Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Call Me a Sagebrush Patriot

by Ken Wright, WilderPress! Issue #1

I live in a fantastic corner of the American West, on the edge of where mountains fall away into canyon-carved desert. I live in one of this area's mountain valleys, but at mid-morning on this day, I find myself on a high above-tree-line pass, taking in a grand sweep of the country. To the east stands a far-ranging range of peaks, rippling away like the choppy surface of a lake. To my immediate south rises a single, massive peak, a great, banded pyramid off whose face falls a sloping scree field that sprawls down and away to the rolling foothill forest lands that reach outward and downward through climate zones, from subalpine fir to piñon and juniper, across the rising and falling of foothills and gathering creeks, then across a river and its side canyons to the green valley bottom where squats the nearest town to the west.

Looking in that direction from this 11,000-plus-foot perch, I can see across dry sage lands for a hundred miles or more, and in that distance I see the wall of a flat table-top mountain, the blue bodies of three distant mountain ranges, and the dendritic arms of two major river systems.

And when I take all this in, I feel lucky. Blessed, even.

Let's face it: we in the American West are blessed. No need to be shy or humble or coy about this. We know it. We are blessed.

Sure, sure, there are mountain ranges and deserts and valleys in other places, some really pretty ones, even. But what makes the American West a place like no other, is that, even though this landscape spread out before me today is not all pristine wilderness, the fact remains that much of the American West is largely undeveloped, unindustrialized, and unprofitable. It is inhabited mainly by small, scattered, struggling villages and towns, places where making a living is a constant challenge and is usually somehow tied to the surrounding land, from ranching to mining to tourism. Hard places to get ahead, if that's your aim. But that's okay with most of us who live here because we are strange by modern standards: we like it that way.

“I worry because too many of us who do love the West are smugly content to go out and herd cattle or cut timber or bike or fish or hunt or ski or bike or hike while not lifting one tired finger or raspy voice or bloody-knuckled fist to defend the lands that make that work and play possible.”

For us, the reward for that struggling is all around, all that glorious land we are free to gaze into, to roam over, to work and play on. In the American West, ski bums and grunge rock climbers and line cook/river guides and over-educated, urban-ex-patriot, former-professional manual laborers are the 21st Century pastoralists, joining ranchers and hardrock miners and 1960s back-to-the-earth neo-hunters and gatherers -- as well as the earlier, true hunters and gatherers -- clinging voluntarily to inefficient and uneconomical lifestyles that view life an land as more valuable than money. We do that because here remains huge expanses of open countryside that are open to all, and built upon this land thrives an intact and interwoven network of working rural communities still dependent upon and humbled by this great landscape.

What is truly blessed about the American West, though, is that, like few places on earth, our kids have a chance to inherit this land-loving culture, to raise their own families amidst big, healthy hunks of wild and rural country that they, too, will be free to wander and work in when they want and need.

It's not by some lucky quirk of fate that the American West remains so undeveloped while the rest of rest of rural American is being bulldozed by people, houses, industry, agribusiness, resource liquidation, repeatedly redundant commercial strips, and sterile suburban mausoleums. It's because we have a defense mechanism, an antibody to the economic-land-development virus, that is also unique in the whole world: public land. Lots of public land. A massive shield of public land. More than half the land between the Sierra Nevada and the Front Range is owned by all Americans regardless of income or residence or social class. And it is this public land that inoculates much of the West from the early 21st Century cult of economics that devours wildlands and guts rural landscapes everywhere else.

Our public lands are the American West -- not just the physical West, but the cultural and psychological West. The West's great open spaces -- high country, deserts, forests, rivers -- give rise to the distinctly Western attitude and spirit we here so treasure, whether we be ranchers or bow hunters or ski bums or bankers. And those great open spaces remain open and accessible because they are public. Yet, remarkably, it seems few people here recognize this bedrock importance of our public lands. Sure, we use them, we hunt and fish and go four-wheeling on them. We go camping and take pictures and enjoy the views they preserve and protect. Some folks who live outside the region just visit them once every year or ten, and then spend the time between visits dreaming and reading and telling stories about them.

And whether we live here or not, we often argue, often vehemently over how they're managed. But while we argue about the economics and ecology of the uses of our public lands, rarely do we stop to acknowledge that the reason we still have anything to argue about is because so much of this land is public. Without public lands, our arguments would be irrelevant, sold off for subdivisions, strip malls, strip mines, clear cuts, dude ranches, theme parks and facade resorts and posted "no trespassing" getaway homes and gated communities and private game ranches. Need proof? Remember those places that were until recently still rural: New England, Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the Piedmont of the Carolinas, the southern Appalachians. Yes, we are blessed. But I worry.

I worry because too many of us who do love the West are smugly content to go out and herd cattle or cut timber or bike or fish or hunt or ski or bike or hike while not lifting one tired finger or raspy voice or bloody-knuckled fist to defend the lands that make that work and play possible. I worry because we're all too friggin' busy attacking each other for what the other is doing on our public lands to see that the reason we have anything to argue about at all is because so much of this land is public. But we can't afford to bicker anymore. Once we lose our public lands -- all or some, ecologically or economically -- they are gone for good.

If you love the West as, a holdout of rural communities surrounded by a dazzling and undeveloped landscape that you and your children and their children all own, then you must have the courage to -- the responsibility to -- stand up. We need to put our arguments aside and rally together over out public lands as refuges no just of land, but of culture. All of us who love and need what these lands give us beyond the dollars they’re worth must make a vow: We will not let anyone take them away.

Those who wanted to take these lands away once called themselves Sagebrush Rebels, rebelling against the “public” in public land for the money that could be extracted by making them private. Call me a Sagebrush Patriot: a fighter standing by my country -- as in countryside, as in country living, as in big open wild country -- where our wild spirits can grow and live, and where our kids can grow up to be both wilderness nuts and ranchers, living and working close to the land, like humans are supposed to.

To do that, we need an army of Sagebrush Patriots, a diverse but unified force of Western people -- not just organized environmentalists, but fishermen and hunters and ORVers, alongside backpackers and mountain bikers and loggers and ranchers -- standing together as a vanguard for the future.

Blessed people in a blessed country. Let's keep it that way.

This essay is excerpted from “Why I'm Against It All”. Ken Wright's latest book is “The Monkey Wrench Dad: Dispatches from the Backyard Frontline” (Raven's EyePress)

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