The following remarks are excerpted and arranged from a series of letters exchanged between Ed Marston, publisher of the environmentalist newspaper in Paonia, Colorado, High Country News, and Chilton Williamson, Jr., of Chronicles, in response to questions posed by Mr. Williamson during January and February 1996.
Does a traditional Western culture exist today, and are opponents of environmental “reform” justified in defending their “custom and culture”?
EM: A traditional Western culture existed when I moved to the West in the mid-1970’s. It consisted of small towns, embedded in the public lands, and seeing themselves as living off the lands: farming, mining, logging, ranching, light tourism. I say “seeing themselves as living off the land” because only a small proportion of the residents of these towns actually worked the land by the 1970’s: insurance agents have always outnumbered cowboys in the West, and by the middle of the decade, retirees outnumbered everyone else in the small-town West. Nevertheless, the West saw itself and prided itself as being attached to the land, and that’s what attracted me to the region. Unlike in urban areas, people tended to live in the towns they worked in. If a bust forced them to commute, their commute was likely to be to Saudi Arabia or to a construction job in some distant city, from which they returned, at best, on weekends. The small towns tended to mix the classes as well. I read recently where a real estate developer who had lived in Aspen for many years said that his golf partner used to be the guy who picked up his garbage. Today, he told the Aspen Times, that would no longer be possible.
In the late 1970’s, the coal companies in the valley I live in changed their management technique. Until then, accountants, engineers, personnel people, et al., managed the mine from the nearest big city—Denver, in our case—leaving only the working people and the mine superintendent in the community. When the newer mines began locating their white collar workforce in the mining towns, bigger and woodier houses—”chalets” and the like—began to sprout in the “suburbs” around Paonia, population 1,400. These newcomers complained of lack of “shopping,” which meant lack of a suburban society they could fit into, with golf courses and shopping malls and “nice” places to have lunch and dinner, but they could at least have “nice” homes.
Still, most of the mine’s workforce was made up of people who operated heavy equipment or actually shoveled coal. But that changed drastically in the energy and minerals bust of the 1980’s, when prices plummeted and coal and copper and other producers had to get incredibly productive. The workforce is now much more highly trained and educated. There are more pencil-pushers writing the programs that control the huge equipment, maintaining the spare parts inventory (you cannot afford a shutdown), safety experts who spend every working hour plotting to push down the accident rate, planning way in advance what every event in the mine will be. What I saw was an end to the rough ‘n’ ready West. A firm wanted sober technicians who will show up every day to manage a $50-million operation, rather than a devil-may-care miner willing to risk his life beneath the ground arm wrestling an unpredictable Mother Nature.
So to say that environmental rules are pushing on the traditional custom and culture of the West is a misreading of the situation. If blame is to be placed anywhere, it is to be placed on the workings of our economy and its implacable demands for efficiency and productivity. And that has meant the replacement of a rural workforce and rural values with an urban, or rather suburban, workforce and suburban values. Why don’t the custom ‘n’ culture folks take out after the modern economy and the natural resource companies that personify the economy? The kind interpretation is that they do not see it happening. The unkind interpretation is that they are front men and women for the most backward of the natural resource firms—the ones that cannot adapt to the national demand for environmental quality. And the least charitable interpretation is that they are moral cowards, afraid to take on corporations but willing to beat up on the Sierra Club.
CW: It seems to me that, in arguing that a traditional Western culture has been substantially weakened since the mid-1970’s, you are largely extrapolating from your residency on the West Slope of Colorado. Wyoming, of course, is far and away the last populated of the Intermountain States, but from observation made in the course of considerable travel in the Rockies, from Canada to Mexico, I believe suburbanization has been confined to certain areas and communities within the states—areas surrounded by regions and other communities that approximate Paonia and its environs as you remember them. (My own town of Kemmerer is manifestly unsuburbanized.) In these communities, it matters very little, from a cultural standpoint, whether one is a cowboy, or a banker, or sells insurance, or writes books and articles. Whatever they do for a living, the majority of the residents of these places have rural interests, rural skills, and a fundamentally rural orientation. Everyone hunts, everyone camps; many town people are related to outlying ranch families, or are descended from them, and help with seasonal ranch work. They keep horses, put them into shows, ride in rodeos, and enroll their children in 4-H. This is why I believe that the West’s attachment to, and dependency on, the land is more than false self-perception, a refusal to face the fact of a changed reality.
I too like Western society for its absence of class awareness, its social structure divided or distinguished by occupation rather than by class affiliation and income status. And we obviously agree that the parts of the West that have lost this classless character are those most affected by wealthy recreationists and retirees arriving from someplace else: Vail and Aspen in Colorado, Jackson in Wyoming. So far, however, I have not observed management employed by the big energy companies and imported from elsewhere to have had much perverse effect in this respect. Rather, they appear to have become assimilated into the local culture of these small Western energy towns. My experience is that, instead of complaining about the lack of local or regional shopping, these newcomers drive to Salt Lake City 130 miles away to visit the malls, and on alternate weekends go camping or fishing up the fork, like everyone else. The same, I would say, goes for those holding the newly created pencil-pushing computer-hacking jobs. They cannot change the natives, so they join them.
Jim Catron, legal counsel for Catron County, New Mexico, believes that new arrivals to the West will become acculturated to traditional Western manners, mores, and habits of thought. Western culture, he believes, will prove attractive to these people because it works: not only does it create a strong sense of personal identity that mall rats and suburbanites lack, but it is suited to circumstances of existence in the West (climate, geography) that are unique and unchangeable by human activity and human will. For example, he cites a friend of his son’s at the University of New Mexico: a Jewish girl whose grandparents moved West from New York many years ago. Today, this young lady of Eastern extraction breaks horses, rodeos, explores wilderness, and chews tobacco.
Many Westerners believe that environmentalism will either work drastic changes in traditional Western life or make such changes inevitable. Is this a fair and accurate perception?
EM: It is fair to say that the entire working of our system is going to transform the West. The environmentalist agendum is part of that transforming engine. But let us say we drop the environmental part of it. We would still get the transformation—the culture-destroying part—but we would not get clean air, clean water, intact watersheds and forests, and the rest. Big mining and big logging, and so on, are waging as much of a war on the West as Secretary Babbitt and the Sierra Club are.
CW: We agree that the working of the American system is on track to ruin the West. But environmentalism is a part of that agendum, in ways that not all of its members recognize, or would approve of if they did. Because most environmentalists are also urbanites or suburbanites, and both of these classes of people regard nature, the country, “wilderness” as a recreational locale, not as their place of work—since it is not. But human culture is the product not of play but of work. This is an anthropological and sociological fact. No work, no custom—or culture.
Granted, big mining and big logging, etc., are as destructive as Babbitt and the Sierra Club. But Washington, D.C.—whether directed by Newt Gingrich or Bill Clinton—uses environmental regulation as a means of political control. Here is my own—in some ways highly personal—dilemma: I want to see the devolution of political control take place in this country, in the West as every place else. But I do not wish to see the development crowd use devolution, the desirability of a return to republican government and a greater measure of community control, as a cover for the rape of the natural West and the destruction of the Western way of life that would inevitably follow it.
Has the environmental movement, by demanding and creating regulatory law from the federal and state governments, played a part in undermining state and community control and affecting and altering Western institutions? Is it fair to say that environmentalism is fundamentally undemocratic in its mode of operation?
EM: Well, yes, but that was last year’s environmental movement. This year’s new improved movement is moving toward a more local approach. What I see and write about more and more are environmentalists who understand that the solutions must be implemented at the local level. But, I believe, these solutions must fall within the boundaries set by national values. The West was built, and damaged, by the national values in force in the late 19th and first half of the 20th century: values that put industrial and urban development above everything. Now the nation has moved on, leaving parts of the West—especially the sincere Wise Use and custom-and-culture folks—feeling (how many times have I heard it?) like the Last Americans. Give me a break.
I do not think environmentalism is antidemocratic. I would say that by going national with public lands issues, it is being democratic by expanding the circle of those who have a say in public lands management. (Though environmentalism, by doing that, is helping to create an unworkable situation.) Community control cannot be used as a blanket that can cover any sins local people wish to perpetrate. Only when the nation at large feels secure m how local people will deal with resources can local control become a reality. At the same time, urban people have to be more realistic about what happens when you work with nature.
CW: You say: “Only when the nation at large feels secure in how local people will deal with resources can local control become a reality.” But you are working backward here. The 13 states under the Articles of Confederation created the federal government and made it responsible to them. Power in America is supposed to flow from the small governmental units to the larger ones, not the reverse. Therefore, I would rephrase your statement to read, “Only when local people feel secure in how the nation at large will deal with resources should federal control become a reality.”
Of course, environmentalists, like social and civil rights workers, corporations, and other nationally minded groups and organizations, have a preference for the nationalist approach, which requires them to convince only one entity—the federal leviathan—of the desirability of their programs and goals. The central government may then allow the states and local communities to “implement” decisions imposed on them arbitrarily by Washington, D.C. But how this process can be described as “democracy,” let alone “community control,” is beyond me. The same goes for “solutions” devised and implemented by “national values.” What about Western, New England, and Southern values? And why should the increasingly abstract and homogenized culture of the Beltway be free to determine what is and is not a “sin” in Birmingham, Alabama, or Portland, Oregon? Incidentally, Frederick Jackson Turner probably would have agreed with today’s traditional Westerners that they are the Last Americans, since, according to his frontier thesis, they were the Real Americans.
EM: You describe the environmental conflict as one between a centralized federal government and local communities. I see it as a conflict between certain Western communities that use natural resources, on the one hand, and other just-as-local communities elsewhere in the United States. These other local communities—acting through the federal government—want to change how the West uses the commonly owned natural resources. If there were not real people in America who cared about the West, the federal government would not be a problem for natural resource users. The situation will persist until urban environmentalists gain a more sophisticated understanding of how things happen on the ground and until rural people understand that, in fighting against the very idea of environmentalism, they are acting like the South did in the pre-Civil Rights days.
CW: The federal government had no constitutional justification for imposing most forms of desegregation on the South—certainly not in the states’ educational systems. Even so, the 14th Amendment says nothing about equal rights for trees, cacti, ecosystems, and wolves. But Washington has attempted to use environmentalism to further its control over the Western (and indeed every other) region, as it used civil rights to consolidate the megastate in the 1950’s, 60’s, and 70’s, and abolitionism in the antebellum period to gain the economic and political supremacy of the Northern states over the Southern ones.
Should environmentalists take “custom and culture” into account in pushing their reforms, and, if so, to what extent?
EM: Environmentalists definitely ought to take custom and culture into account. It enrages me when I hear environmentalists say, “So what if some loggers or miners lose their jobs—look at all the people who lost their jobs in the steel mills, or in Detroit.” Orthey say, “Let them pour cappuccino.’ They applaud the workings of the economic machine when it destroys values they do not care about, and fight it when it says, “Kill that forest! Build that dam!” So yes, environmentalists ought to fight to preserve the West’s traditional values. And I think that our general attitude toward those values has not been very well informed. We did not see what was at stake. We did not see what was going to replace the Old West. We thought of the Old West as incredibly powerful; we felt it was going to persist forever. And then, suddenly, like the Berlin Wall, but more quietly, and over a longer period of time, it crumbled.
It crumbled because it was built on a rotten foundation. The rot in the Old West’s foundation was the fact that it did not protect and preserve the region’s environmental health and quality. It did not look to the future and ensure that not just the beaver and the easily mined gold would last for a long time, but that the grass and forests and streams and wildlife and clean air would remain as well.
Environmentalism could help bring back the Old West: in its loyalty to the land and its resources, environmentalism is actually truer to the land-based traditions of the West than the custom-and-culture crowd is. The trouble is, environmentalists have acted at times as an invading army, insensitive to the people who have lived here for generations or to people with different values. Rather than seek to change people, we have tended to use lawsuits and political clout exclusively. And that has been a mistake.
But the hopeless part of the custom-and-culture group is that they do not want to be part of America. They are appalled by America. They despise urban values, and see themselves as dwelling in a fortress that will protect them and their children from those destructive forces. I lived for 33 years in and around New York City, and I have lived for 21 years in a small rural town. Both are wonderful places, but neither has a hammerlock on virtue or brains or morality or, especially, on broad thinking. Each has a piece of the picture, and each needs the other, not just for markets and specialized services and recreating space, but for the particular view each has of how the world works. The custom-and-culture view of rural, small-town society as superior to that of the city, and the city’s view of the countryside as being incompetent to protect natural resources, are simply flip sides of the same xenophobic coin.
The need is for the West to become cosmopolitan: to become open to a variety of influences, without abandoning the wonderful customs and cultures that make the West the West. Not to reduce everything to dollars and cents, but when a community does not understand the outside world, it dooms itself in many ways, but certainly economically. A few years ago, for example, the ranchers here came up with a slogan that they used for their advertising: BEEF BUILDS STRENGTH. That slogan came out of their experience, but it was not going to have much appeal to urbanites. The OJ guys down in Florida shoot themselves in the foot over and over again in the same way, choosing “spokesmen” like Anita Bryant who irritate urban sensibilities. I am not saying they should not love Anita Bryant; I am saying they should not spend their hard-earned dollars on advertising that chases away customers.
CW: You say the custom-and-culture people do not want to be part of America. Well, in the same sense, neither do I; and neither, you said earlier, do you. In fact, you mentioned seeing the West as a refuge from America. In my experience, rural people have at least as great a familiarity with urban reality and values as urban ones have with rural life. Again, much of what they—the urbanites—know of the West and of country living comes from television; most recently, from Northern Exposure which, while a clever show in its way, has nothing whatever to do with Alaska, Alaskans, or Alaskan life. As for urban values per se, urbanites by the hundreds of thousands are rejecting those values. What else is the great California migration about? After all, the values of contemporary New York City or Los Angeles are not the values Dr. Johnson praised when he said that the man who is tired of London is tired of life.
Can the West become more cosmopolitan than it is without ceasing to be the West? I have nothing at all against cosmopolitanism, but why must everything be run together? what is wrong with the existence of more or less discrete cultural areas (called “regions” or “countries”), each with its unique strengths and weaknesses? Would anyone seriously consider trying to make New York City more like Catron County or Amarillo, Texas? I am thinking here of what Josiah Royce called the “higher provincialism.”
And why do you say that small Western communities are “outside the world”? They—with every other locality around the globe—are the world. Granted, they have little knowledge—and, for the most part, no experience—of one another. But have they ever? And could they really? Television gives us a sense of familiarity with the rest of the country, and the world beyond it, that is completely false. If the health of local economies depended upon an understanding of the world, then there would be no local economies.
Regarding the relationship between Western cities and rural areas, between urban and rural culture in the West, what is the probable future?
EM: I see three things rural areas need to do, as a result of the ongoing decline of the economies and ecosystems on which their ways of life rested. First, figure out how to be economically useful to urban areas; second, figure out how to attract the right kind of urban people to rural places, and then integrate them into rural life; and, third, figure out what the core rural values are, and see how they can be conserved. The first requires that rural people learn about urban places, because that is the market. Today, you cannot serve a market you do not understand or may even despise. One example is the BEEF BUILDS STRENGTH slogan I referred to earlier. A prime example of how to do it right is provided by Doc and Connie Hatfield and their Oregon Natural Beef Co-op. Their co-op made a lot of money in 1995 despite a bad cattle market because they understand and communicate with urban people. They have not given up their rural values and way of life, but neither do they find it necessary to spit in the faces of their customers.
CW: My fear is that the metastasizing cities here may eventually dominate rural areas completely. Already the populations of the big Western cities are at least half non-Western in origin, and soon they will be two-thirds or three-quarters so. These are the same people who will buy vacation property in scenic areas surrounding these cities, and pretty soon they will control the rural as well as the urban West. And what is known as the “urban West” is, anyway, pretty much simply an extension of the suburban America that you and I dislike, but that makes up nearly all of America but the small towns and the inner cities.
My friend Catron believes that the traditional Western way of life will convert these people to Western values. I am not so sure. There are simply too many people coming in from elsewhere in too short a space of time to make this likely. Many of these people, liking the country—the “wilderness”—they see beyond the cities, will wish to “preserve” it, according to their understanding of the term, and become, not custom-and-culture advocates, but environmentalists, opposed to the traditional Western rural economy, its culture and people. In Utah, for instance, most of the support for more wilderness comes from the urbanized (suburbanized), recently arrived population of the Salt Lake Valley; elsewhere in the state, the voters oppose it. So what I am talking about has already happened in Utah. Therefore, the rural West seems to me to be threatened with the removal of its traditional population through environmentalist lockups and lockouts, and their replacement by recreationists and environmentalist managers.
EM: I do not know that traditional people will be forced out of the region, but they will be marginalized economically and socially. And the result of that marginalization was on display in the 1994 election, when the “War on the West” rhetoric of the Western Republicans convinced people to vote their way overwhelmingly. By my values, it would not be healthy to replace traditional communities and people with recreationists and lone eagles working their computers out of their hillside homes. But it is what is happening, and so long as we remain locked in this destructive “wise use” versus “environmentalist” debate, it is going to continue happening. And in the end, the wise use/custom-and-culture people will he totally marginalized, and we modern, urban types will rule over a region that will have lost both its ecological and social value; it will be like the rest of America.
CW: You offer hope with the suggestion that if environmentalists and “wise users” could reconcile their differences, we might be able to salvage some of the old, unique West. I would feel better about the possibilities for that if I did not suspect, with Alston Chase, that environmentalism is ultimately not about nature at all, but rather recreating human society according to a hackneyed, progressivist vision.
EM:Those who say that environmentalists use resource issues simply to impose progressive values have it backwards. Environmentalists care first and last about the land. But the only tools they know to protect the land with are so-called progressive tools: regulation through a strong federal government, lots of paper-driven process, lawsuits in federal courts, and so on. As environmentalism has matured, we have begun to see the possibilities of market-based solutions, local control, and the like. Our fear in abandoning big government doesn’t come out of a love of big government. It comes out of the fear that without big government, we will be at the mercy of those who would destroy the West.
Alston Chase and the Wise Users are engaging in Red Baiting against environmentalists in order to avoid the issue that created environmentalism: the degraded state of the West as a natural place. That is the hurdle they cannot leap. And big government as a security blanket is the hurdle we environmentalists cannot leap. Each of us, unable to confront our fears and blind spots, therefore demonizes the other.