Starting with the historically low snowpack in the Sierra, the summer megafires and the drought-induced awakening of California, and now topped off with the Oregon standoff, it’s quite a time in the American West. The funny thing is that not a single event wasn’t anticipated by a writer who has been dead for more than 20 years.
It has been the time of Wallace Stegner, or at least a time when so many of his truths have hit home. He learned them the old-fashioned way: by living them. Born in 1909, he spent his childhood roaming around the West, from Washington to Saskatchewan to Montana to Utah, always driven by his father, George, the prototypical Westerner, a restless boomer looking to strike it rich. Stegner learned that the thing that united the West, beyond all else, was drought. Disaster, potentially regionwide disaster, always lurked, as we have seen with huge wildfires.
As for ranchers and others making claims about wanting to take back their land, Stegner knew that the great-grandparents of these men had made the same claims starting in the late 1800s, always conveniently forgetting the benefits of the public lands they relied on, benefits that also came to include dams and irrigation.
He was deeply impatient with the remnants of romanticism in the West, particularly with those who wrapped themselves in the cloak of the Western myth so they could continue their agenda of using, developing and destroying Western land. Ranchers were, far from romantic cowboys, a highly subsidized special interest group, a group of 35,000 who controlled 400 million acres of public land.
Stegner would see what is happening today is being as old as the European settling of the West itself. We came upon this country of plenty and took everything we could get our hands on. We didn’t care what got in our way: native people, geography, climate, whatever. We rationalized this as a kind of brave, bold, can-do way of being, and in some cases it really was. But in many cases it was, and remains, about greed.
Stegner also knew that there are landscapes in the West that are naturally ornery – that ask, in all but words, to be left alone. What dry land often asks for is a clustered population with large buffers where there are no humans at all. We don’t put land aside only because it makes for a pretty park. We put it aside because it makes sense.
If Stegner was at times a magnificently pragmatic thinker, in “The Wilderness Letter” he also put forth perhaps the most beautiful and idealistic statement about why we need to put land beyond the reach of our own greedy hands. Writing to the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission in 1960, he extolled the spiritual resources of wilderness land beyond any obvious uses for recreation or extraction or development. He urged the commission to consider “some other criteria than commercial” to set aside wilderness lands and stressed open spaces not just as a counterbalance to “our insane lives,” but as something vital to our national character.
It is hard to argue against self-interest, against human nature. But human nature also means thinking beyond ourselves, to put aside land that belongs not to individuals but to all of us, our American land, our heritage.
Stegner famously called our parks “the best idea we ever had.” As usual, he was right.
David Gessner of Wilmington, N.C., is an author, most recently of “All the Wild That Remains.” He can be contacted through www.davidgessner.com.