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Problem Solving

Column by George Sibley

Community – November 2002 – Colorado Central Magazine

“Problem solving” in the West has historically been a matter of applying science and technology to “tame the land” and make the wild West more people-friendly. This problem-solving process has significantly rearranged a lot of western ecology, especially in the vicinity of surface waters. It takes a real enviro-purist to see all of these changes as negative, and a deliberately obtuse “Wise-User” — blind to obvious system overloading and desertification — to see all of them as positive.

But over the past third of a century, the perception of problems in the West has taken a slow, creaking turn toward concern about the long-term health of the land and all of the things that must live off of it — including humans.

The obvious evidence of desertification; plus uncontrollable urbanization, suburbanization and exurbanization in dry and fragile ecologies; the loss of native species; the invasion of exotics; and the growing shortages in essential resources like water and oil are the new problems facing Westerners. And they don’t seem nearly as amenable to the quick application of science and technology as the old problems.

It’s easy for us to blame these problems on Easterners, Californians and Washington, or to attribute them to the evil machinations forced upon us by the National Environmental Protection Act or the Endangered Species Act.

But NEPA and the ESA were just our crude, and ultimately insufficient, early efforts to start to address these increasingly unignorable “New West” problems.

What these new problems demand is an economy which has evolved beyond the short-sighted opportunism of America’s primitive market system and a political system which has matured beyond the equally short-sighted factionalism of America’s primitive democracy.

Technologically, we are a very interactive and sophisticated society, but when it comes to working out the socioeconomic problems for which there are no easy technological solutions, we’re in the Stone Age.

We can’t even agree upon short-term remedies to address our problems.

A few months ago, I wrote about a group of ranchers, environmentalists and public-land managers near the Mexican border who have been trying to evolve a more sophisticated process for developing political solutions to the economic and social challenges facing Westerners. Bill McDonald, a rancher and spokesperson for this “Malpai (Badlands) Borderlands Group,” addressed an environmental symposium at Western State College last spring on this effort to build what he called “the radical center.” The objective is to discourage cultural protagonists from clinging comfortably to their extremes and urge them toward a middle ground, where the object is not to change minds but to open minds in what might be the most survival-oriented trait of all: a willingness to work toward shared goals.

In the same vein, the Rural Development Councils of several Rocky Mountain states recently commissioned playwright Micki Panttaja, of Idaho, to write a drama about that same basic problem. Panttaja came up with a story called “Weed” that touches most of the bases of the often dysfunctional West.

In “Weed,” a rancher, who has spent his life trying to live with, and off of, a difficult natural environment — despite the vagaries of weather, and the vagaries of political change in Washington, and the vagaries of the market in Kansas City — discovers a strange “weed” on a piece of leased public land he has been trying to bring up to the standards of the Bureau of Land Management. The local BLM range manager — who is new, as usual, given the federal policy of frequent transfers to prevent “getting cozy with the natives” — is quite interested in this plant, and passes it along to a plant specialist who is also a card-carrying environmentalist.

The plant turns out to be one of the “lost plants” of the West — a plant which is no longer lost but possibly upgradable to “endangered.” And thus the people of the Slippery Rock Valley — all of them just trying to do their best, including the local BLM manager who has the best of intentions — begin that slow slide down into the familiar old macro-cultural battle. But while they still cling to the edge of that great cultural canyon, they wonder if there isn’t some way to snatch a local victory out of this gridlock.

“You just said the government wants local solutions,” one of the townspeople reminds the BLM manager.

“Yes,” says the manager, “they just don’t want locals coming up with them.”

And that becomes a challenge. The play ends there, deliberately.

The Rural Development Councils wanted the play to be a way of initiating local discussion about ways to address these challenging “New West” problems politically, at the local level; it’s an exercise in ways to work toward that “radical center.”

“Weed” will play in Gunnison Friday, November 8th, at Western’s 13th Annual Headwaters Conference. The performance will be the opening event in a two-day exploration of how communities can begin to make inroads on overcoming “cultural gridlock” so that we can work out all of our current problems that cannot be wished away, waited out, or bandaged with new technology.

The Headwater’s Conference topic this year is: “Conflict to Consensus: Meeting obstacles to community action.” The play will be open to the public. For more information, call me at 970-943-2055, or email

George Sibley teaches, writes, and organizes in Gunnison.