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A Modest Proposal for the Interior West

Essay by Ken Wright

Rural West – January 1996 – Colorado Central Magazine

There’s nothing like a good bad dirt road to screen out the faintly interested and to invite in the genuinely interested. And it’s perfectly fair and democratic, open to anyone willing to endure a little inconvenience and discomfort for the sake of getting away from the crowds.

Joseph Wood Krutch, in an interview with Edward Abbey

The population of the Interior American West is exploding, changing the rural landscape and lifestyle forever. But you know what? As painful and wrong as I think this situation is, that’s not what really bothers me. What really frightens me is that a certain population in the region is booming: a mass of people coming here for reasons other than the rural lifestyle and wild landscape.

Why are they coming? Lots of theories are being tossed out: People are fleeing the urban and suburban nightmares of traffic and crime and pollution; the baby boom is going through a mid-life crisis; a lot of people are retiring to the country where their pensions and home-sale money go a lot further

These rationales are supportable and probably partly true. But there is one rationale notably absent: No one really thinks that suddenly a huge chomp of the population has become enlightened, that they want to sacrifice their jobs and urban amenities to live simpler, more spiritually rewarding lives close to some fantastic landscape, and to join the rural culture that has lived this way for a long time.

I argue that so many people are moving here now because now they can, because it’s getting easier to live here. Living in the American West no longer demands work, endurance, character, and cooperation. It no longer means sacrificing the material and financial rewards of urban industrial technological society. Thanks to decades of development in the rural West, people accustomed to modern urban living can now run from the problems of the cities and move here without giving up the ease, stimulus, and security of modern American urban-suburban life.

Urban people are moving here in droves, and they are bringing with them their urban needs and expectations, and their voting and buying power is fueling ever more urban/suburban-style development: airports, highways, chain stores, malls, subdivisions, a techno-umbilical link to the global economy — thus luring more of these people. We are caught now in a perpetual motion machine that will soon spew an urban/suburban society and landscape indistinguishable from every other metroplex. Prettier, maybe, with our mountains and valleys and deserts and rivers, but socially and culturally just the same and nearly as easy to live in as Newark or San Diego or Manchester, New Hampshire.

But some of us don’t want that. Some of us don’t want to live in a place like everywhere else. Some of us want to keep it as it is.

Or better yet, keep it as it was.

A silly idea. Naive. Idealistic. Delusional and hallucinogenic. But what if we really wanted to preserve small, close-knit communities set in a big, open landscape? What if we really wanted a sustainable economy based on small-scale farming and ranching and other land-based lifestyles? What if we really wanted the Interior West to be a place where those values could be lived, now and for generations to come? What would we need to do?

I have a proposal: Keep the Interior West a difficult place to live.

Here are some ideas:

Keep access to the Interior West — between, say, the Front Range and the Sierra Nevada — challenging. If people want to visit or live here, they should earn it; access is a natural filter for both quantity and quality of people. Roads should be simple — adequate, say, for two-wheel drives in good weather. We will not build new roads. Period. Anywhere. No expansion of airports, either; airports should be simple fields at most. The people who choose to come despite these challenges will find it worth it, and the residents will find these visitors worth welcoming. And those who don’t like the poor access will still have plenty of other beautiful and convenient places to head to.

Reduce to a limited infrastructure. An early 20th-century infrastructure should be sufficient, leaving us with the basic technologies it will support. Small water supply reservoirs and stock ponds are okay, but there will be no big dams. Also no big power plants, pipelines, and other modern mega-projects; communities will meet their own minimal and essential needs for power, water, and public works.

Declare the Interior West a refuge for non-industrial living for individual and human-scale free enterprise. I mean true free enterprise — local individuals working locally — not the corporate capitalism that is pawned off on us as free enterprise today. To do that we need a self-contained economy separate from the global economy, a place where large national and multi-national corporations are not allowed to compete with resident entrepreneurs for the region’s resources.

Protect our public lands, both ecologically and politically. Some 85 percent of the Interior West is public land, and this is our great, unique, and vital resource. Few other places on earth have such a store of open land, wilderness, and wildlife habitat held in reserve for the future and the common good. We need to defend and preserve it. How? No more corporate use of public lands, and no exporting of natural resources. The public lands are to be used by local people for individual needs and for small, locally owned enterprises: pick-and-shovel mining; handsaw and mule-team logging; small, family owned livestock operations; and wilderness hunting and safari guiding services. Public lands will also be managed for non-human life. We will protect ecosystems for future generations that will inherit a living landscape that they are part of, a wilderness that includes humans and their uses — true wilderness.

We will also:

Give tax breaks for conservation of land: no more tax breaks for second homes.

Allow no giant corporate resorts, only locally owned and run guest places. Folks will come from all over to unwind and explore both our wild country and wild communities. Visit. Stay, even. But do it on this place’s terms.

No boosterism. No advertising. No tax-supported tourism bureaus. Disband all chambers of commerce. Word will get out to those who care.

THESE ARE JUST a few ideas to get us started. A modest proposal.

Believe it or not, there are going to be some complaints about these suggestions. My God! people will gasp, how can you tell people they can’t have all the electricity and water and computers and subdivisions and high-paying corporate jobs? They can have them, just not here. If you want that stuff, live anywhere else in the world — which is most of the developed world — where modern life rules.

But, others will cry, we won’t be able to compete in a global market economy! True, true. That’s the point. Not everybody wants to be plugged into the global frenzy; the Interior West (the West Coast is already lost) will be a hold-out, a refuge, for those people who want to focus their energies on living, the √¶sthetics of working.

This infringes on Americans’ freedom! others will scream. But this isn’t about freedom, this is about responsibility, the responsibility to the future. And it is about rights, the right for every person to carve his own way, to live simply and affordably in secure communities, and the right for free access to abundant and healthy wild land. It’s about the responsibility to guarantee those rights to future generations. That is freedom.

Then there’s the “elitist” charge. Isn’t it selfish for the relatively few people who would actually want to live in this primitive way? Perhaps. But everyone will have the choice of living here, they just will have to do it on the land’s and lifestyle’s terms. If you are unfit or not willing to live this way, then there is a rich and abundant diversity of fully developed places to dwell. The people living here will be those who want to live here, small-income people by either choice or lack of modern-marketable skills; those same people who are increasingly pushed off the land and out of communities by the growth bulldozing the West today.

And who are those people? Who are those who believe in, want, and need a rural lifestyle, wild country, and wild lives? We are not easily categorized, stereotyped, or labeled. We bear many signs: Cowboy hats, camouflage caps, and baseball caps worn backwards; Lycra, blue jeans, shorts, and baggy tie-dyed pantaloons; ski racks, gun racks, and bike racks; Wise Use, Earth First! and the Sierra Club; fourth-generation ranchers, new-comers from the coast, and college students.

We come in many forms, but we are all people who value the noneconomic rewards of the rural West. We are people who live in communities and love the mountains and work and raise families. We people who value leading quality lives in places we love, and want to pass safe communities and healthy land onto future generations.

When we recognize each other, when we see who our true allies are and who the real friends of the Interior West are, we see that we are a force — a force big and strong enough to take charge. It’s not too late, if we just start dismantling

This essay was abridged by the author from a longer version in his book, A Wilder Life, published in 1995 by Kivak Press of Durango. Aside from writing, Ken Wright teaches English, guides boats, and drives old pickups on back roads while sipping beer.