Environmentalist Rebels of the American West

The bat­tles of the Amer­i­can West haven’t always been fought by cow­boy gun­slingers. Some of this nation’s most epic show­downs have been between those who pro­mote com­mer­cial expan­sion and those who pro­mote conservation.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/fb/Muir_and_Roosevelt_restored.jpgTheodore Roo­sevelt and John Muir: Visions That Found­ed West­ern Environmentalism
Pres­i­dent Theodore Roo­sevelt is lit­er­al­ly a part of the West­ern land­scape, carved into the rock of Mount Rush­more. This rough rid­er and his For­est Ser­vice Chief, Gif­ford Pin­chot, cap­i­tal­ized on laws that autho­rized the pres­i­dent to set aside for­est lands for pub­lic ben­e­fit. They went to town, estab­lish­ing 230 mil­lion acres of pub­lic lands.

Roo­sevelt’s con­tem­po­rary John Muir found­ed the Sier­ra Club to pro­mote the wilder­ness and wrote arti­cles in pop­u­lar mag­a­zines to cham­pi­on his cause. “By far the greater part of [the] destruc­tion of the fine­ness of wild­ness is of a kind that can claim no right rela­tion­ship with that which nec­es­sar­i­ly fol­lows use,” he penned in an 1890 arti­cle about pro­pos­als for Yosemite Nation­al Park. In 1903, Muir intro­duced Pres­i­dent Roo­sevelt to Yosemite. In 1906, reflect­ing on that visit’s impact, Roo­sevelt expand­ed Yosemite Park.

But plen­ty of inter­est­ed peo­ple, espe­cial­ly ranch­ers who worked the west­ern land, opposed the goal of land pro­tec­tion.  In 1907, an Ore­gon con­gress­man des­per­ate to pro­tect tim­ber inter­ests deliv­ered the Ful­ton Amend­ment, a major blow against con­ser­va­tion efforts. It restrict­ed the president’s author­i­ty to increase or add new for­est reserves in Ore­gon, Wash­ing­ton, Ida­ho, Mon­tana, Col­orado and Wyoming.

The pres­i­dent signed that amend­ment into law…just as soon as he named 21 new forests in the region. Ques­tion­able tac­tics, maybe. Delib­er­ate flout­ing of the inten­tions of a new law, def­i­nite­ly. But vision­ar­ies don’t ask for permission.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/1/13/Wallace_Stegner.jpgThe Mighty Pen: A Mid­cen­tu­ry Chap­ter in the Con­ser­va­tion Saga
Wal­lace Steg­n­er (1909–1993) authored some of America’s most cel­e­brat­ed nov­els and found­ed a pres­ti­gious writ­ing pro­gram at Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty. The born west­ern­er also fore­told (and lived through) the con­se­quences of plun­der­ing the arid Amer­i­can West. He used his own root­less west­ern child­hood to explain how false promis­es of wealth and glo­ry have always dogged the land beyond the 100th meridian.

In 1960, he urged nature stew­ards to see the val­ue of wilder­ness for its own sake. Ignor­ing or destroy­ing nature to increase human com­forts was going to hurt the species in the long run, he said: “Just as sure­ly as [the exploita­tion of nature for pro­duc­tion] has brought us increased com­fort and more mate­r­i­al goods, it has brought us spir­i­tu­al loss­es, and it threat­ens now to become the Franken­stein that will destroy us.” This famous Wilder­ness Let­ter helped to inspire the pas­sage of the Wilder­ness Preser­va­tion Sys­tem.


While Steg­n­er tend­ed to be the mea­sured aca­d­e­m­ic, work­ing in the sys­tem to pro­tect his beloved West, his for­mer stu­dent Edward Abbey (1927–1989) showed his love of the land using a raw, coun­ter­cul­tur­al lit­er­ary style. Abbey’s clas­sic, Desert Soli­taire: A Sea­son in the Wilder­ness, details his work as a park ranger in Utah’s Arch­es Nation­al Mon­u­ment. His most famous nov­el, The Mon­key Wrench Gang, gave Amer­i­ca a new vocabulary—“monkey wrench­ing” means will­ful­ly dis­rupt­ing envi­ron­men­tal­ly destruc­tive operations.

Though the two authors didn’t see eye to eye on meth­ods, there’s no doubt they helped cre­ate a new under­stand­ing of envi­ron­men­tal­ism and gave fresh per­spec­tive to the Amer­i­can West.

Mod­ern Sus­tain­abil­i­ty: Move­ments for Sus­tain­able Living
Some­times it feels like the West has been total­ly carved up. Our wild spaces have been defined. But recent­ly, Pres­i­dent Oba­ma signed new pub­lic land into exis­tence in the Cal­i­for­nia desert.

The preser­va­tion lega­cy will always be a sto­ry of com­pet­ing inter­ests and hard-won vic­to­ries. But as long as there are rebels, polit­i­cal schemers and true lovers of the wild, the process will con­tin­ue. There’s still open space to fight for.