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The Land of Fresh Starts Plays the Old Blame Game

September 03, 2000|Patricia Nelson Limerick | Patricia Nelson Limerick is the author of "Something in the Soil: Legacies and Reckonings of the New West" and chairwoman of the board of the Center of the American West

DENVER — In the American West, the summer of 2000 has been a season of fire. Whatever the pattern of the winds, the political smoke from the fires heads immediately east toward Washington. Wherever the fires occur, it is nearly certain that it will be federal agencies that get burned.

In blaming the feds for the fires, a number of Western politicians have targeted the usual suspect. The federal government manages public lands; most of the fires are on public lands; therefore, the federal government is responsible for the fires.

Yet, nearly every expert agrees that this year's flames are severe because of years of fire suppression, a policy supported, and sometimes even demanded, by many Western-resource users. If you are inclined to see a forest as a collection of commodities posing as trees, fire seems like nature's most wasteful process. Westerners of this persuasion have, understandably, backed fire suppression.

The creation of the fire problem in the West was, in other words, an entirely collaborative enterprise: The federal government, states, counties, cities, towns and citizens, especially those who wanted to build homes in remote forests, all pitched in, pulled together, did their part. Any effort to resolve or ameliorate this problem is going to have to be collaborative, too.

But can the West face up to the complexity of its relationship to the federal government? From the earliest explorations, the settlement of the West hinged on federal support. As Western historians have said repeatedly, the federal government played a central role in every aspect of Western history: the conquest of the Indians and Mexicans; the surveying and distribution of land; the construction of wagon roads, railroads and highways; the provision of grazing resources to cattlemen; the construction of dams and reservoirs; the creation of immigration policies more often than not friendly to the interests of large Western businesses; the designation and maintenance of national parks and national forests, now the foundation of the region's tourism economy.

In the never-matched formulation of Bernard DeVoto, the West's response to the feds has been: "Get out, and give us more money."

In many ways, the federal government has given the West vital money and support, and the West has given, in return, a hearty and sustained supply of resentment. The reasons for the region's shortfall of gratitude are hardly mysterious. The attitudinal workings of teenagers provide a useful model: They are deeply dependent on their parents and that often makes them deeply resentful of their parents.

The feds have done their part in sustaining anti-federal attitudes among Westerners. A federal regulator can make a person being regulated feel like a sinner in the hands of an angry God--or, perhaps worse, like a sinner in the hands of a deity with too great an affection for paperwork.

It is important to recognize that one can depend on federal resources and still be hard-working. Most of the Western railroads got federal help, but their founders still took on considerable personal risk, and railroad workers performed arduous labor. Ranchers grazing cattle on public lands do not thereby have their workloads reduced; in fact, the cattle do not move themselves to the grassland, and persuading them to make the move requires considerable human exertion.

So, no wonder many Western-resource users are prickly and defensive, irritated by the presumption that receiving federal aid is evidence of their inherent laziness or lack of self-reliance. As millions of automobile drivers using federally sponsored highways demonstrate every minute of the day, people can be self-reliant, purposeful and dependent on their national government's largess.

The stereotype of the federal employee as a lethargic, parasitic, highhanded meddler offers its own form of injustice. Many employees of the federal land-management agencies are true Western residents, people either born in the West or thoroughly committed to living here and wanting the best for their chosen home. But anti-federal feeling, at its whipped-up peak, requires such people to be misrepresented as creatures of Washington, regardless of how many years they have spent far from the Beltway.

The customs shaping the relationship between Westerners and the federal government are deeply entrenched and deeply tiresome. They take serious discussions and turn them into episodes of pointless posturing. Instead of convening people to seek shared solutions to shared problems, these habits of mind bring "authentic Westerners" into sterile confrontations with "meddling bureaucrats."

The federal government has always "been there" for the West: been there as a crucial source of economic support, and been there as the leading target for blame.

Can anyone claim that this is a great arrangement for responding to the West's problems? Can anyone say that it carries virtues and benefits that outweigh its well-proven capacity to obstruct productive discussion?

The West treasures its image as the region of fresh starts and new beginnings. Here's a chance to prove it. *

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