Several years ago I was in Kanab, Utah on the Fourth of July. When the segment of the town parade representing the local office of the Bureau of Land Management went by, a man standing near me in the crowd yelled out “Management, not ownership!” The people around him laughed and slapped him on the back good-naturedly. It was obvious that he was just saying what they were all thinking. This was just a few years after President Clinton’s controversial establishment of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which is administered by the BLM’s Kanab Field Office, and there was still a lot of obvious bitterness about that.
I was there because my family had decided to do a big trip that summer to explore the new monument. I was a teenager at the time and had never been to that area, but my parents used to go to Kanab and the surrounding area a lot before I was born and they were curious to see if and how it had changed with the new designation. (It’s also just a beautiful area; I went through it again last year when I did a big road trip to California.)
We did a lot of things on that trip. We camped at Calf Creek in the monument itself and visited Anasazi State Park in Boulder, Utah, which is a fascinating place, of considerably more importance archaeologically than I realized at the time. We ended up in Kanab, where we stayed at Parry Lodge, which prides itself on its history of housing movie stars who came to film in the area, and which was also where my parents used to stay when they had come to Kanab years before. It’s a nice little town, but it’s definitely part of southern Utah and has its share of the political attitudes typical there, as shown clearly by the man’s outburst at the parade.
That kind of attitude toward the BLM in particular, and the federal government in general, is very common in southern Utah. It’s particularly obvious right now in light of the outrage over a leaked government document mulling the possibility of establishing new national monuments throughout the West, including at two sites in southern Utah, but it’s been there for as long as there have been white people in the area and it’s never really diminished. Another recent example of the same attitude is the local reaction to the arrests in the Blanding pothunting sting, many of which portrayed it as an example of the BLM and FBI overreacting to a harmless hobby and oppressing good people for no reason except to show that they could.
There’s a fundamental selfishness and sense of entitlement lurking behind this attitude, a feeling by many of these people that they should be allowed to do whatever they want just by virtue of being who they are. How exactly “who they are” is defined differs in different contexts, but most of the time I think it boils down to being white people (often specifically white men) in a country where the untrammeled right of certain white people to do anything they want has long been a powerful ideal. It’s an easy attitude to imbibe as a white person growing up in America, and I think it’s much more widespread than extreme examples in the rural West would suggest. I’ve encountered plenty of good liberals who are quite happy to propose and support policies that restrict the ability of others (corporations, polluters, police, soldiers, etc.) to do whatever they want, but whenever their own freedom is threatened suddenly change their tune. It’s an easy enough attitude to understand, and I don’t mean to be accusing anyone of hypocrisy here. I’ve certainly done plenty of this sort of thing myself. I’m mostly just suggesting a bit more humility and a bit less self-righteousness on everyone’s part, not as a transcendent moral principle but as a practical way to get along in a pluralistic society with lots of conflicting interests and opinions.
It’s in that context that I note a good post by Keith Kloor on the monument kerfluffle, which includes a link to a very good meditation on some of these issues from an environmental journalist who is very clearly aware of his own sense of entitlement when it comes to issues of wildness and preservation. Resource management and preservation are fundamentally difficult issues to address, and there are no easy answers. There are too many conflicting priorities and contrasting opinions for there to ever be a simple way out.
Keith’s quote from Ed Abbey is a case in point. I’ve never read any Abbey, but I know my dad hated him, more for The Monkey Wrench Gang than for Desert Solitaire, which I don’t remember him ever mentioning. I’m not sure what it was exactly about Abbey that rubbed him the wrong way, but I suspect it had to do with what Abbey represented: the outsider blundering crudely through a place extolling its virtues without ever really understanding it the way the locals did. My dad was very much a local in the Southwest, and while he had his own strain of entitled-white-guy thinking, it was very different from Abbey’s. It wasn’t so much Abbey’s environmentalism per se that annoyed people like my dad and his relatives, many of whom were strong supporters of the Sierra Club, Rachel Carson, and the “mainstream” environmental movement that they saw as totally compatible with their small-town petit bourgeois Republican worldview. Abbey, though, was different, a representative of a worldview that, while “environmentalist” in some sense, seemed to be more about self-indulgent destruction and nihilistic romanticism than about stewardship and preservation. It was people like Abbey, and especially his more extreme acolytes, who I think contributed heavily to the souring of local white people in the rural West on environmentalism in general and activist groups composed mainly of people from elsewhere in particular. It’s a shame, too, because there is actually a lot of sentiment among westerners in favor of conserving natural resources and limiting destructive development, but these days that sentiment seems to be used mainly as a rhetorical cudgel against environmental groups, giving cover to exploitative corporations, some of which have become pretty good at ingratiating themselves with local communities. I don’t mean to try to pin all of this on Abbey, since there has obviously been a lot of other stuff going on that has contributed to this dynamic, but I do think he played a role.
One other thing about Abbey that Keith notes in his post, however, is the fact that he was living in Hoboken, New Jersey when he completed Desert Solitaire, and he may even have written the whole thing there. One way to interpret this, in light of what I wrote above, is that it reinforces his “outsider” status relative to the West, but I think there’s a better way to look at it. Abbey’s West, like most people’s, existed primarily in his mind, and his perception of the landscapes he wrote about was filtered through his experiences and preconceptions. That doesn’t make it any less “real,” however. Abbey’s books, which I emphasize again I have not read, should stand or fall on their own merits, regardless of how much or how little time their author spent in the places they describe. I’m a strong believer in the idea that physically being in a place, while helpful and perhaps necessary to having a “complete” or well-rounded understanding of it, is not a necessary precondition for talking about it at all. Indeed, I could hardly think otherwise, given that I write all about the Southwest on this blog while living in (a different part of) New Jersey myself. For me, then, the idea of Abbey sitting in a bar in Hoboken recalling the canyons of Utah makes me more sympathetic to him, not less.
Personally, I’m not a very adventurous type. I’ve been a lot of places and I’ve seen a lot of things, and those experiences have been immensely valuable to me, but I’d fundamentally prefer to be sitting in a cute little coffeeshop somewhere, reading or writing a book, rather than hiking across slickrock canyon rims contemplating the beauty of the landscape. Not that I don’t enjoy the latter, but it’s not my usual preference. Personal preferences don’t matter that much to larger issues most of the time, but when aggregated across large numbers of people they do add up, and in the context of resource protection there are actually some important implications. One way to look at it, and by no means the only one, is to ask a simple question: On the margin, who is impacting the landscape more, the reader in the coffeeshop or the hiker on the canyon rim?