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Call me a Sagebrush Patriot

Essay by Ken Wright

Rural West – September 1997 – Colorado Central Magazine

I live in a fantastic corner of the American West, on the edge of where mountains fall away into canyon-carved desert. I live in one of this area’s mountain valleys, but at mid-morning on this day I find myself on a high above-tree-line pass, taking in a grand sweep of the country. To the east stands a range of peaks, rippling away like the choppy surface of a lake; to my immediate south rises a single massive peak, a great banded pyramid off whose face falls a sloping scree field that sprawls down and away to the rolling foothill forest lands that reach outward and downward through climate zones, from subalpine fir to piƱon and juniper, across the rising and falling of foothills and gathering creeks, then across river valleys and canyons to the green valley bottom where squats the nearest town to the west. Looking in that direction from this 11,000-plus-foot perch I can see across dry sage lands for a hundred miles or more, and in that distance I see the wall of a table-top mountain, the blue bodies of three distant mountain ranges, and the dendritic arms of two major river systems.

Not too shabby, I think to myself. In fact, I feel rather lucky.

Blessed, even.

Let’s face it: We in the American West are blessed. No need to be shy or humble or coy about this — we know it. We are blessed.

Sure, sure, there are mountain ranges and deserts and valleys in other places — some really pretty ones, even — but what makes the American West a place like no other is that, despite its dazzling scale and beauty, here in the late 20th Century the American West stands alone among Europe, Asia, and the rest of North America as mostly undeveloped and still-wild country — huge expanses of open countryside that we are free to roam.

And upon this land we’ve built an intact and interwoven network of working rural communities still dependent upon, and humbled by, this great landscape.

Blessed people in a blessed country.

Of course, when I say “undeveloped” I don’t mean pristine, unused, untouched by humans. This land is used, a lot. I cite as examples what my wife and I saw on our drive up into these mountains this morning: Campgrounds jammed with tents and campers; ORVs, ATVs, and RVs with TVs and picture windows; and several families in rumbling and dusty sedans with the windows rolled up. We saw hikers with British flags on their daypacks, mountain bikers, and Jeeps. We didn’t see today — but we know they’re out there at other times — fishermen, hunters, backpackers, and cross-country skiers.

And not all are here to play. We also passed cowboys pushing cattle, and more cowboys pushing paying city-dudes, firewood gatherers, a mine opened twice in the last fifty years, and an old and weathered Hispanic sheepherder resting still on the steps of his even older and more-weathered sheepherder’s wagon. We didn’t see the loggers, sight-seeing tours, herb-gatherers, and others who make a living off these lands, but, again, we know they’re here, out there, somewhere.

This is an historical fact: this land has been experimented on and tinkered with and handled, manipulated, and changed by everyone who has ever passed through it. Many have even abused it. But even though this landscape spread out before me may not be pristine wilderness, it’s still a lot sweeter than Trenton, New Jersey, greater metropolitan Chicago, and even nearby Denver and its plasterboard suburbs. There’s a cliche in vogue today — it’s even painted on a billboard just outside my hometown — that says “I’d rather see a cow than a condo.” Let us say hallelujah to that, brothers and sisters.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t worship wilderness. Over the years of living in the West, my views have evolved. I used to be a fanatical wilderness advocate, but now I’m a fanatical rural advocate. Yes, wilderness is vital to a healthy rural landscape, but it is only a part. We need folks using the land — using it well, carefully, respectfully, with the long-term in mind — but using it nonetheless, living off it, living on it.

Like ranchers, just to cite one controversial example. I know the typical cynical wilderness-fanatic view says that the “cowboy culture” is just a bunch of big-hatted men and tight-jeaned women doing some kind of cultural karioke of a 19th century trail song.

But I thank the gods some people are thumbing their noses in the face of practicality, fashion, progress, and economic logic; I’m thankful some folks cling to an inefficient and nostalgic view of work and life. I’m glad some people are living the Myth of the West, for the West’s ranching community, as myth-based as it is, is still a working model of America’s rural lifestyle, a way of living with and off the land in small, close-knit and independent communities. A disappearing way of life.

And for someone like me — like too many of us today — who does his hunting and gathering at City Market, for whom too often wilderness is the maze of chain stores at the mall, and for whom too much time is spent in the backcountry of the Discovery Channel, ranchers and farmers and loggers are a vicarious reminder that we are still inseparably linked to the land.

So put some cattle on the land, log it with care, mine it on a small scale and these mountains may not be pristine wilderness, but they are still wild. They are still undeveloped.

And so the fact that much of the American West remains largely uninhabited, unindustrialized, and unprofitable is a blessing. Aside from a few crowded, dirty, and crime-ridden urban ghettos, this rugged and mostly arid land is inhabited mainly by small, scattered, struggling towns and cities, places where making a living is a constant challenge and is usually somehow tied to the surrounding land, from ranching to mining to tourism. Hard places to get ahead, if that’s your aim, but that’s okay with those of us who live here, because we are strange by modern standards: we like it that way.

For us, the reward for the struggling is all around, all that glorious land we are free to look at, to roam, to work and play on. Ski bums and grunge rock climbers, line-cook river guides, and struggling overeducated urban-expatriate professionals — these are the 21st-Century pastoralists, the heirs to the ranchers clinging to an inefficient and retro lifestyle that views life and land as more valuable than money.

But there’s more to this land than just its being rural and undeveloped. And I can see that other element right before me on this mountain pass today: huddled here in an old stone circle of a sheepherder’s windbreak, my wife nurses our little girl. I also see, walking out across the tundra only thirty feet away, my 2-year-old boy. He toddles and waddles like a midget Neanderthal, arms swinging, feet lunging and plunging awkwardly but full of determination and purpose. He stops, squats to pat a flower, then stands and blunders on, looking around, up and down, out and back, at everything, taking it all in. Taking in his land.

This is the circle that completes my home: this land, these communities, and my family; the three facets inseparable. And I want my kids to be able to have them — their own families and homes, and with that big healthy hunks and chunks of wild and rural country to wander and to work in when they want to and when they need to. And what is truly blessed about the American West is that our kids have a chance for that. And this is no accident.

It’s not just by some lucky quirk of fate that the Interior West remains blessed while the rest of rural America is bulldozed by people, houses, industry, agribusiness, resource liquidation, grotesque commercial strips, and sterile suburban mausoleums.

It’s because we here have a defense mechanism, an anti-body to the economic-land-development virus, that is also unique in the whole world: public land. Lots of public land. A massive shield of public land — more than three-quarters of the land between the Sierra Nevada and the Front Range — that shelters this land from the late-20th century economics devouring rural land and gutting rural culture everywhere else.

Our public lands are the American West — not just the physical West, but the cultural and psychological West. The West’s great open spaces give rise to the distinctly Western attitude and spirit we so treasure, whether we be ranchers or hunters or ski bums or bankers. Yet, remarkably, it seems few people recognize this bedrock importance of our public lands.

Sure, we use them, we ranch them, we hike them, we hunt and fish and go four-wheeling on them. We go camping and take pictures and enjoy the views they protect and preserve. Some folks who live outside the region just visit them once every year or ten, and spend the time between visits dreaming and reading and telling stories about them. And whether we live here or not, we often argue, often vehemently, over how they’re managed.

But while we argue about the economics and ecology of the uses of our public lands, rarely do we stop to acknowledge that the reason we still have anything to argue about is because so much of this land is public. Without public lands, our arguments would be irrelevant, sold off for subdivisions, strip malls, strip mines, clear cuts, dude ranches, theme parks, facade resorts, and posted “no trespassing” getaway second homes, gated communities and private estates. Need proof? Remember those places that were until recently still rural — New England, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the Piedmont of the Carolinas, the southern Appalachians….

Yes, we are blessed, but we can’t afford to take our public lands for granted anymore. There are people out there who want to take our public lands away. And I seriously worry about these people.

Need more proof? Here’s a small sampling of some of what happened in the last three years alone: A House bill sought to turn over 2.9 million acres of BLM land to the state of Oregon.

Bills in both the House and the Senate tried to give all BLM land over to the states for the states to either manage or sell off.

Idaho Gov. Phil Batt was under pressure to declare sovereignty over the 33 million acres of federal land in that state. Another House bill would have established a National Parks Closing Commission.

And there was more: Because of a 123-year-old mining law the Interior Department had to hand a mining company 347 acres of national forest on the rim of the Grand Canyon for less than $2,000. Under that same law, a Danish mining company purchased 110 acres of public land in Idaho for $275. The Salvage Logging Bill passed in 1995 boosted logging in national forests while outlawing legal and environmental challenges. And in nearby southern Utah, a Dutch mining company planned to open a coal mine in one of the most remote wildernesses outside Alaska and sell the coal to Asian countries; to stop this plan the President had to create a national monument, and to compensate the mining company promise to give it public lands in Utah of value equal to the lost coal revenues — which could mean as much as half the federal lands in the state.

All this to put short-term monetary gains over long-term non-economic values — a cult of economics that sacrifices culture and land. Perhaps a presidential candidate campaigning for the last election said it best: “In America, values and economics are the same thing.” That is not the voice of a living, feeling human being. That is the voice of a computer program, of a balance sheet. That is the voice of a slave. That is the voice of economic zealotry.

This stuff worries me.

And I worry, too, for other reasons. I worry because too many of us who do care about the West are content to go out to herd cattle or cut timber or ride bikes or fish or hunt or hike, and we are content to not do anything in return to protect or defend the lands that make that work and play possible. I worry because we’re all too damned busy attacking each other for what the other is doing on our public lands to see what we have in common — the need for public lands.

But we can’t afford to bicker anymore. Against the short-sighted attacks of privatization and industrial destruction of our public lands we have one shot, for once we lose our public lands — all or some — they are gone for good.

So if you love the American West as a holdout of rural communities surrounded by a free and open and dazzling landscape then you must — you have the responsibility — to stand up, speak up, put up, or shut up. It’s time to wake up: We need to put our arguments aside and rally together over our public lands — as refuges not just of land, but of culture. All of us who love and need what these lands gives us beyond the dollars they’re worth must make a vow:

We will not let anyone take this away.

Those who want to take it away used to call themselves Sagebrush Rebels, rebelling against the “public” in public land, rebelling for the money that can be extracted from this land at any cost.

Sagebrush Rebels? Call me a Sagebrush Patriot — a fighter, standing by my country, as in countryside, as in country living, as in big open wild country where our wild spirits can grow and live and where we our kids can grow up to be both wilderness nuts and ranchers, living and working close to the land like humans are supposed to. To do that we need an army of Sagebrush Patriots, a diverse but unified force of rural people — not just organized environmentalists, but fishermen and hunters and ORVers alongside backpackers and mountain bikers and loggers and ranchers — standing together as a vanguard for the future. Blessed people in a blessed country. Let’s keep it that way.

Ken Wright is an editor of the San Juan Almanac, a regional quarterly magazine in Durango. He also teaches English at Fort Lewis College there.