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Wild Things

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How our changing expectations of wilderness are squeezing the Colorado landscape.

In an 1881 article in the Atlantic, writer N.S. Shaler suggested that those who chose to live in the mountains would in time be shaped by the surrounding country, the strong nature of the land firmly stamping itself on the populace. Only then could we “expect to find the most distinctly American of our peoples-a race that will, we may hope, be cast in the large mould of the nature that surrounds it. The fierce, eager mood that is now upon this people will in time pass away, and they will lose their restlessness and gain strength in contact with the great strong land where their lot is cast.”

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Shaler was attempting to look beyond a region where the vast majority of people were transients-adventurers and holidaymakers, one writer put it-having come to play out their luck or engage in some sort of lark and drift away. Yet while the transience Shaler talks about was for the most part a choice, for an increasing number of today’s residents it’s a matter of necessity. As former Crested Butte Mayor Bill Crank explains, long gone are the days of coming into a mountain town as a ski bum, working nights and weekends to buy a hopelessly run-down littler fixer-upper, and over the next half dozen years turn it into a home. You can still live with a bunch of people in a single house and play ski bum for a few seasons. But unless you have money, lots of it, sooner or later you’re going to drift away.

Writing in the Mountain Gazette, Cal Glover shares similar thoughts about Jackson Hole, where the average price of a two-bedroom house last year was a whopping $643,000-this in a depressed market. “I make four dollars and twenty five cents an hour. So I’d have to work 151,294 hours, or 15,129 cab shifts…or about 210 seasons, to afford such a house. If I radiate enthusiasm and make a few tips, I could whittle that down to 105 years.” Less than a third of the people who work in towns like Jackson, Steamboat, Vail, and Aspen can afford to actually live there. Of the wealthy who can afford it, many are no less fair-weather friends than those who roamed the Rockies a hundred years ago. One of the eeriest experiences in this region is to walk through entire subdivisions on a night in November or May, between ski season and summer holidays, and find there not a single lamp burning in the windows.

Wealth has brought other changes as well…. At the northern edge of Greater Yellowstone work continues on the exclusive Yellowstone Club-a recreational hideout for the rich, with memberships going for $250,000 and annual dues of up to $16,000. Security is coordinated by former Secret Service agent Bruce Bales. In all it’s a far cry from even 40 years ago, when a handful of Hollywood stars were setting up homes in the remote valleys of Montana and Wyoming-not because such places were trendy, because they clearly weren’t, but because such celebrities were desperate to hang out in a place where the neighbors weren’t easily impressed. Today the famous have been joined by thousands of others who are impressed, and greatly so, fairly giddy with the thought of telling friends at cocktail parties in New York or Atlanta about their Wyoming ranch, just down the road from Harrison Ford.

Ironically, in some ways the environmental community itself helped foster such a movement. Throughout the 1970s it was a common practice to argue locally for the preservation of untrammeled landscapes almost exclusively on the notion that such places would be highly sought after by a growing swarm of people who would pay handsomely for such backdrops. Beauty, then, far from being a basic human value-that agent of transformation celebrated by everyone from ancient storytellers to American landscape artists-became little more than cultural cachet. Lands that had long provided access to Sigmund Freud’s notion of healthy cultural fantasy-providing images not just of beauty but of danger and shadow-came to be thought of in terms of bistros, condos, and ski hills. In the 1890s Rudyard Kipling made a special point of describing a curious group of Westerners he ran across as “so suffering from American materialism that they were inclined to sell off their abundant natural resources.” These were people who “catered too willingly to the hordes of builders and tourists who swarmed like angry ants over sections of the region.” But what in Kipling’s time merited comment because it was somewhat of an anomaly has in our own time become common fare.

Ironically, even many of those who came to mountain towns during the back-to-the-land movement, going on to eventually prosper themselves, these days show little tolerance for newcomers who look different, who are clearly outside the status quo. The mere placement of affordable housing has become one of the most contentious planning issues of mountain towns, as surrounding neighbors fret over how it might diminish the value of their property. One candid old-time resident of Crested Butte-at one time a hippie girl herself-tells of recently making friends at an exercise class with a young woman in her 20s, sporting colored hair and tattoos up and down her arms. “My initial reaction to her was really prejudiced. Then all of a sudden it dawned on me: To what extent are those of us with money likely to give a break to anyone who’s different from us?”

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If there’s merit to the idea that human communities are at least in part like natural ones, in the end weakened by homogeneity, then the towns and rural valleys of the Rockies can be said to be losing vigor with every passing year. Gentrification is tragic here for the same reasons it is everywhere. But somehow the losses can seem especially disappointing-not merely on account of the obvious and rapid destruction of nature (the loss of elk winter range to trophy homes alone is staggering) but because the primary quality of the Rockies was for 175 years as an alternative to conventional wealth and culture-as artist Frederic Remington put it, a reminder of the life that exists “beyond tasseled loafers, derby hats and mortgages bearing eight percent.” Due in part to a fortunate twist of rugged topography and disturbing weather, there have been well into recent times at least a few folds, a nook here and a cranny there, where the mainstream world hasn’t necessarily gotten the upper hand. But they’re disappearing fast. Unlike the remittance men of old, many of whom spent their funds acquiring the trappings of locals, today’s wealthy newcomers are more likely to distinguish themselves with the trappings of luxury.

Every bit as troubling as gentri-fication, some might argue, is the fact that living in an increasingly virtual world has changed utterly our expectations of what the wild Rockies can provide. Rangers in the large wilderness parks of the range are ever more frustrated by visitors who have what some describe as “too much Disney in the blood.” Indeed, policy advisers are especially concerned about the degree to which entertainment-based recreation is beginning to impact the management of wilderness preserves. “Take away the fear of consequences,” says Dr. William Borrie of the University of Montana, commenting on Disney’s constructed, utterly benign version of nature, “and people let their guards down. The more the visitor perceives the land manager to be controlling things, the more they expect nature to be under the manager’s responsibility.” Biologists like Yellowstone National Park’s Kerry Gunther are astonished by how disconnected visitors are from any sense of danger in the wild, citing how more and more people seem willing to approach within 20 yards of a grizzly bear for the chance at a good photo. Recently, when I suggested to a park visitor that placing her 6-year-old son next to an enormous bull elk wasn’t a good idea, especially during the rutting season, the woman grew incensed. “The Park Service wouldn’t let these animals run around if they were dangerous!” she snapped. Meanwhile trailhead comment sheets at Yellowstone, Rocky Mountain, and Grand Teton National Parks contain ever more bizarre requests: Build pens around the animals so we can see them better. Blast the rocks off the trail to make it easier to walk.

The same illusions created for us at Disney World and Busch Gardens-nature fully childproofed, sweetened by predictability-are increasingly being applied to the last of the Rocky Mountain wilderness. These are the days of seasoned guides and outdoor leaders quitting the business by the dozens, saying how over the past decade more of their clients have become insolent, angry in the face of nothing more than the day turning cold and the sky sending rain. “Ten years ago trip marketing began gearing toward the Outdoor Material Culture,” explains celebrated rafting guide Brad Dimmock. “Now it’s the yup-scale deluxe cruise, the predictable and comfortable wilderness experience. Expectations mutated. Suddenly there were complaints, more trivial than you can imagine.” Others talk of a growing trend in their clients to show up on the trail or the river with all the latest equipment-not so much for reasons of comfort or safety as because displaying the best gear is part of how they communicate their station in life, the power of their success.

At the same time, Dr. Carl Mitchum at the University of Chicago writes, “Technology is increasing the knowability of wilderness. The sense of discovery and mystery, so much a part of the experience, is utterly lost.” Helicopter rescue of hikers in the Rockies has gone up dramatically in the past decade-often arranged by the hikers themselves using cell phones-some telling frustrated rescue crews that rather than being injured, they were just “really tired.” As James Gleick pointed out several years ago in his book Faster, the growing expectation to be in control, to be entertained, shows up in every corner of our lives. Park rangers talk about the modern visitor’s amazing level of impatience when it comes to watching wildlife. “On the Discovery Channel,” explains one Yellowstone naturalist, “you’re guaranteed drama from the start of the show. Out here if people don’t see that kind of action within five minutes of getting out of their cars, they either pack it up and head off to another location or drive over to the IMAX theater in West Yellowstone and watch it on the big screen. I call it animal ADD.” In short, over the past several decades we’ve come to expect from nature both predictability and immediate gratification-ironically, the two things people most counted on the Rockies to keep in check. It becomes ever more difficult for us to see mountains the way the theologian and naturalist Thomas Burnet saw them-as wellsprings of the pleasures that come when imagination expands in the presences of “wild, vast and undigested nature.”

Yet on any given day, at least in the highest reaches of the mountains, somehow the old dreams still seem close at hand. Here the world tosses back and forth between the opposing fantasies that energized the Rocky Mountain dreamscape for 150 years: the first being to transcend utterly the terror of nature, the second to become one with it. More than anything else, residents of the Rockies use this sublime grandeur as a balm for their concerns about gentrification, as a means of wrangling some small relief from hordes of visitors obsessed with ever more disconnected demands. Residents of Jackson, Wyoming, for example, facing more than 3 million tourists annually descending on their tiny town at the base of the Tetons, have for years been running off on nights and weekends to secret places tucked into the hills of the surrounding national forest.

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Given this, it comes as no surprise that what’s especially disquieting to many locals is a growing list of threats to the federal lands themselves. “Though a region of such natural beauty can never become the worthless desert described by Daniel Webster,” declared Time magazine in 1980, “it can become so despoiled that life there is no longer very special.” Today such threats are coming not from that small, militant gaggle of zealots who’ve been showing up regular as knapweed for 75 years, pushing to give the national forests back to the states, ignoring altogether the fact that a key condition of statehood was to forgo any claim to federal lands. Such true believers, after all, claim only a small congregation (though one especially well funded by industry groups, including some with imaginative names like Environmentalists for Jobs, organized in 1990 by the president of the Chicago Mining Corporation). Far more insidious is the steady dismantling of conservation measures some 50 years in the making-efforts now being led by the government itself, and for the most part outside public scrutiny. Intoxicated by the work of economists like Milton Friedman, whose religious-style belief in laissez-faire capitalism was a major political force in the 1980s, a powerful group of modern politicos is now intent on applying free-market principles to national forests and Bureau of Land Management reserves across the length and breadth of the Rockies. According to this vision-simple, elegant, and to some, utterly terrifying-the best use of any natural resource is what the highest bidder will pay for it. If recreation or wildlife cannot squeeze from the land as many dollars as mining or logging can, then they shouldn’t be a management priority. Much of the ground for such thought was established in the 1970s, when there was a flurry of research by various universities to put dollar values on every aspect of the out-of-doors; a day in the wilderness, for example, was determined in one report to carry roughly the same value as the price of a movie ticket. The problem with such economic models-and, at the same time, what to many is most appealing about them-is their utter lack of dimension. The profit margins of many timber projects dry up altogether when you factor in massive government subsidies to build the necessary roads. Coal-bed methane wells are a bonanza only if you neglect to figure in the harm to surrounding ranches and communities from potential damage to the aquifers.

Yet such projects may soon overwhelm the Rockies-arriving if not through the front door, then through the back. The recently launched Healthy Forests Initiative, for example, proposed to streamline certain logging projects-those meant to reduce the threat of wildfire-by restricting public and judicial input. Only then, promise those championing the legislation, can we finally overcome the massive “analysis paralysis” being caused by environmentalists, who they claim routinely tie up essential fuel reduction programs[culling of timber to purportedly prevent wildfire] by appealing them in court. In truth, according to the Government Accounting Office, of more than 1,600 fuel reduction programs launched in 2001 and 2002, less than 2 percent failed to start on time. The fact that the government has no money to carry out such projects is to the free-market crowd a golden opportunity. Instead of using Forest Service crews, the Healthy Forest Initiative will outsource the work to private contractors. The only problem is that in order to be even marginally worthwhile to a contractor, a typical logging operation has to bring in substantially more profit than can be obtained from harvesting the kinds of relatively young, highly flammable trees that pose the highest fire risk. The solution will be to allow loggers to also take larger, more fire-resistant trees, which of course have far more commercial value. Thus in 20 or 30 years we may well have thousands of acres of even-aged timber stands, much of it lodgepole pine, which, beyond providing only marginal wildlife habitat, is arguable the most flammable forest of them all.

In similar fashion, after seven years’ work and 1.6 million public comments-more than any other conservation project in history-the Roadless Area Review, which set aside millions of critical lands for wildlife, has been scrapped, with the government refusing to even defend it in court. As such protections are dismantled-a quiet process, often achieved by the stroke of a pen on a Friday evening before congressional recess-there is a growing queue of oil, gas, and coal-bed methane developers eager to gain access to what some of the best biologists in America have pronounced critical wildlife habitat. Such wholesale development may well put various Rocky Mountain birds and mammals in a predicament biologists refer to as a mortality sink-a situation where species have suitable habitat for part of the year but perish due to a lack of feeding or breeding grounds needed to survive other seasons. Some argue for keeping numbers up artificially, such as by establishing more feeding areas for animals like the Rocky Mountain elk. The ethics of such schemes aside, nearly every ungulate disease-including one not unlike mad cow disease, known as chronic wasting-is far more easily communicated in such crowded conditions. Even though national parks are under siege by high-level government, proponents of free-market economics are arguing for the privatization of everything from naturalists to law enforcement rangers.

The very economic forces which throughout history Americans felt needed to be moderated-preferably in places like the Rockies-now threaten to dismantle much of what made these mountains unique. It’s not that large numbers of people ever considered the region a serious alternative to capitalism; rather, the range provided for millions a precious respite from capitalism’s incessant demands.

On our better days, as a culture we seem unwilling to give up entirely on the old notion that human personality is scoured and shaped, and ultimately made bright again, by the earth underfoot. That promise-though it may in one generation be slight, in another, brilliant-will no doubt continue to energize the struggle to imagine a richer, more layered vision of nature appropriate to modern times. Recreational development, as Aldo Leopold once wrote, is “a job not of building roads into lovely country, but of building receptivity into the still unlovely human mind.”

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In the meantime, winds continue to rage and blizzards howl. Stray thoughts come to rest on this peak or that, feast and grow strong, run down the mountains fast and free as wolves. By virtue of fortunate timing and timeless stature the Rockies have become the repository of a great many uncommon perspectives about community, social convention, and greed. And while today it may seem that such notions are dormant, if history is any teacher we might expect them to rise again, tumbling cold and fresh across the backbone of the continent. m

Gary Ferguson is a writer, naturalist, and longtime Rocky Mountain resident. This work first appeared in his book The Great Divide: The Rocky Mountains in the American Mind (W.W. Norton, 2004).

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