they will be forced to buy elsewhere, as I hope they do. British Columbia, for instance, if it hasn’t already taken in too many Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants.

While the Time piece comes as no surprise out here, it was an unpleasant shock to those of us who, having survived the Great Rocky Mountain Energy Boom of the late 1970’s and early 80’s and watched the multinational companies cut bait and run following the Bust of ’83, were unrealistic enough to hope that the rest of the collapsing American Republic would forget all about us for the next hundred or so years. While the boom had been welcomed unreservedly by state politicians, local Chambers of Commerce, and the energy companies themselves, it was deplored by environmentalists, many ranchers, and moderate conservationists, as well as by misfits holed up in mountain cabins and literary cranks like Edward Abbey and Wallace Stegner, both since removed to the contemplation of still grander vistas whose eternal beauty, to paraphrase a line by Eugene O’Neill, death cannot touch. In 1982, Governor Richard Lamm of Colorado published The Angry West: A Vulnerable Land and Its Future, in which he stated that while Westerners were by no means opposed to economic growth and development in their region, they had learned to be skeptical of “progress” and to question their earlier estimate of it as an unmitigated good to be embraced without reservation. “A new Manifest Destiny has overtaken America,” Lamm and his coauthor, a Colorado journalist named Michael McCarthy, wrote. “The economic imperative has forever changed the spiritual refuge that was the West. Some of us have made a truce with change. Others have refused. They—we—are the new Indians. And they—we—will not be herded onto new reservations.”

Those were the days of the rush to mine low-sulphur Western coal and extract maximum amounts of oil and natural gas; of the oil-shale craze centered on the town of Parachute, Colorado, on a bluff above the upper Colorado River; of urbanization produced by hundreds of thousands of energy and construction workers drawn to the Rockies from all over the country by what President Clinton calls “good-paying jobs”; of the MX missile system proposed for an area the size of Connecticut to be carved from the Utah desert; and of the Sagebrush Rebellion, a noisily assertive uprising of Western politicians and developers organized for the purpose of wresting control of federally owned lands in the West from Eastern capitalists and the bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. Eleven years later, The Angry West makes outdated, if not actually quaint, reading. Today, drill-pipe is in scant supply around the United States, hundreds of oil rigs remain stacked after nearly a dozen years, and experienced oilfield hands are hard to come by. Exploration for oil and gas has virtually ceased in the lower 48, Exxon long ago abandoned its oil-shale project at Parachute, leaving behind hundreds of vacant housing units built to shelter the workers it never employed, and the MX missile has gone the way of President Jimmy Carter, the Dodo. Since that Time, change throughout much of the Rocky Mountain area has come slowly, if at all, and in some places specially favored by heaven it has actually been turned back to allow blessed regress to occur. But now comes another, much worse, development.

The Great Boom was dangerous to the natural environment of the West, as the continuation of what Governor Lamm called “the hunt for energy” still is. (Owing to a tremendous surge in the price of gold since the early 80’s, vast tracts of the state of Nevada are comprised of private mining claims, and Crown Butte Minerals, owned largeK’ by a Canadian company, Noranda, is making plans to start up a gigantic gold mine in the high mountains on the northeast boundary of Yellowstone Park.) It did trot, however, constitute a serious threat to the indigenous civilization of the region, perhaps the one thing more fragile and precarious than the land itself. As I attempted to demonstrate in a book, Roughnecking It (also published in 1982), the New West of the 1980’s was substantially an extension of the Old West of the 1890’s, another spin of the wheel of boom and bust that has characterized this part of the country since its settlement by the white man. By contrast, the new boom portends, along with the environmental degradation imposed by a substantial population increase, further urbanization, recreationism, and what Ed Abbey called industrial tourism—all of them certain to produce alterations in a traditional wav of life as satisfyingly human and close to the bone of reality as it is unique and beautiful. Worse still, it may not be a boom at all. “It’s not just another cycle but a permanent, historic shift,” Lamm, now a professor of public policy at the University of Denver, believes.

The Californians are coming! A century after the official closure of the American frontier, the inevitable is happening as the vast westering human slosh, receding from the coastal paradise it covered in detritus and offal, washes back across the magnificent landscape that an earlier generation of Americans deprecatingly called the Great American Desert and that pioneers and immigrants on their way to Lotus Land passed over as being too cold or too hot, too strenuous, too unprogressive and ignorant, too crude, too hick. In Los Angeles today, you can take classes for a price from an organization called the Greener Pastures Institute whose business is advising disillusioned denizens of the Golden State where they should resettle. (And that, when they do, they should immediately change license plates to avoid damage to their cars and insults to themselves.) Californians, arriving at the gates of the second Eden after having trashed the original one, may sincerely intend to accommodate themselves to their adoptive communities. But it is uphill work, and they have brought with them too much of what anthropologists call cultural baggage, not to mention the other kind. Westerners, whatever their faults (and there are many), are, partly by default, the realists among the American people, living a life that is much closer to the life of the frontier than is generally understood; while Californians, in their postcivilized and fantastical existence, are probably the most unrealistic people in the history of the world.

In The Last Refuge, Jim Robbins argues that the rural West must recognize and bend before the pressures being exerted upon it by urbanites from its own cities and those of other regions whose votes will finally determine the future of the federal lands that amount to as much as 89 percent of the area of the Western states, and whose attitude toward rural and wilderness areas is quintessentially that of the city dweller: aesthetic rather than utilitarian, sentimental instead of practical. He argues further that ecological, as well as political, necessity urges it toward a more preservatively responsible use of its resources; and in the second instance at least he is surely correct. Generations of highly destructive mining, logging, and ranching practices have caused environmental damage that can only be repaired by mitigating these, while the position of newcomers to the region has its own ironic and self-fulfilling logic. If the West is going to fill up with tens of millions of people from California and elsewhere, then the mode of life familiar to it and based upon the existence of a relatively tiny population spread thinly across a vast area will indeed be impossible in the future. But Robbins’ vision of the New West merging with the Old to create a “new society” in the Rocky Mountains may be no less likely, if by the “new” he means the “better” or even the “good” society.

Pulling a horse to Montrose, Colorado, last fall I read on the Style page of the Denver Post a story about the booming purchase prices paid for old ranches that are said to have what realtors call “The Look.” The Look includes a mountain meadow threaded by a creek and snowcovered mountains in the background, an idyll inspired, the writer explained, by the film A River Runs Through It, filmed in Montana. That’s something. A rich dude in Beverly Hills or Dallas sees a movie one night and goes out the next day to whack himself off a big chunk of God’s Greatest Movie Set! There really is such a thing as having too much money.

Land is more than a living for the rancher or private lumberman. It is survival itself, as it was for the red man whose relationship to the earth is held up as a model by some environmentalists and all Deep Ecologists. Human beings, in order to know the land they live on, must experience it through the kind of intimate contact that only hard labor makes possible. However much the Westerner may, wittingly or unwittingly, abuse it, his relationship to the natural world is the opposite of frivolous. For the New Westerner, by contrast, land is no more than a real estate commodity, a playground, or a fantasy. He is not looking for a region, he wants a Disneyland West or a Malibu-in-the-Rockies, where he makes an ass of himself by wearing silly clothes and riding a mountain bike instead of a good quarter-horse. He fences his property closely against his neighbors, oblivious to the fact that he is blocking access to publicly owned lands, and throws his weight behind the “Cattle Free in ’93” people, since cowpies are an offense to him when he goes hiking or jogging. He is opposed to hunting and protests the shooting of bison outside the Yellowstone, because his wife is a life member (if there is such a thing) of the Fund for Animals and his daughters have been raised on Bambi stories and wildlife episodes on the Discovery Channel. Because of the remote and essentially abstract nature of his work, often handled by telecommunication with corporate offices in New York or Los Angeles, he has nothing in common with and no tie to the community in which he finds himself, and restricted contact with its members. He is against not only “development” or “progress” but every honest activity that for Westerners has always meant well-being and bedrock security. Rather than eat at the local steak house, he makes an hour’s drive to a nearby city or ski resort or country club to wine and dine with his own kind in an expensive restaurant; bored and lonely among the blue-collar rubes, he works hard to encourage more of the Beautiful People from home to buy up land around him, driving property values and taxes to the point where, as in Jackson, Wyoming, and Vail, Colorado, the locals can no longer afford to live in their own town. Often after a couple of years or so, fed up with the isolation and depressed by the long hard winters, he packs it in and moves to some choice and still miraculously unspoiled place back in California. But not often enough.

Equally with Time, The Last Refuge has nothing to tell the seasoned Westerner who is a careful reader of his state and local newspaper and has stayed abreast of such topics as Crown Butte, the reintroduction of wolves to the Yellowstone, clear-cutting in the Targhee National Forest, overcrowding in the West’s national parks, the competition for water rights between agriculturalists and municipalities, the gentrification of honest Western towns, and the bullying of ranchers by industrial corporations. But Robbins is comprehensive, and his suggestion that preserving the Greater Yellowstone (comprising 18 million acres or 28 thousand square miles) as the largest fundamentally intact ecosystem in the world might result in compromise that could fuse the traditions of the Old West with the innovations of the New is an interesting idea supportive of hope. Between People for the American West!, the “wise use” movement, the Center for the Defense of Economic Freedom, and the Wyoming Heritage Foundation—avatars all of the old rapaciousness and greed—and graduates of the Greener Pastures Institute, there is little or nothing to choose from, making any halfway plausible third way worthy of a second look. Robbins’ thinking owes much to the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, based in Bozeman, Montana, and directed by Louisa Willcox, a famous lady in these parts. Unlike many environmentalists, the GYC, Robbins says, does not propose to ban logging, ranching, and mining on public lands but rather “to convince loggers and miners and real estate developers and those involved with tourism to operate on a scientific, sustainable basis that will allow them to continue generation after generation. It has to happen in a way that stops the destruction and squandering not only of the New West economy, but of the Old West economy as well.”

Proposals being debated by the United States Congress to multiply the grazing fees charged to ranchers running cattle on federally owned lands and to overhaul laws pertaining to water rights and usage arc rightly seen here as no more than thinly veiled schemes to turn the Rocky Mountain states into a theme park and playground for the rest of the country, while stealing their scarce lifeblood for sale to Cities of the Plain in California, Nevada, and Arizona. The contemporary American psyche resists reality in every form. Small wonder that it has targeted for destruction all that remains of the Old America, where men and women and children for generations have been accustomed to living not in the state of nature but in that naturally human state blessed by nature as well as by nature’s God. After all these years, the American infatuation with the frontier turns out to be mere self-delusion. America’s idyll is not the frontier, and it certainly is not wilderness. It is a suburban house on a subdivided tract with a picture window and a John Wayne movie on the VCR, an artificially preserved “wilderness” with a bureaucratic fence around it and no guns or horses allowed.


[The Last Refuge: The Environmental Showdown in Yellowstone and the American West, by Jim Robbins (New York: William Morrow) 272 pp., $23.00]