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."
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).