A Bizarre, Bickering Exploration Of The Environmental Values of Rural Arizona.
Editor's note: When we first heard our columnist Jeff Smith would be touring rural Arizona with Sierra Club lobbyist Raena Honan, we thought it was a curious match--mostly because Honan is a self-proclaimed conservative Christian Republican and Smith is a hell-raisin' liberal. Apparently the only thing they have in common is a love of the land. Well, that and guns. Anyway, dialogue stemming from their travels follows:
Raena: Being at the state Capitol has instilled me with a warped sense of who lives in Arizona and what kind of laws they want, particularly around 3 a.m. at the end of the legislative session when tempers are short. Ninety politicians are kept indoors so no vote deals fall apart after an infusion of sleep or rational thought.
I work for the Sierra Club, with thousands of members, a great percentage of them Republicans. You wouldn't know that if you listened to the Governor, or the Arizona House and Senate leadership. My fellow Republicans find McCarthyism irresistibly alluring--it's our heritage, we can be great namecallers in the right setting. Here, it's usually a rural assortment of rabid white guys who make a living in an industry subsidized by Joe and Jane Six-pack Taxpayer. This unlucky couple has paid to clean up their environmental messes for years.
Jeff: Excuse me. Pardon me. Beg pardon...I am not Raena Honan, I'm Jeff Smith, and I got shanghaied into co-writing this piece, which is something I hate doing worse than shaving my armpits, which is something I hate doing so much that I never do it. Never.
But I digress. Go ahead with your narrative, Raena. I'll jump in again when we get to the part about the cowboys and Indians.
Raena: As a nice person and first runner up in the 1969 Miss V.F.W. contest, I was really hurt when Jeff acted like he was being dragged into taking his pudgy, pimply cousin to the prom when he agreed to write this. Anyway, back to work.
True, mining companies built most of the towns out yonder. They also browbeat their folks and established themselves as the biggest polluters in the state. Later they abandoned them, leaving the taxpayers to pick up the slack in welfare, unemployment and food stamp payments when the price of copper dipped. Places like Jerome became ghost towns. It thrives now because artists found it cheap and quaint.
Wrapping themselves in the flag, the timber-mining-ranching-aggie financed People for the West devotes time and money to promoting fear in the hinterlands. Some actually sell the notion that "eco freaks" are out to steal the food out of their mouths, replace it with tofu, dress them in natural fibers and force tree worship.
Once distilled into its concentrated form, you have great vitriol for legislative consumption, which produces bills like Proposition 300, soundly nailed by Arizona voters in November. That's the one that added four new layers of bureaucratic review for any health and safety actions just to make sure they don't get enforced. The agenda is to stop cold your hired hands in public service, at great expense. If you tried to apply 300, the vague language could mean your neighbors might spread anything toxic on their property and maybe you'd have to pay them to stop. If it causes cancer in 20 years rather than two, tough luck.
So I decided to ask the people who live in rural Arizona if they really think dark, tortured thoughts about environmentalists. First I needed a field trip, and the only reason I'm armed is because all single women in Arizona should be packing. Also, because Jeff was going with me, I wanted fire-power parity. First, of course, I had to find his house.
Fifty or so miles out of Tucson, look for a mile post, a bent mailbox and follow the bridle path. Be sure to visit the rest stop just south of town beforehand, de rigueur if you're a woman. The main bathroom doesn't have any doors and few walls. Plus, you figure if a guy is straight and lives alone, his bathroom has a sturdy coat of crud anyway.
We had a nice visit, but I must admit I wondered about Jeff's ability to focus when he rushed outside to demonstrate a 5-foot potato bazooka, using hairspray explosive. An oddly Fellini moment.
No one could pass for a local in my toy car. What's needed is a big butch pick-up, which Smith has--so he's driving. I believe God knew what He was doing by giving people with Y chromosomes very little responsibility for children. They seem to like speed, gore, smashing things and investigating slimy fetid pools--all leading to brief, diseased lives. Smith has already once thrown himself headlong into a tree, which I'm sure has led to making him an even better writer, but how's his driving?
Jeff: My driving is just fine, thank you. Pickup trucks were not made for speed, regardless of what NASCAR and Tucson Raceway Park's Winter Heat racing series for hotrod pick 'em ups might lead one to believe. I save my adrenaline for motorcycle trips.
I did not realize the first third of this supposed enterprise in investigative reporting was to be devoted to impugning my character and cleanliness, but I'm an old-fashioned boy and will keep my counsel until the lady has said her piece.
Raena: Grouch. We saw a lot of landscape and took a few pictures, but the best part was shooting a box of really lousy cookies I'd brought. Six holes with my .45, which I let Smith borrow, but I won't sell it because it's my first gun. I bought it for the gunfighter re-enactments my friends and I used to stage.
The next day we actually found some people who might have views on environmentalists, and possibly think they're pesky, at the gun show.
I felt out of place without fried hair and a beer gut. Walking by the rows of metal and toys, one of the dealers, a woman of 50-ish mileage, unconsciously belched over her greasy bag of fried pork rinds. Arrayed on display: a box of "Spotted Owl Helper," how-to books on bombs and bunkers, bumper stickers like "Clinton doesn't inhale, he sucks."
Guys were giving me a look not entirely of admiration; apparently women don't come to these things alone. It took me awhile to pick up on gun show etiquette: scowl, look grim, don't stare. Just as I felt certain they were going to accost me and I would be publicly denounced to the assemblage, Smith rolled up.
Jeff: I know I promised cowboys and Indians, but this is just too much. I've attended greenie functions a time or two, and I can tell you there are as many fat guts amongst the Sierra Clubbers as at an NRA convention, maybe more. The gun crowd goes hiking in the wilderness, just like the tree-huggers. They carry binoculars, just like the bird-watchers. But when was the last time you saw a tree hugger or a bird-watcher carry a 12-pound rifle into the back-country? Or pack a 150-pound dead deer out?
Let's have no more of this cheap sniping at other people's stereotypes. It's illiberal.
Raena: Thank you. The last thing I am is a liberal and, as a Republican woman, I'm a stickler for grooming. Did I mention the fellow out front wearing a PETA tee-shirt with "People for the Eating of Tasty Animals" emblazoned on his beer belly?
Holding court in his own booth was Ralph Epperson and his assortment of self-authored books on the supposedly glaring evidence that America is a "Fascist Oligarchy"...the real reason for America's wars...the alleged fact that American Capitalists control Communism...why Evolution is not science but a Fraud and a Hoax and the like. Naturally, Ralph was appropriately wild-eyed. Conspiracy buffs always are.
I didn't learn much from the gun show other than the prices have gone sky high and some of these folks are definitely on the fringe. I decided to talk to someone in one of the hot beds of anti-environmental sentiment. Heber's a top candidate, a little burg where logging was the mainstay of the local economy until real estate agents took to luring urbanites to buy little bare lots of heaven in low monthly installments, utilities not included.
Last year's Forth of July weekend featured a pancake breakfast, fireworks and a parade sponsored largely by Stone Forest Industries, the Chamber of Commerce and the self-avowed foe of Sierra Club types: People for the West. I was awed by two grown men dressed as menacing owls in diapers waving oversized baby bottles atop a logging truck float with the banner, "Not even an owl this big needs so many acres."
In Heber, folks firmly believe the Endangered Species Act is killing the logging industry. A live owl was on display at the town park; local children were ready to spit on it until they were told it was a Great Horned owl, not a Mexican Spotted one.
Later, in one of the local watering holes, the bartender told me the company line about environmentalists killing the locals' livelihoods but admitted, "Well, I guess you just can't keep cutting forever."
Outside town, National Forest signs include the slogan, "Land of many uses." In my experience, it's also land of cow pies in the forest, leaking public toilets and lakes ringed with garbage. Your tax dollars at work.
Lewis Tenney and his family have been logging for generations in the area, and he believes the Endangered Species Act is the cause of his woes, too. "Things were going just fine with the Forest Service 'til Fish and Wildlife started telling them what to do," he told me.
It's the Forest Service under the U.S. Department of Agriculture, not Interior, that has prepared "harvests" for logging companies for decades.
Being a Republican, I naturally had to ask if it wasn't a major risk to operate your business with the foundation of the largess of a bureaucrat. Tenney said it hadn't been a problem before now and added he doesn't believe they're using legitimate studies to determine just how much of a critical habitat needs to be set aside for the owl. "It's not science, its politics...that's how they (U.S. Fish and Wildlife) justify their jobs."
Meanwhile, Fish and Wildlife folks feel they're getting a bum rap since no projects have actually been stopped in Arizona. Internal documents say any statement to the contrary is "incorrect and only serves to perpetuate misconceptions about the Endangered Species Act."
I talked to members of the Sierra Club in the sticks--yep, there are some--and they said the climate's extremely hostile and they wouldn't feel comfortable being openly green.
Jeff: OK, now we get to the part about the cowboys and Indians. And we haven't even had to abandon the Forest Service to do it. You see, one of the oldest and oddest relationships in this ever-more-confounding feud between this brand of outdoorsman versus that one, involves the U.S. Forest Service and the western cattleman. Each party is accustomed to having things his own way, and the inevitability of the two sides having to deal with one another over the use of huge tracts of largely unpeopled and little-used public land inevitably has led to mutual enmity and distrust.
The cattleman comes by his self-determination (bordering on arrogance) honestly. The cattle business was born on a frontier that was wide open and free for the taking. And using. If you had the money to buy a herd of cattle, you could graze them wherever they wandered. If you controlled the water sources, the grassland watered by those sources and grazed by your cattle was yours.
It was the old story: possession was nine-tenths of the law.
Until farmers and townsfolk began settling the west, and undivided vastness became U.S. territories, and then states and counties and towns. Then barbed wire was invented and the range was chopped-up into ranches and pastures. But not all of it. There still were huge stretches of land belonging to the federal government and, to the mind of expansionists with Manifest Destiny burning their imaginations, crying to be exploited.
Raena: Oh, great--Social Studies 101 is now in session.
Jeff: Stuff a sock in it. As I was saying, by far the biggest chunks of that land--both private and public--were exploited by the cattle ranchers.
To say exploited is not necessarily to say misused, abused and ruined. Cattle grazing at it's very least enlightened still was a whole lot lower impact and activity than mining or logging. Grass grew back every spring--lots faster than trees. And minerals never really do grow back.
Except for the Indians who were here to greet Lewis and Clark and the other lead elements of western exploration by European genetic stock, the cattle barons and the cowboys they employed were some of the earliest white settlers out west to make a significant presence. It's no wonder ranchers to this day are an independent, sometimes a little contrary bunch, and sometimes, too, a little resentful of the Johnny-come-lately pilgrims who've arrived in the west to tell them how to run their business.
Pilgrims like the Forest Service bureaucrats who get to tell ranchers how many head of cattle they can graze on the public lands leased to the ranchers, or where they must create water catchments, where they can fence or cross-fence their leases to help manage their herds, and what they can do about four-footed predators and two-footed visitors from the city.
Raena: I was going to step in here and tell you what a low regard I have for government functionaries, but really, some are worth more than we pay them. True, dead wood lurks around in protected positions until we buy them off with retirement, but cowboys aren't all honorable and bureaucrats aren't all mindless spouters of regulations, but I think Jeff's on a roll.
Jeff: Right, bureaucrats come by their independence and arrogance honestly too: It's a tradition with a history just as long and steeped in hoary arcana as the cowboy's. Bureaucrats are unique among the workforce in their contempt for and independence from their employers--i.e. you and me and Bob there. This is because their real-life, day-to-day bosses, the mid- and upper-level bureaucrats, are in truth simply administrators of public law and regulation which makes it virtually impossible to fire public employees.
From Day One, the government foresters appointed to supervise and enforce all the laws Congress can write about U.S. Department of Agriculture public grazing leases; and all the administrative rules the Forest Service can write to expound or expand upon these laws, and the cussedly independent men and women of the Wild West who take themselves and their cowboy traditions and their John By God Wayne, independent spirit as seriously as cancer, were a fight waiting to happen.
And happen it has, and does, and will, until the cows come home.
Which may be sooner than they think, because, ironically, the cattlemen and the government foresters face a common foe and a force far more potentially destructive than either of them has ever dreamed the other of them could be.
That force is the western population boom, especially as it manifests itself in the gentrification of the rural west, and that foe is the land-speculator, the real estate developer, the real estate agent in her henna-rinsed hair and four-wheel-drive Grand Cherokee with tilt-cruise-climate-control-leather-seats-with-adjustable-lumbar-support-and- sensurround-sound...
Raena: Oops, pardon the interruption, I just wanted to point out your adherence to glaringly unfair stereotypes as you so kindly did mine. That's a good one though.
Jeff: Yeah, whatever...And Billy Ray Joe Earl and Wanda, who eventually will buy one of a bazillion four-acre ranchettes where once the deer and the antelope played and the Indian shot and ate them; and then the little doggies got along, git along, and you could see by a man's outfit that he was a cowboy and he punched those cattle and drove them to railhead; and then Smokey the Bear and the heirs of Charlie Goodnight bickered and bitched over grazing leases...
...until grazing fees and cattle prices and political pressure and silver-tongued devils with real estate licenses finally brought an end to the western cattle grazing business, and where once the Sierra Club complained about cow pies cluttering the hiking trails, now they can enjoy the view of aluminum house trailers and ATCs on the trails.
I'll let this sink in a while so Raena can chime in here with a few well-chosen words about the politics of environmentalism.
Raena: Whew! Go take a shower. Anyway, back in Phoenix the Governor (who is always civil to me in food lines at GOP events) used the word "extremists" to describe mainstream enviros using the law the way citizens are wont to do. He was writing to Sen. John McCain asking him to get rid of the Endangered Species Act; he used the word "extremists" four times in that letter, which is a departure from the "radical" he used to use. I don't consider being responsible in the use of public property owned by this and future generations extreme or radical. He's officially refused to meet with us for years.
The big cheeses in my Arizona Republican Party do not tolerate independent thinking. I've always met the candidates for office here face-to-face before I decide whether to support them and was told that if I'm going to behave that way, I should never again be a GOP precinct committeeman. Instead of the "big tent" perhaps our slogan should be "check your brain at the door."
Anyway, my next foray was Yavapai county. You could have blinked and missed Prescott Valley a few years ago. Now it's blandland USA with the obligatory McDonald's, K-Mart, et al. The local Yavapai tribe has two casinos just out of Prescott proper. The road's just been redone to accommodate all the double-wide mobile homes for California transplants and Phoenicians who've had it with gangs, sprawl and the annual brown cloud. They won't escape. Last summer gang bullets even sailed across campgrounds outside Flagstaff to the north.
Whiskey Row used to be a run-down disreputable hangout for real Arizona characters. Now yuppie coffee bars, yogurt shops and over-priced antiques ring the town square next to the Sam Steiger memorial crosswalk. Sam's the unofficial state curmudgeon, a former congressmen, former Libertarian and present radio talk show host. Years ago he hand painted the crosswalk in defiance of the transportation department, cheered on by the tipsy hoots of the Whiskey Row regulars. I worked on his unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign and have a picture of us next to the gazebo on the town square, autographed "to a great American." He probably wouldn't say that to me now that I work for the greens; Sam is our Rush Limbaugh without all the dead air.
Beaver holds down the fort at Matt's Saloon and reminds me of the time Sam shot two wild burros he said viciously attacked him. It's the standard Sam story and the source of perennial jokes.
I asked Beaver what he thinks about environmentalists. "They suck, a real pain in the ass. I always pick up stuff when I'm out in the woods, come back in with more than I left with, but these people...they stink with their clove cigarettes, patchouli, white people with dread locks. You get a bunch of them in a room...they smell. I don't know if they bathe or maybe that natural soap they use just doesn't work." I knew who he meant, the retro-hippie crowd. They easily blend in with the original version who still flourish outside the business suit territory of Phoenix. In Tucson, they lurk outside the food co-op and mumble, "spare change."
We talked about real greens as opposed to a vague perception of militant vegetarian New Agers in grunge and combat boots who Beaver calls "the granolas." He told me it was a tough call when they wanted to put a new mine out by Lookout Point; he was big in the Chamber of Commerce and supported it, but then he and everyone else had fond memories of hot high school dates there and didn't really want the place torn up. Years ago young people were forced to leave to get a job. Prescott's booming now and greens can comfortably flaunt their colors.
Let's face it, you always have to leave small towns. I knew mine was one 'cause it was the same guys who were the bowling team, the volunteer firemen and spent every Saturday morning shooting rats at the dump. The only way to stay is to take over for your parents or open your own business. Fact of life. Environmentalists can't change it, but apparently they can be blamed for it.
Jeff: True enough, but then the greenies are every bit as quick to blame the cowboys and the loggers and the lads in the hardhats from Morenci for everything from the disappearance of the dodo to the hole in the ozone. As a lifelong liberal and registered Democrat, I've had occasions beyond count to rub elbows with environmentalists who saw no need to temper their dogma in my presence. Some of them are the most self-righteous, narrow-minded, elitist pains-in-the-ass I've ever met.
But the bottom line is this: the environment comes before all else in the commonweal. If we destroy our environment, nothing else matters. Jobs don't matter if we turn the earth toxic. Money is useless if we can't feed and clothe and house ourselves. Equality, freedom, mutual human compassion are merely nice-sounding notions if we run out of room by overbreeding, and run out of resources by overworking the land and polluting it.
And you know which two sorts of people best understand the truth of this? The people who spend the most time in the natural world, making their livings and enjoying their free time outdoors: honest environmentalists and down-to-earth husbandmen of the grass and the soil. They've got as much in common as your typical married couple.
And like your typical married couple today, they are divorced before the marriage really has a fighting chance. And the only winners in the deal are the lawyers who pit each side against the other. Substitute land speculators and real estate wheeler-dealers for divorce lawyers and the domestic discord model overlays the greens versus the cattlemen.
As a story-telling vignette that pretty much summarizes the destructive antipathy that keeps these factions from hearing and helping one another, and mutually defending Mother Nature from the subdividers and land-rapists, listen to what goes on out in the San Rafael Valley, a heaven-on-earth (for the moment) southeast of Tucson.
Lisa Sharp is one of four children of an ailing mother who owns the San Rafael Cattle Co. Mrs. Sharp inherited the ranch from her father, Colonel Green of the Green Cattle Company of Yavapai County and Santa Cruz County, once the largest ranching outfit in Arizona. Colonel Green also was the superintendent of the copper mines at Cananea, Sonora, Mexico, a true cattle and copper baron of the old school.
Lisa is sharp in more than surname. She sees with crystal clarity the virtues of both sides of this ancient feud, the importance of the environment and absolute need to maintain it in good health, and the likewise-important industry and independence of the men and women who actually live out in nature--rather than just talking about it, visiting it on occasional hikes, and wringing their hands over a few cow patties beside a trickling brook.
She doesn't want to see the birds poisoned or all the coyotes trapped or shot. She doesn't want her cattle to graze the grass right down to dirt. She and her brother, Bob, and their whole family and most of their friends depend for their lives and their futures on taking real good care of the land and the water and the plants and their animals and the air.
All of which are elements of life that the Audubon Society--the bird folks--highly prize as well.
So you'd think with all that in common, the bird folks and the cow folks would be considerate of one another and get along. You could be very badly mistaken.
Bird people are zealots and will fly great distances at a moment's notice to look through their binoculars at a feathered friend they haven't met yet. The Audubon Society even maintains an 800 number with updates on rare bird spottings all over the planet. And more than once those toll-free phone calls have told Auduboners that if they fly into to Tucson and rent a car and drive 65 miles to Patagonia and then another 15 miles of dirt road out to the San Rafael Ranch, they might get a peek at a pink-breasted tit-willow they could scribble into their life-lists.
Which sounds perfectly innocent until you consider that the San Rafael Ranch is all private property--no U.S. Forest Service leased land--and that the pink-breasted tit-willow probably isn't hanging out at the side of the road so you can eyeball it and snap a photo without having to drive or tramp all over Lisa's and Bob's and Mom's and the rest's grassland.
You weren't invited and you are trespassing. But you are a member of the Audubon Society. You are an environmentalist. You are a goodguy and the person approaching in the pickup truck is, you have been led to believe from your readings in the New Yorker magazine, some political troglodyte who has grown fat at the public teat, sending his marauding hordes of herds out to befoul the pristine mountain stream with gushers of urine, and to turn hiking trails to slippery slopes of cowshit.
Raena: Well it certainly is that. Let's not forget who the owner of the public land is, however, and that includes all of us from Maine to Marana. Stewardship includes responsibility, like not allowing the herd to mash streambeds into damp mounds and not peeing upstream of your neighbor. Did I say pee? Oh, I'm sorry, I've been hanging around with this guy too long.
Jeff: They aren't the badguys they're bruited to be, and you aren't the lily-white knights of your own imaginings. They and you and me and thee--and let's not forget Bob over there--are less and more, more or less, than our stereotypes have led one another to believe, and too many of us to act down to.
It's time we listened to each other, and to the patter of little feet and four-wheel-driven real estate salespersonages, before there is neither spotted owl nor registered Hereford, ponderosa pine nor cultivated field of alfalfa to be seen west of the Great Muddy...
But only a uniform layer of human excrement and excremental humanity, 4.13 acres to the pop, over all those formerly empty spaces between the cities.
That's all I've got to add to this screed...but whoa. I promised Indians along with the cowboys. And what of the Indian? Well the Indian is the poor sonofabitch who lost the west firstest and worstest, and saw this whole scary scenario unreeling before us dumb white folks even realized there was a problem and that the Indians' problem then would become our problem now.
The Indian didn't get beaten by the explorers and fur-trappers who first entered his domain. Neither were they defeated by the cow-critters and vaqueros who followed them. It wasn't the greedy miners nor the troops of cavalry that ultimately overwhelmed the native Americans who loved the land and lived with so little adverse impact upon it.
It was the real estate boom that undid them. They were drowned beneath a wave of white humanity whose hunger for land and its precious resources was insatiable, who picked the bones clean and left no seed to sprout the next year's crop.
Sound familiar? Of course it does. What else can history do but repeat itself? Especially when we don't read and learn from it.
And on that cheery note, I turn you over to Raena, who will turn you over her knee for the spanking you deserve. Try not to enjoy it.
Raena: See that? Sail on lofty thoughts and men always go for the gutter.
So the bottom line: got a problem? Find somebody to blame who isn't us, or "like us." In the past you could throw the Christians to the lions, the supposed Communists to Joseph McCarthy and today in the age of tabloid journalism you can paste a label on your target and namecall to your heart's content, with cameras rolling. Facts are expendable and subjective. Just be sure to point accusatory fingers and appear wildly indignant.
A hundred years ago the government decided to make it profitable for grazing, mining and timber businesses to use public lands for bargain-basement prices, but a hundred years ago millions of people didn't live here. Chanting the mantra of economic development has worked, we're all here now. Incentives now go to Hughes, Intel and Chase Bank. The private land that used to feed cattle is subdivided, so land that you, the taxpayer, own has to serve double and triple duty. Bruce Babbitt's call for rangeland reform isn't unreasonable; the taxpayers deserve their land be maintained and get a fair return on it. Reform of the l872 Mining Law isn't out of line; the mines should pay a fair return, stay out of sensitive areas and perform decent reclamation when a mine closes. Without the Endangered Species Act, the American Bald Eagle wouldn't be with us. If these beliefs are "extremist," I'll see you in the Coliseum.
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