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Do we need all this advice?

Essay by Martha Quillen

Changing West – June 1997 – Colorado Central Magazine

If you’re looking for solutions to problems caused by growth, migration and tourism, I’d suggest you don’t go near a college campus.

But if you need to confirm your growing sense that the issues involved are not only irresolvable, but are in actuality far too complicated to ever fully untangle — then by all means sign up for a college symposium on these issues.

Ed and I attended two such events in the last month. The first was the Annual Headwaters Conference at Western State College in Gunnison. This year’s topic was, “Where the Western Frontier meets La Frontera del Norte.”

In Gunnison, speakers discussed the intermingling (but never-quite-mixing) cultures in our region. An introductory panel presented an historical perspective on Spanish, Anglo and Indian relationships, and subsequent panels illuminated various modern conundrums. The program also included dramatic presentations, poetry readings, slide shows, and a folk-polka-mariachi-rock band (whose musical selections more or less said it all).

Speakers included: Tom Sharpe, a cowboy poet who likes the way things used to be, but who now sells real estate for a living; Josephine Lobato, an artist from San Luis who talked about switching between the English-speaking and Spanish-speaking communities on a daily basis; George Stranaham and Elizabeth Meador from the Roaring Fork Teacher Education Project which is trying to level the playing field for immigrant students; and Maryo Ewell from the Colorado Council of the Arts.

As moderator of a panel entitled, “Living in Two Cultures,” Ewell didn’t preach the standard gospel on the importance of diversity. Instead, she merely presented questions she thought we might consider for discussion. Things like, “Is living in two cultures desirable? Or would a single combined culture be better?”

Ewell encouraged the audience to consider their definitions of diversity. What is it? Is it important to have a strong sense of cultural identity? Or is it just nostalgia? In the arena of promoting ethnic arts and businesses, what should public and government policy be?

And that was more or less the tenor for this year’s whole Headwaters Conference.

Only a few years ago, when our region’s economy was just starting to turn around — back when escalating property values were a welcome aberration, and a little growth was a miraculous deviation — everybody seemed to know exactly what we needed.

We needed more diversity. We needed to pass an “English Only” bill. We needed stronger environmental regulation. We needed a coalition between ranchers and environmentalists. We needed a vision. We needed to dump our extractive industries, and enter the work-world of cyberspace. We needed family values. We needed baby nurses to train new mothers. We needed to pass a bill to limit subdivision space. We needed new rodeo-arenas, trails, and community centers. We needed more local arts councils, cooperative galleries, economic planners, community theaters, teen centers, open space, and commons areas.

To step into the future: We should network. We should open galleries. We should quit mining, ranching and logging. We should set aside more open space. We should restructure our schools. We should buy only authentic Indian rugs made by genuine Indians.

Just a few short years ago, the speakers at Headwaters invariably knew exactly what we should do. But this year no one seemed quite so sure.

And not too surprisingly, most of the people I talked to afterwards seemed to like it better that way. After all, advice is still easier to give than to take — and in the last few years we’ve taken a lot of it.

Sometimes it seems like people can’t so much as pass through here without writing back to tell us what we’re doing wrong. Our local papers are full of advice from well-meaning critics who don’t seem to think we’re smart enough to recognize a horse when it’s standing in front of us.

Not long ago, I read a letter in The Wet Mountain Tribune from a couple in Michigan who just wanted to say that they thought Westcliffe was really beautiful, but that it had this one really plain, uncomely building out on the highway that didn’t exactly contribute to the view — and that they were absolutely sure the people of Westcliffe would want to know about it, because things like that are very upsetting to visitors.

Being from Michigan, I recognized their address and had to laugh. You’d think that somewhere in the Greater Detroit Metropolitan area, they could have found a lot of ugly buildings to inspire their demolition goals.

But we live in the “American West,” that big playground for people who read outdoor magazines. And we’ve got a tradition to uphold — a legacy handed down by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Daniel Boone, Buffalo Bill, and John Wayne.

Although we may not look it, in the American psyche, the West is still supposed to be that wild, natural place where clean air, pristine vistas, and healthy living inspire worthy values.

At the second conference Ed and I attended, a lot of the speakers talked about what it is that people expect to find in the West. And according to some spokesmen, the public’s affinity for the West isn’t necessarily good or healthy.

“Seeing & Being Seen: Tourism in the American West,” was presented by The Center of the American West at CU in Boulder, and was considerably different than the gathering at Western State. Whereas, the presenters at WSC were primarily people who live and work in Colorado and northern New Mexico, the speakers in Boulder came from all over the West.

Susan Rhodes Neel, an associate professor of history at Montana State University talked about Fred Smith, a tourist who visited Yellowstone with his son in 1925. Mr. Smith believed that American society was wracked by class warfare, but he loved Yellowstone, because it was a place where everybody from all walks of life could meet and sing songs together around a campfire.

After visiting Yellowstone, Smith reveled in a newfound sense of democratic idealism and patriotic sentiment. The West satisfied Smith’s yearning for equality. But according to Neel, Smith was kidding himself.

The tourists Smith met at Yellowstone were prosperous, white, middle-class citizens like himself; whereas native Americans like Max Bigman and his family, who sold trinkets to tourists in that era, were actually “objectified and transformed” into a part of the show.

Thus, Smith’s western experience allowed him to quench his hunger for democracy and equality without actually requiring him to sample anything distasteful. Neel labeled fantasies like Smith’s — where people imagine they’re getting tried, true, and noble by living off the land (albeit with the help of park rangers and the U.S. government) — “dreamscapes of nationhood.”

Yet, even though tourism has often shown an ugly face according to Neel, she sees a good side, too. Neel believes in the “power of dreamscapes,” and she thinks we can break away from the old mold — by creating alternative dreamscapes where people can learn new ways to relate to other people.

(So what do you think? Is Neel’s vision of a fabulous future, just another delusional dreamscape of nationhood? Or was she seriously suggesting that we can create a myth, then somehow visit it, and thereby become better people? Personally, I think Neel was just trying to offer her audience a little encouragement, which was nice of her, but a little silly. Does she actually expect us to believe that even though we have been self-righteous, insensitive boors throughout history, we’ll get better as soon as we discover the right fantasy?)

But at least Neel’s Mr. Smith was a nice guy who craved fairness — even if he wasn’t very discerning. Sylvia Rodriguez, an associate professor of ethnology at the University of New Mexico depicted a weirder, murkier side of the west when she talked about Sante Fé.

In her scenario, Anglo whites are fleeing from capitalism, and looking for something more spiritual in New Mexico’s cultural diversity, but in doing so they’ve made race paramount. The classification of art as Hopi, Navaho, Pueblo and Spanish, leads to a stratification of the races. In Sante Fe, ethnicity is “objectified, sanitized and sold.”

According to Rodriguez, as white migrants gained dominance after WWII, they slowly cleansed themselves right out of the picture. Now, whites seldom appear in artworks, and they’ve even removed their own cultural “icons” — the white trappers, cowboys and traders — from public parades. In spite of their ambivalence toward the capitalistic cities they’ve left behind, whites have commercialized ethnicity in Santa Fe, and in the process they have created a city with deep underlying currents of colonialism and racism.

Over the two-day seminar, problems in gambling towns were discussed, as were troubles in our national parks. As expected, the topic veered from tourism, to migration, to growth, and back again — since they’re all too intertwined to separate.

A number of speakers pointed out that tourism could be hard on the environment, and quite a few presented figures which suggested that in a financial sense, tourism doesn’t always pay.

Tourism has a dark side. A majority of the speakers at the Center of the American West conference agreed on that. Yet most of them went on to talk about ways to accommodate more tourists, anyway.

And there was, of course, a lot of discussion about how to promote the “right” kind of tourism. All in all, however, there was no agreement on what the “right” kind of tourism is, or even any agreement on whether such a thing exists.

Charles Wilkinson, the CU law professor who delivered the introductory speech, was leery of overpowering economic solutions like gambling. He defined “good tourism” as that which preserved those things that are worthy about our communities, whereas “bad tourism” tended to destroy our distinctiveness.

But Hal Rothman, an associate professor of history at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, refuted Wilkinson’s conclusion. “If good tourism preserves distinctiveness,” he asserted, “then there is no good tourism.” According to Rothman, if the tourists don’t come, then you won’t get any money, so you’ll remake yourself for the tourists.

Rothman repeatedly said that tourism is neither bad nor good. Instead, he gave the impression that tourism just is, because everyone travels sometimes, and therefore we all have to deal with it.

But as Rothman told tales about the experiences of various towns involved in tourism, he sounded a bit like a naturalist defending man-eating tigers. Rothman certainly didn’t make tourism sound like something people should eagerly embrace.

On the other hand, Patrick Long, an associate professor of Business and Administration at CU, claimed that for every Aspen there are scores of communities reaping the benefits of tourism and seeking to expand without getting overwhelmed.

As Long sees it, the West offers most of the things people want in a vacation and thus our communities have a promising future, but if we want to succeed: We must assume stewardship over our natural and historic attractions. We have to attain better and more consistent funding. Our traveler services must improve. Our lending institutions have to gain a better understanding of tourism-related businesses. And “We must quit fighting over who won the ’63 homecoming game…”

Outside, during a break, Allen Best, the editor of the Vail Valley Times, commented that his problem with all this talk about growth and tourism was that everybody acted like our Colorado towns were in control. In his experience, even the major players like Vail and Aspen can’t seem to stop, slow or even direct development.

And Ed and I had to agree with him — it’s not like a town can order up a Holiday Inn if it wants one, or stop a Super Wal-Mart if it doesn’t.

In the end, Thomas Power, Chair of the Department of Economics at the University of Montana, tried to give tourism its biggest boost by avowing that people only think that there are problems with tourism because they don’t understand the real economic picture.

Power felt people distrusted tourism because of all of the talk about low paid service jobs. But that’s misinformed, Power claimed.

With the aid of slides, graphs and lists, Power explained that service jobs are eclipsing manufacturing jobs, but the “service” category actually includes not only lodging and recreation jobs but also business, management, accounting, and medical jobs. Moreover, restaurants, department stores, and grocery stores are not even in the “service” industry. Those are actually “retail trade jobs.” And furthermore, although more service jobs are part-time, and they offer fewer benefits, on a national average, after service jobs are adjusted for gender inequities, they actually pay as well as manufacturing jobs.

I suppose it was gratifying to know that college professors, surgeons, and bank presidents are merely service personnel. But in spite of Power’s assumptions, I suspect that people in towns like Leadville and Eagle are not really worried about whether the growing number of local citizens who need affordable housing, daycare, and lower-cost medical services are in the “service” category, or the “retail sales trade.”

It’s odd. You’d think that with everybody pouring out of the cities and their nearby suburbs to escape crime, traffic, dirt and noise, the experts would be busy telling the metro areas what they should be doing to fix things. But I guess it’s up to us — because the experts obviously don’t agree upon very much.

But that’s just as well — since the recognized authorities on a subject may offer fascinating information, numbers, theories, and anecdotes, but they don’t necessarily offer very good advice.

After all, whom do you think the government turned to for its urban renewal efforts in the 1960s and ’70s? (And you can see how well that turned out).

Nevertheless, I believe it’s important to listen carefully, and to gather as much information as possible, and to think about all of it before we take action — even though in this case I suspect Allen Best may have been right. If the flight out of the suburbs today turns into as massive a phenomena as the flight into the suburbs did in the 1950s and ’60s, a lot of these issues may well be out of our control.

After the convention we went to see Ed’s parents who live in nearby Longmont, and Ed’s dad asked me what we’d been doing in Boulder. I told him we’d gone to a seminar on tourism and growth, and he said:

“You know what gets me about all this growth talk? They keep telling us that growth can pay its own way. They’ve been telling us that for years. And then they told us they wouldn’t raise our taxes. And sometimes they didn’t.

“But our assessment has doubled, and doubled, and then gone up again, and our taxes are unbelievable. With all this growth we’ve had to build new roads, and schools, and parks — and still they told us growth can pay its own way.

“Well, do you know what I think the truth is? Growth never pays its own way — and you can’t believe a single thing those people say.”

All in all, I think my father-in-law’s assessment of the situation was one of the best I’ve heard. But the speakers were interesting nonetheless.

So — how many economic planners does it take to screw in a light bulb?

What light bulb? They haven’t come up with a purchase agreement yet.

— Martha Quillen