Essay by Martha Quillen
Modern Life – July 2005 – Colorado Central Magazine
ON THE BRIGHT SIDE: Last week, I read a feature that made me think Central Coloradans may be a little more savvy about some things than our neighbors. But on the other hand, even if we’re ahead on the learning curve, we’ve still got problems.
In his June/July issue, Jim Stiles, publisher of Moab’s Canyon Country Zephyr, lambasted the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA). Stiles, a former seasonal ranger at Arches National Park, is grass-green, himself, but he contends that his fellow environmentalists have sold out.
According to Stiles, Utah’s environmentalists continue to fret about the same old environmental threats (cows, mines and the like) while ignoring the harmful consequences of the tourism and recreation industries which they helped establish — even though the new industries are proving to be as destructive, or perhaps more so, than their predecessors.
In Utah, wilderness advocates have supported the tourist and recreation industries — probably because those industries support wilderness with big bucks. But how many people can you sell wilderness to, before it’s not wild any more? And just how much tourism, biking, hiking, and real estate development can our backcountry endure?
As Stiles sees it, the fact that money can be made by selling beauty and solitude has corrupted Utah’s environmental movement. But the most interesting of Stiles’s contentions has to do with the absurdity of what passes for environmentalism in some places. Stiles questions the much lauded environmentally friendly building code in Aspen, Colorado, which calls for a strict “energy budget” of only 40,000 BTUs per square foot when the average home nationwide consumes 63,000 BTUs per square foot.
Clearly, the code could be a good thing if the wealthy Aspenite wasn’t living in “a 15,000 square foot bunker/home … while a redneck tool pusher living in a less efficient 2000 square foot double-wide can expect to use far less energy.
“Somebody tell me where our credibility is,” Stiles grouses. “And it’s a safe bet that this ‘redneck’ lives in his drafty trailer twelve months a year, while many of these energy-efficient Aspenites spend a fraction of their time there. How can we offer praise to some extravagantly consumptive part-time homeowner? Imagine how much energy it took to construct a castle like that. Consider the natural materials, the cost to operate the heavy equipment, the energy to transport the workers to the job site (it’s doubtful that any of the contractors could afford to even live in Aspen). The mind boggles.”
OF COURSE, I can’t claim that people in Central Colorado have resolved any of the problems Moab is dealing with, but in Chaffee County most environmentalists are pretty “collaborative” (as George Sibley would say). Here, ranchers, environmentalists, recreationists, and outdoorsmen have worked together to protect clean water, rangeland, and wildlife habitat with improved grazing practices and alleged “smart” growth policies. In our area, environmentalists have concentrated on preventing overgrazing, not grazing, and everybody has always talked about how we need to save the ranches because they provide green space and lessen sprawl.
Sounds idyllic, doesn’t it?
Yet I doubt that anyone seriously believes we’ve fixed our environmental problems or resolved the conflicts between environmentalists and traditionalists. On the contrary, talk eases some tensions, but there always seem to be more problems down the road.
But Stiles article suggests that things are a little different in Grand County, Utah.
“When Moab’s amenities economy really gathered steam in 1993, when seven motels were constructed in a matter of months and nationally franchised fast food eateries like McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Denny’s, Arby’s, Taco Bell and Burger King began to sprout along Main Street, when recreational visitation increased exponentially on surrounding public lands, none of the major environmental organizations expressed concern – not SUWA, not the Sierra Club, not The Grand Canyon Trust, not the Wilderness Society. It was as if they didn’t even notice.”
And in conclusion, Stiles says that environmentalists have got to stop being hypocrites:
“How can we condemn oil exploration when our own consumption of oil is staggering? … How can we heed Abbey’s warning of Industrial Tourism when, at its heart, that kind of economy is the future many enviros have embraced for 15 years? How can we condemn the timber industry when we continue to build homes at an alarming rate….
“…And like the Civil Rights Movement of 40 years ago, saving what’s left of the wild American West is a moral issue, first and foremost. We didn’t fight for the right of African-American men and women because there was a dollar to be made. Nor should that be our motivation as environmentalists to save wilderness.”
BUT HERE IN Central Colorado, lots of people protest new real estate developments because they’re worried about growth, traffic, loss of wildlife habitat, ridge-top homes, the lack of good jobs, trail erosion, and sprawl, and that includes the environmentalists, who lament such things as loudly and as often as everyone else — which is a lot.
Yet we also rely on those tourists, and new homeowners, and mountain bikers, and rafters, hikers, and climbers for a living. And there’s no doubt that most of us need their money. So are we actually as hypocritical as Utah’s environmentalists?
Maybe we should embrace Stiles’s message, especially that part about hypocrisy. Let’s all quit being hypocrites. Yet for some reason, I don’t think that’s going to happen any time soon. Because we’re all hypocrites, every single one of us.
In fact, in that very same issue, Stiles announced that the Zephyr has acquired its very first ad representative. And where did the June/July Zephyr ads come from? Restaurants, realty offices, a construction company, a gift shop selling jeep tours, a ranch selling trail rides, a charter air service offering glacier landings in Alaska, outdoor outfitters, outdoor gear shops, and kayak, canoe, and bike supply and rental outlets.
But hey, we’ve all got to make a living. And selling bikes and building homes is hardly immoral, and neither is selling advertising — in fact those might actually be noble professions.
The real problem is that Moab has too much of everything. There are too many new homes, businesses, hikers and bikers. It’s a matter of scale, and the scale just keeps growing because some people have lots and lots of money.
But a lot of people in rural areas barely make enough money to get by, so they promote their areas more, and build more, and sell more, until more people come, and they also need to make a living, so they subdivide more, and build more, and promote more in an endless cycle caused by what?
Personally, I don’t think it’s hypocrisy.
Sure hypocrisy can drive you nuts, but who isn’t a hypocrite?
YES, THERE ARE rich environmentalists who laze in their heated pools in front of their gargantuan mansions when they’re not flying around in their personal jets, who congratulate themselves on driving energy-efficient hybrid cars.
And there are local environmentalists who build their homes on acreage in prime wildlife habitat, and cherish their wooden decks and gas-guzzling pickups but despise logging and mining.
And there are also:
Politicians who claim that America is the best darn country in the world, except that our movies, television programming, kids, and culture are immoral.
And an old guard which insists that environmentalists changed everything , even though they’re the ones who subdivided their own land, sold the water and made the profits.
And feminists who don’t think that there should be men’s clubs, schools, or jobs, yet laud women’s banks, social groups, and corporations.
And talk about hypocrisy. I’ve got to tell you, I don’t understand how so many rich, judgmental, mean-spirited evangelical preachers can believe that they have truly embraced Jesus when they disregard almost everything he said. But maybe that just makes those annoyingly fanatical hypocrites more like the rest of us.
For what is hypocrisy, anyway, except our very human failure to live up to our beliefs?
And what are we supposed to do about our hypocrisy? Surely we’re not supposed to give up our morals and ethics just because we can’t seem to live up to them, are we?
Stiles’s article suggests the obvious course: Hey, let’s cut it out. Let’s try harder, play fair, be nice….
But I think the real question should be: Why is there such a boom happening in the rural West? And on that I agree with Stiles:
But is it because some environmentalists have been corrupted by money? Or has the pursuit of money corrupted our entire society?
The way I see it, be they right or left, recent American leaders have made free trade, soaring stock prices, and U.S. financial dominance their priority. The President lauds capitalism and tax cuts, and congress loves laissez-faire, and it’s working; the U.S. is producing a remarkable amount of wealth, avarice, and inequality.
Despite unemployment, homelessness, sweatshops, falling wages for industrial workers, a growing chasm between the rich and the poor, and the fact that 40% of Americans can’t afford health insurance, our leaders are reveling in representing the richest, gaudiest, most powerful nation ever.
The rich are making millions and spending it all — buying up lakes and mountains, building palaces, and importing peasants from Central America to run their factories, clean their toilets, and raise their children.
And the working people are willingly hawking their best pastures, favorite fishing holes, and cherished home towns in the hope of holding onto their land, or buying a home, or getting braces for their kid.
And the changes are incredible. Where there used to be summer cabins, there are now suburbs. Where there used to be RV camps, there are gated communities. Where there used to be meadows, there are parking lots.
BUT THIS ISN’T THE FIRST TIME that Colorado has been turned upside down by a dedication to profits. Greed, robber barons, and folks just hoping to escape long hours and minuscule wages (the counterbalance of enormous profits) literally turned our state inside out in the 1880s, dredging up streambeds, digging tunnels, building roads, towns, mills, businesses, and railroads which ran over hill and dale, into St. Elmo, Moffat, Gunnison and points beyond. In those days, trackage and wagon routes reached into places where we can barely maintain roads today, even with all of our modern bulldozers, backhoes, and road graders.
Once upon a time, in the Salida area alone, settlers developed Cleora, Smeltertown, Turret, Calumet, Whitehorn, Brown’s Canyon, Centerville, Midway, Hecla, Poncha Springs, Maysville, Arbour-Villa, Garfield, Monarch, Shavano, and Babcock. People came, and built and mined most everywhere, until they made such a glorious mess that we’re still cleaning it up today (with a little help from the EPA).
IN THOSE DAYS, Central Colorado was not the perfect place for a peaceful getaway. It was a thriving center of industry. Leadville was the second largest city in Colorado, junior only to Denver. Crofutt’s Grip-sack Guide 1885 listed Leadville as having three daily newspapers and two weeklies, a theater, a “Grand Opera house,” eight schools, eight smelting and reduction works, four foundry and machine shops, thirteen hotels, two railroad lines, along with “two telephone, an electric light, and two telegraph companies.” As for mining operations, “there are hardly enough figures to enumerate them or the mines in the vicinity,” Crofutt reported, but “the locations exceed 30,000 and the output of ore is about 1,100 tons per day.”
Now, once again, we’re knee deep in tycoons whose influence, power, and spending rock our world. The Jay Goulds, Donald Trumps, and Bill Gateses set the example by amassing insane personal fortunes. But for most of us, this resurrection of the Gilded Age just means more work and longer hours as the cutthroat tactics mount.
Modern business practitioners have racked up profits by slashing expenses, cutting wages, undermining competitors, and moving factories to developing nations. In the marketplace today, profit is everything. Competition is fierce. The bottom line comes first, and family comes second – or not at all. The rules of the workplace are the same as those of the playground: If you’re not good enough, smart enough, or ruthless enough, you’re dead meat.
SO PEOPLE COME to Colorado for a little respite — a rest, a vacation, a time away from the rat race. But no one can fully escape. Housing prices are soaring, utilities costs are surging, and the cost of living mounts: doctors, dentists, vehicle repairs, taxes, emergency services, veterinary bills, home repairs, rent. By living simply working families can avoid some expenses, but seldom enough, and government programs and services – like Medicare, Medicaid, elder care, tax preparation assistance, and nursing and mental health care clinics – are drying up.
Yet even so, there’s extraordinary wealth in our nation. And some goods are cheaper today than they were forty years ago. In fact, you can buy clothes for less now than when I was in grammar school — presuming you shop at Wal-mart.
BUT YOU CAN’T PURCHASE SECURITY. Today you can’t rely on your pension plan, your medical insurance, your mortgage provider, or Social Security. And the era of good old reliable companies which provide for their workers from the cradle to the grave is over.
During America’s first Gilded Age in the 1870s and ’80s, Irish workers resented the Chinese; Protestants fretted about Catholic immigrants; and the Klan loathed Negroes, Italians, Greeks, Bosnians, Croatians, Bohemians….
And now, our hostility is building once again, and has been for several decades. Today, people think that illegal immigrants are burdening our schools and hospitals; environmentalists are destroying American industry; and miners and ranchers are ruining our environment. And meth addicts, terrorists, liberals, religious fanatics, homosexuals, teenagers, secular humanists, skateboarders, Frenchmen, criminals, television producers, movie stars, and Britney Spears are all reportedly destroying our society. But I figure that’s just what happens when the good jobs disappear. That’s what has always happened when competition gets too fierce: working people batter at each other, no doubt because they can’t afford to insult the guy with the checkbook.
But whose fault is it when American corporations hire third-world workers? Or when illegal workers take U.S. jobs and thereby drive down wages? Or when cleanliness and safety conditions deteriorate until American workers are repulsed by them? Do we really believe that the immigrant workers are running those businesses?
Someday, things may get better, though, and a new generation of environmentalists will gather in Colorado to restore wilderness that’s been pock-marked by turn-of-the-century ski resorts, hiking trails, parking lots, mini-malls, electrical lines, starter mansions, gated communities, highways, fences, and old landfills brimfull of our refuse and toxins. Then, after a considerable amount of posturing, haggling, and fund-raising, they’ll try to put everything back the way it used to be.
And maybe, if Stiles manages to shame Moab’s environmentalists into action, Utah’s future environmentalists will have a little less work to do. But to curb the West’s current adventures in boom and bust, it’s probably going to take more than environmentalists.
So what stopped America’s headlong rush toward power, riches, and rapacity last time?
Actually, I’m not sure it ever stops. But it was derailed by the Silver Panic of 1893, and later by Teddy Roosevelt’s trust-busting; and the rise of trade unions (which demanded that industries plow some of their profits into wages, benefits, and safety standards); and the Great Depression; and high post-war taxes; and runaway inflation; and the environmental movement (which demanded that corporations devote some of their profits to clean air, water and industry).
But the good, old American industrialist’s tendency to see that the profits are lots greener if he doesn’t have to worry about the little guy — and to disregard that the deregulation he seeks has often lead to corporate corruption and fraud — is always with us.
CONSIDERING all of the things that have happened in Utah and Colorado in recent years, it seems likely that it’s going to take more than environmentalists to turn things around. It will probably take a huge cooperative effort, and maybe even a whole new political movement, along with a President who’s as willing to snub the status quo as Teddy Roosevelt. Or maybe it will just require a horrific but fortuitous recession (which is certainly not something I’m looking forward to).
In the meantime, though, it probably couldn’t hurt if we all tried to be a little less hypocritical. Except most of us are working too many hours to want to spend our precious but infinitesimal free time improving ourselves.