Essay by Steve Voynick
The West – August 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine
I contend that the single biggest problem facing this nation today is overpopulation, a problem which is worsening with every passing year. Do you know what the population of this country was when you came to Climax in the early 1950s? About 153 million. And fifty years before that, the national population was about 76 million. Today, less than 50 years after you came to Climax (and this is hardly ancient history because I was starting school then), our population is pushing 270 million. All those people have developed an eating habit, yet there is always less land on which to grow the food that they need.
Please keep those figures in mind as I respond to your points, the first of which regards your having taken “a run-down forty acres and developed a nursery that supports several families and sells plants for a profit.” You sound like you expect me to criticize you for that. I don’t at all, in fact I commend you for it, because you put that land into production. No, you may not produce food directly, but as you mentioned, it supports families and becomes part of a necessary and viable economy.
What you did NOT do was build a house on a forty-acre “ranchette” and regally reign over your personal piece of the West. That would have taken land out of production, probably forever. My point on land use today is that we can no longer afford to take quarter-section tracts out of production — whether it’s hay or whatever — for the sake of our egos or to relive the archaic frontier-era dream of the “wide open West.”
I UNDERSTAND YOUR PREFERENCE to think of frontier-era prospectors as “pursuing a dream with hard work and risk.” But I contend that if those prospectors could have made a better buck (read standard of living) in the East, their great-grandsons would still be there today. The dream, on the bottom line, was land and money. The railroads didn’t build transcontinental lines because of some “dream to link East and West into one great nation.” The railroads built west so they could tie onto 80-mile-wide rights-of-way that the government handed out. Sodbusters went west to pick up government-issued 160-acre homesteads, with many, both sodbusters and speculators, filing illegally on several tracts.
Prospectors risked their lives primarily for the right to patent government land. Why did cattlemen head west? Very few for any idealistic vision of their own ranch, most for use of the government’s free range.
What were the results? Well, we damned sure settled the West, killing the Indians and throwing out the Mexicans in the process. But we also created our dust bowls, shot elk and buffalo to the brink of extinction, clear-cut thousands of acres of forests, overgrazed the ranges to dust, and used and abandoned mining districts that still pollute water today. And there are still railroads around today that are living off the Pacific Railroad Act handouts.
So what do I think settled the West? Profit without the burden of consequence — just as I stated in my article. Or “greed, exploitation and profit” — to quote your author friend.
Jim, I agree with you that our society is one of profit-oriented free enterprise, and that it always has been and most likely always will be, in one form or another. Frankly, that’s what built this country and gave you and me everything that we enjoy and benefit from today. But I question your belief that what is now happening to the West today is right, by virtue of being “just a lot of free people making free choices in a free land.”
That’s exactly what characterized our era of frontier expansion — everything was “free,” whether people, choices or land — and free of consequence. The western land-use mentality of the era was to use it and leave it. In due respect to the settlers, I believe they perceived this land as so vast that it could never be ruined. Hence, consequence was never a reality when the West was settled.
But today is “a whole different ball game.” Like it or not, times have changed. Sheer population numbers and land use pressure are ruling out the appealing ideas of free choice and free land. Today, the consequences of land use must be a major concern. I become very irritated when I hear Vail developers presenting tourism, mountain recreation, and land development as environmentally benign, “clean” industries. They are neither environmentally benign nor are they “clean.”
I often hear about the environmental travesties committed by early miners, loggers, hunters, farmers, etc. — most often from those who overbuild and move to the Vails of today. These people have learned nothing whatsoever from history, nor do they wish to, for that would only stand in the way of their profit. My entire point is that we in the West can no longer rush for the profits and ignore the consequences.
There’s not enough land left, Jim, to repeat the frontier experience. Yet the residents, developers and promoters of the New Vails of the West are doing just that, pursuing a profit-at-any-cost policy, and in the process, destroying the very thing they came for, just as the settlers did. Didn’t we learn anything along the frontier trail?
My original article title, before the Post got its hands on it, was “The Lost Lesson of the West.” I wish they had retained it.
I understand your concerns and perspective, and I truly appreciate your sending them along. I’m disappointed that you are “saddened” by my thoughts, but I stand behind every single word I wrote. After all, opposing viewpoints can liven up one’s days.