The same beast stalks the West

  Dear HCN,

Thanks for Jon Margolis' piece exposing the West's new menace (HCN, 4/27/98); for far too long, the recreation/tourism industry has been treated with kid gloves, wrongly presumed environmentally benign. Yet, while I applaud questioning the motives of the American Recreation Coalition, there is hidden in Margolis' analysis a seriously flawed and potentially destructive assumption, one which too many would-be environmentalists are depending on.

In the telling passage, Margolis suggests there is an emerging conflict between "two New Wests," one with the backing of ARC types and conservative legislators, and the other composed of "high-tech industry and nature-friendly recreation ..." ; unfortunately, there is nowhere near such a good-bad polarity in the region.

There seems to be a persistent, shallow perception among most of these "New West" environmentalists that if and when Western cities and towns shift from resource-extraction to high-tech economic bases, they suddenly come to exist in a vacuum, no longer impacting the local environment as a consequence of belonging to the "information age." In reality, they simply impact it in new ways; the high-tech industry perpetuates other extractive economic activities which are equally as destructive as the old ones. Some are fairly intuitive - witness Intel sucking the life out of the Rio Grande, or Peabody raping more of Black Mesa to serve burgeoning regional utility demands. The most insidious, however, is more slippery, shrouded in the nauseating tripe of real-estate ads: extracting hip, "90s lifestyles from the intangible ecological, scenic and spiritual values of the public lands.

I have yet to see a single instance in the West where some benevolent high-tech industry relocated in some former backwater, or even a regional-center cowtown like Denver, and then committed to relying solely on the local population for its workforce - nor do I expect to see this ever occur.

On the contrary, high-tech industry is conscious of the marketing benefits of "outdoor recreation" in the West, and wields it as an enticement to help attract the skilled workers it wants from remote urban centers. Why do we suppose Nike considered locating a new tech facility in Golden, Colo., as opposed to Tulsa, Okla., or Hoboken, N.J.? With the celebrated arrival of allegedly "clean" industry like software programming comes significantly enhanced opportunity for the industry's developer cronies to exploit the non-existent or antiquated (formerly unneeded) land-use controls typical of the West.

Suddenly, the previously vital and often ecologically productive private land located within the sphere of influence of public-lands recreation is replaced with innumerable iterations of a dead, formulaic "Western outdoor lifestyle" for the high-tech newcomers. Recreation, specifically the fashionable lifestyle image its pursuit and its trinkets convey, helps keep the industry's workers in the area, and motivates continued new arrivals to meet the job growth demands accompanying industry expansion.

The big loser is nature, which, while perhaps retaining a few protected islands of wildness, sacrifices its soul to the developer, the marketer, and the shameless whim of fashion, ensuring there can never again be a true, healthy, local connectedness between people and nature in the West - for it would bring down property values. (Working in a cubicle 60 hours a week followed by climbing on Sundays does not, in my mind, connote a connection with the land.)

High-tech and recreation in the West are mutually reinforcing, and that implies not "nature-friendly," but nature-menacing recreation. The result of this supposedly happy marriage in the "New" West?

The worst environmental threat the West has yet seen: overpopulation.

What is going on here is neither, as Margolis suggests, a conflict of two "New Wests," nor even a conflict between "New" and "Old." The New West of high-tech and gratuitous recreation is the same beast as the Old West. Though the means are different, the West of the 1990s is characterized by the exploitation of remaining natural resources and the willful displacement of the local population by righteous newcomers, just as it was in the 1880s. The weapons of this generation are no longer obviously aggressive ones like rifles, steam shovels and chain saws, but "mainstream" ones: computer chips, software, telecommuting, RVs, mountain bikes, pitons; and accommodating it all, "1" acre lot, full services, year-round access, spectacular mountain living ..."

Mark Adams

Boulder, Colorado

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