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Just Say No to Improvements

Essay by Ken Wright

Growth – March 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine

FOR TWO YEARS I wrote an environmental column for a small newspaper in western Colorado.

It wasn’t hard work, really. I just rambled on for 600 words each week about the rugged landscape around us and then offered some helpful observations and suggestions: that housing developments really aren’t good elk habitat, that the local ski area is big enough already, that the Forest Service shouldn’t execute one of the area’s last old-growth Ponderosa stands, that the Bureau of Reclamation shouldn’t insert yet another concrete suppository in yet another nearby river, and so on.

Believe it or not, some of those columns drew complaints.

Most of the complaints began with the same general introduction: “Hey you (insert your favorite adjective here), you weren’t born here, were you?”

I appreciated the time folks took to offer me feedback in those notes (sometimes with painstakingly cut-out and taped-on letters) and phone calls (often after midnight, when the rates were low). It connected me to the many other “newcomers” who have migrated to the West and dared to point out the waste, stupidity, and greed dismantling this fantastic place.

Still, I’m not afraid to admit I wasn’t born a Westerner. And I am not afraid to admit — as even many “environmentalists” are for fear of weakening their credibility — that I am against most of the changes happening here: bigger airports, new roads, the widening and straightening of old roads, Wal-Marts, Kmarts, Qwik Marts, corporate resorts, ski-area expansions, water developments, golf courses, casinos, marinas, campgrounds, trailhead parking, brochures, maps, promotional web sites, and just about anything else any chamber of commerce anywhere does. And on and on. Propose it and I oppose it.

I say, stop it all: Keep the roads a mess, the infrastructure archaic, the water scarce, and the transportation hellish. If we don’t let the profiteers gouge out the amenities and infrastructures that lure the urban refugees who are ravaging the West, they won’t come.

With every incremental “improvement” in the West, there are a dozen people for whom that improvement makes it just easy enough to live here. And once they get settled, they know this place would be just perfect if it only had a (you name it). And that new improvement just makes it comfortable enough for the next dozen, who just wish their new town had a (you name it), and…

I’m not saying we should shut the door. I say anyone can live here if they want, as long as they’re willing to do it on this place’s terms. If folks don’t want to give up nice roads, easy access to air transport, blue-grass lawns, tee-times, specialty-coffee shops, shopping malls, and on-ramps to the information superhighway, then they can move to most of the rest of the country — since it’s already paved over, roaded through and wired up for them.

I know. I used to live there.

Like many native Westerners, there’s a class of us newcomers who love small working towns and wild country. Call us rural refugees.

WE’RE FROM DIFFERENT STATES, but we’re from the same state of mind. We worship the precious backcountry and close-knit communities that still survive in the West, and we settled here willing to sacrifice urban conveniences, high-tech luxuries and fat paychecks to have those things. We would have been happy to stay where we were, but we saw our native rural towns and landscapes crushed by the glassy-eyed cult of economics that chants “Growth Is Good” and whose vision extends only to the end of the next fiscal year.

So I say to the long-time lovers of the West who resent all newcomers, if you listen to us we can offer valuable, hard-earned lessons that you’ll never hear from a politician, real-estate developer, chain-store corporation, or mega-resort.

We learned the hard way that you can’t have it both ways. We know that the planning, studying, sloganeering (“Smart Growth” is Colorado’s favorite platitude), mitigation, and grumblings about the free-market and private property only soothe your conscience and cut loose the profiteers; they do nothing to stop the stripmining of the culture and countryside that is the inevitable cost of growth.

That is why we can’t keep quiet when we hear again the familiar optimistic and hypnotic hymns: Growth is good … We can control growth … We’ll all get rich … Just a little more improvement … There’s another valley over the ridge, and another river over the hill.

And that is why I’m against it all.

Ken Wright is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News, based in Paonia, Colorado ( He lives in Durango, Colo.

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