Showdown in the West

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, November 1995

Showdown in the West
By Larry Burke

Nowhere is our national distrust of Washington more extreme than in the West, where ranchers, loggers, and miners lately have been playing brinkmanship with the federal government, whose environmental laws often cramp their extractive style. As this conflict becomes increasingly dangerous--four times in the past two years, someone has planted bombs intended to target or intimidate federal officials, and other threats abound--the question at its center persists: Who really owns the public wildlands of the West?

We think, of course, that all citizens do, and that the government's responsibility is to maintain the delicate balance between industry and conservation that Teddy Roosevelt had in mind in 1906, when he set the first fees for grazing in the national forests. The move enraged cattlemen, but Roosevelt stood by the meaning of "wise use" as promulgated by his chief forester, Gifford Pinchot. "The rights of the public to the natural resources," Roosevelt decreed, "outweigh private rights and must be given its first consideration."

Though the current brand of insurrection deserves a fair hearing--many of its partisans sincerely believe that federal regulations are destroying a covenant the government established when it wanted to settle a harsh, hardscrabble land--we've long questioned both the means and the ends of the so-called Wise Use movement. With an election year approaching that could well determine whose view of the West holds sway, the time seemed right for a closer look.

To that end, we dispatched a team of reporters to assess the meaning of the new range wars. Their report, "The Wayward West," begins with Mark Dowie's immersion in the culture of politics-through-intimidation as practiced in Catron County, New Mexico, where angry, sometimes pistol-packing citizens have used the neglected powers of county government to stake a claim to federal land. Next, Jon Christensen goes inside the ever-churning brown machine, profiling ten Wise Use groups that have gained a large following by pointing a finger at the alleged "human costs" of environmentalism. In Washington, Weston Kosova checks in on Congressman Don Young and his fire-breathing Republican colleagues, who have vowed to slay such sacred cows as the Endangered Species Act. Finally, we round out the section with a few words from the disloyal opposition: Earth First! cofounder Dave Foreman, who argues for a return to basic grassroots mobilization--not revolutionary, perhaps, but good thinking, since the Wise Use movement has fared well by swiping these very tactics.

Last January, when two 26-year-old Americans began rafting down Peru's remote Marañón River, conflict was the last thing on their minds. Three days into the journey, however, the two world-beat Huck Finns were ambushed; one, Patchen Miller, was shot from point-blank range--likely by an Aguaruna Indian--and sent overboard. In his poignant article "A Darkness on the River," editor-at-large Tim Cahill travels to the river with his longtime friend Paul Dix, Miller's father. What they find with the Aguaruna is a common language of compassion vivid enough to bridge the gap between two vastly different cultures.

Closer to home, contributing editor Donald Katz catches up with the progenitor of an entirely different sort of community: the high priest of pecs, Jack LaLanne. Katz finds that the trash-talking 81-year-old godfather of fitness continues to approach his dawn-to-dusk workouts--and everything else in his life--with the boundless energy of a man in his prime. Katz's profile is titled "Jack LaLanne Is Still an Animal."

Elsewhere in the issue: Scott Anderson replies to Peter Matthiessen, who last month in our pages challenged Anderson's July feature, "The Martyrdom of Leonard Peltier." Despite the fact that the controversial article uncovered material that ran counter to our own better thoughts about Peltier, we stand by these final words, as we did the original report. Meanwhile, Pulitzer Prize winner Jane Smiley takes us deep into her all-consuming devotion to an elderly gray Thoroughbred named Tick Tock. Her amusing, revealing story is called "My Gelding, Myself." Finally, on a seasonal note, longtime Outside correspondent Chip Brown travels to the cradle of alpine skiing, the Arlberg region of Austria, swayed by the hope that his off-piste disappointments might somehow be redeemed among the snow and steeps in his article "Born Again by the Schussmeter." We won't give away his fate here, but let's just say this: May we all be so downtrodden.

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