By Jason Heppler
I am a heavy consumer of podcasts. They’re perfect forms of entertainment and information, something that I can consume throughout the day during commutes, down time, or tasks that don’t require full focus. And while there are a good number of excellent podcasts focused on history, none come to mind that focus on the American West.
Earlier this year, journalists Julia Ritchey and Amy Westervelt launched the Range Podcast, a bi-weekly show telling “stories about the New American West.” The show focused on stories, issues, and entrepreneurs of the West. They tell stories, as they describe in their pilot episode, about the “outlaw spirit” of the West and opportunities to “reinvent yourself” in the “wide open spaces that define the West.” This year is the first season, an eight episode arc balancing commentary and interviews on a given topic.
Podcasts in general have a tendency to run long—many of my favorite shows run 90 to 120 minutes. Nationally-recognized shows like Radiolab and This American Life often run an hour or more. Not so for Range, whose shows run twenty-to-thirty minutes in length. The easily-digestible format of the episodes make for perfect commute-length listening or a chance to catch the show in those moments of short time.
What is “new” about this West? For western historians the topics might feel familiar: issues about race and progressivism, sport history, cowboy poetry, the sustainable food movement, and medical marijuana made up just a few of the topics this season. This isn’t the stereotypical West dismissively derided as “flyover country,” nor is the focus exclusively on those urban centers often associated with the West, like Denver, San Francisco, or Phoenix. As someone who studies western high-tech boomtowns, their bonus episode “The 21st Century Prospector” on efforts to turn the hillsides of rural Nevada into the 21st century’s Silicon Valley illustrates the appeal of the show to anyone interested in thinking about the pasts and futures of the region. In some ways rural Nevada parallels mid-twentieth century Silicon Valley. The epicenter of Silicon Valley’s urban growth, stretching from Palo Alto to San José, was an unlikely place for high technology to emerge. The future boomtowns of central California were rural farming and ranching communities prior to the flood of Cold War funding that transformed the San Francisco Bay Area into a major center of research and development. In Nevada, the flow of capital is slightly different, fueled instead by an ambitious real estate developer, Lance Gilman, motivated by profit rather than military research. Nevertheless, just as the builders of Silicon Valley envisioned this postindustrial activity as the future for California’s economy, promoters in Nevada see high-tech as a pathway into new avenues of economic development that’s less reliant on gaming and entertainment. And when Telsa decides to build a gigantic factory for manufacturing batteries—and spending $5 billion in construction and creating 6,500 new jobs—it’s little wonder why states hitch their futures on high-tech. (There are downsides to that, but you’ll have to wait for my book to wrap up to learn more about that.)
Perhaps most enthralling, for me at least, is that they take the region’s distinctiveness seriously. The region does carry with it a kind of uniqueness we call “western,” a historical process roughly shared throughout the region just as the Northeast might be said to have a “New England feel” or that we can ascribe to the southern states a “southern hospitality.” But while it’s fair to generally refer to area west of the 100th meridian as “The West,” we shouldn’t lose sight of the idea that the West is, as David Wrobel once put it, many wests. Perhaps I’m expecting too much from short podcast episodes, but the West contains distinctive subregions defined by their environment, identity, and culture. Are there differences, for example, in ski seasons in Nevada, Utah, California, and Colorado? And if so, what does that tell us about the sport and its place in the West? Furthermore, their show is an artifact of their location: since they’re based out of Reno, many of the episodes tend to focus on Nevada and the surrounding region. But the Great Basin is quite different, both in historical experience and present-day, from the Pacific Northwest or areas of the Southwest. It may be outside the bounds of what Ritchey and Westervelt seek to achieve, but I would love to see future episodes touching on their topics across western subregions.
I’d also call on the show to provide more historical context. It’s not the case that many of these themes are suddenly new to the 21st century. Many of these topics have long histories in the West: ethnic diversity and racial strife, urbanization, new industrial activity, battles over land use, the degradation of the environment—the “new” sometimes looks a lot like the “old.” Many of the issues they bring up this season have roots in historical patterns worth touching on, even briefly, to give a better sense of what exactly is “new” about this West.
These slight criticisms aside, I loved the show and look forward to next season. Do yourself a favor and give the show a listen. And if you have an interesting story to pitch, send it their way.
By Michael Childers
Today marks the centennial of the National Park Service. Established in 1916 to “conserve the scenery and the national and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations,” the Park Service has grown into one of the most beloved federal agencies in the nation’s history. Its 100th birthday should be cause for a nationwide celebration. Yet, this year could not have gotten off to a worse start for the Park Service.
News broke in March that the Delaware North Company had trademarked the names many of Yosemite’s iconic buildings, including the Ahwahnee and Curry Village, after losing its bid to remain the park’s sole concessioner. The naked money grab enraged the public, especially after the park was forced to change the name of every building while waiting for the courts to settle the issue. Then in May, reports of the Park Service’s low employee morale, caused by the agency’s chronic funding issues, reliance on seasonal employees, and an entrenched leadership flooded the Internet. That was soon followed by stories of widespread sexual harassment at Grand Canyon National Park, which led to a barrage of accounts of unbridled sexism throughout the agency and calls for Director Johnathan Jarvis to step down. Jarvis did not help matters by failing to gain approval before publishing a book on the national parks, a violation of ethics.
Even so, such controversies did little to slacken the torrent of visitors traveling to one of their 413 national units this past summer. Early counts suggest that visitor numbers will swell well past last year’s record breaking 305 million people. And that is a real problem.
As the chronically underfunded agency grapples with how to leave the parks, monuments, and other sites under its care “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations” it simply cannot meet the challenges of hundreds of millions of visitors inundating the parks, particularly those units relatively near large metropolitan areas, while meeting its scientific and preservationist mandate.
Making matters more difficult is the National Park Service’s charitable partner the National Park Foundation’s “Find Your Park” campaign. To celebrate the NPS’s centennial, the campaign calls for people to visit their parks, and then through a clever social media promotion share their stories and photographs to promote visitation. In addition with its online campaign, the National Park Foundation commissioned the documentary “National Park Adventure” to commemorate the NPS’s anniversary. Produced by the same team that filmed the 2008 documentary Grand Canyon Adventure, National Park Adventure can simply be described as muscular white people in spandex climbing things in national parks.
All of this has caused people to find their parks in overwhelming numbers. Upwards of five thousand come to watch each Old Faithful eruption, making the area around the geyser appear more a rock concert than a natural wonder. Further south, Rocky Mountain National Park has become so crowded that the park took the unprecedented move of telling people not to come to the park if they could not arrive by 8:30 in the morning. Most units in or near metropolitan areas are experiencing similar problems, leading to resource loss. Following climate change, visitation has become the primary environmental issue facing the Park Service.
Furthermore, facing a $12 billion backlog in maintenance, the Park Service has had to rely heavily on corporate involvement for its centennial celebration efforts – including outdoor retailer REI, Disney, and Subaru, each of which have used the anniversary to market their own brands.
This is not the first time in the Park Service’s history the agency has faced such problems. Following the end of the Second World War millions of Americans jumped into their family car and headed to their favorite national park. Visitor numbers exploded. Yosemite alone welcomed 641,767 visitors, exceeding the record set in 1941 by nearly 50,000. Underfunded due to the Korean War and a general reluctance by Congress to embrace anything that smacked of the New Deal, park infrastructure including roads, campgrounds, and visitor centers, proved unable to meet the demand. Bernard DeVoto’s famous call to close the parks captured the era’s frustrations over a lack of coherent solution to twin problem of visitation and adequate facilities.
The Park Service’s solution however was a ten-year capital campaign called Mission 66 for its planned completion on the NPS’s fiftieth anniversary. Congress funneled millions of dollars into the parks, building new visitor centers, modernizing roads and camp sites, and improving other infrastructure including sewage and electrical.
As National Park architectural historian Ethan Carr points out, while Mission 66 reinvented the national park system and the National Park Service, along with the national park idea, to meet the exigencies of the postwar America. But by emphasizing capital construction over social and environmental concerns, the program provided a one-dimensional solution to complex social and environmental problems facing the park system – a lesson the Park Service should have learned from for its centennial.
The agency and its partners should have seized upon the 100th anniversary to engage the public in a broader conversation over what the next one hundred years should look like by launching a new campaign like Mission 66 to preserve and define what the next century will look like in the national parks. Rather than “Find Your Park” there should have been a “Fund Your Park” campaign promoting a way of not only solving Congress’s reluctance to adequately fund the parks, but also to provide a vision for how to face the complex social and environmental problems of the future.
Such a campaign could have helped foster the national conversation on race by bringing visitors to its exemplary work at place such as Manzanar and Brown vs. Board of Education National Historic Sites, drawn the connections between cultural and natural resources at places like the Elwha River in Olympic National Park, and build deep emotional ties to all national park units by redefining what national parks could be to this and future generations.
While it is easy to lament the lost opportunity, such a conversation is still possible. In many parks and monuments it is already happening. Perhaps today is a good time to start having it more overtly so that the next 100 years will be as historic as the past 100.
Coalition for Western Women’s History Announces Travel Grant for Graduate Students Travel to Western History Association
Thanks to a generous donation from 2015 WHA President Elizabeth Jameson, the Coalition for Western Women’s History is pleased to announce a 2016 CWWH-WHA Conference Grant. This grant continues the Coalition’s commitment to supporting graduate students whose research and teaching interests in the history of the North American West engages in the analysis of women, gender, and sexuality.
The grant of $500 may be used for travel, registration, and lodging in St. Paul. The recipient will also receive a ticket to the CWWH Breakfast, where s/he/ze will receive the award.
For information see the CWWH web page https://westernwomenshistory.org/awards-prizes/2016-travel-grant/.
by Michael W. Childers with photographs by Leisl Carr Childers
Standing on the abandoned roadbed, I look down at the large earthworks imagining the dam and hydroelectric plant that once stood here. There are signs of the dam if you know where to look. A small eye-hook embedded into the ground, a handful of holes where the dam was once anchored into the bedrock, and of course the roadbed on which I, along with rest of a tour group* led by NPS Historian Chris Johnson and Olympic National Park’s chief cultural resource manager Dave Conca, are now standing. In truth, the area appears like any reclamation site. Carefully graded slopes are thinly covered with native grasses, and further up stream, what was once the reservoir’s high water mark is now planted with those same grasses in efforts to stabilize the slopes and beat back invasive species. But what is most important is the Elhwa River pouring through the narrow rock gap on its way to the Straight of Juan de Fuca.
The connection between mountains and the sea is particularly pronounced on the Olympic Peninsula where the Olympic Range rises to 8,000 feet above sea level before plummeting down to the peninsula’s rocky, weather-beaten beaches. Snowmelt cascades down from the mountains into the Pacific, the Straight of Juan de Fuca, and Puget Sound in a system of streams and rivers, cutting through dense rainforests. The peninsula abounds with elk, bobcat, otter, and thousands of bird species. On the peninsula’s northern end, a quirk of geography blocks much of the rainfall seen on the rest peninsula. Sheltered by the Olympics, the area is much drier, which has made the region much a more attractive place for human habitation for millennia.
I join the rest of the tour already hiking down to the former dam site, where we listen to Conca briefly tell the dam’s story. Built in 1913, the Elwha Dam system, consisting of an upper and lower dam, provided the needed electricity to the upper Olympic Peninsula’s thriving timber industry. But in doing so, it slammed the river shut to thousands of Chinook and Coho salmon from making their annual run upstream and inundated the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe’s creation site, severing both the tribe’s physical and spiritual connection to its ancestral home, causing them to become, in the words of the tribe’s lawyer, refugees in their own homeland.
Unable to make it past the dam (the original fish ladders having lasted only a year before collapsing) salmon failed to reproduce in sufficient numbers. As the number of fish declined, the once thriving beach at the mouth of the Elwha slowly eroded away, leaving behind only a rocky shore. With no fish and no beach, the birds, crabs, seals, and sea lions all moved on.
And so it remained for a century. The two dams destroyed one way of life while providing the basis for another. But one generation’s triumph became another’s foil, and dams, particularly those in the Pacific Northwest, became the targets of increasing criticism over their environmental and cultural implications.
By the late 1980s, electricity from outside the region surpassed that produced by the increasingly outdated Elwha plant. Faced with the reality of both the dams’ growing obsolescence, along with growing calls to remove all dams throughout the northwest, in 1995 the owners of both the Elwha and Glines Canyon Dams, along with the Bureau of Reclamation and the National Park Service agreed to take down both. As is often the case, the final removal of the Elwha Dam took nearly another two decades. But in the spring of 2012 the Elwha Dam and hydroelectric plant were gone.**
After wandering around the former dam site, we loaded back onto the tour bus and headed down to the month of the river where the tribe’s river restoration director Robert Elofson meets us in parking lot of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribal Center. Herding us back into our bus, we follow Elofson in his pickup down to the beach where he excitedly marches us to a newly formed estuary. With a wide grin, he explained how this winter’s torrential rains, some of the heaviest in recorded history, had plowed open the beach, allowing seawater to flood back in, recreating the long-vanished estuary.
Cautioning us not to stand too closed to the bank, Elofson then led us off onto wide gravel beach. Whole trees, along with cedar stumps the size of my car and driftwood lie strewn across the expansive beach. Walking along the water’s edge, I soon am pointed to a school of porpoises swimming in the straight. A seal pops its head above the shallow waves before disappearing again below. Thousands of sea birds soar above us in the crisp afternoon air, their cries creating a cacophony of sound. Reaching the far end of the beach, about a mile hike, I notice several bald eagles resting on a stump in the middle of the Elwha as it enters the Straight of Juan de Fuca.
Remarkably, none of this, not the birds, the clams, the porpoises, not even the beach itself was here just a short two years ago. The removal of both dams released nearly 14 millions tons of sediment down the river, forming this beach in a matter of months. Today, the estuary measures some seventy acres, and life has returned to the Elwha. Pausing where the river fans out and enters the straight, Elofson begins to talk of the future. The tribe is waiting another few years before they start harvesting the salmon in order to allow the number of Chinook and Coho to stabilize. They are already in talks with Whole Foods he grins, hoping to capitalize on the Elwha’s story to sell salmon in the Seattle area, a possibility that was inconceivable two decades ago.
In his Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River, historian Richard White writes, “We have managed the river to deliver power that has improved lives; the river has also irrigated land and served as a highway for barges. But judged against the larger hopes, our efforts have been failures, and integral to them was a failed relation with nature.” Published in 1995, the book could have as easily been about the Elwha as the Columbia. Walking back across the beach I am struck by two thoughts. One is how the removal of the Elwha Dam adds a chapter to White’s work. We have remade the river by removing a dam, and in doing so, have reconnected a people to their home. But the second is how modern a story this is. The Elwha will continue to work, but this time producing salmon and clams for the Seattle market, an economic as well as cultural link between the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe and the millions who call the booming metropolitan area home. It is this reconnection between river and people, people and fish, fish and birds, birds and mountains, that is so captivating as I turn to leave the new beach. This is better model for the modern West.
* The American Society for Environmental History Conference organized the Elwha Dam Removal Tour as part of their conference activities on April 3, 2016. Our thanks to Chris Johnson from the National Park Service Pacific West Region’s Seattle office for all the work he did in putting the tour together.
By Robert Jordan
In the spring of 2015 and 2016, students in my HIST475 course on digital history at Colorado State University began work on an ambitious new project focused on recreating historical spaces in a virtual environment. During the selection process for the location of the project, I identified Denver as an ideal historical space to work with, as it was familiar to nearly all my students, local archival materials were easily accessible both physically and digitally, and the breadth of available archival materials would allow for a multifaceted recreation of the economic, social, environmental, and cultural life of the city. In order to take the first steps towards the ultimate goal of the project – the creation of a 1:1 scale, virtual facsimile of the city of Denver at the dawn of the twentieth century – my students and I utilized resources from the Denver Public Library’s collection of Sanborn maps and digital photographs, Colorado State Library’s Historic Newspapers Collection, and an education-focused version of the immensely popular video game Minecraft. As a digital platform for the building of virtual environments, Minecraft.edu had enormous advantages due to its relatively shallow learning curve for my students working within the time confines of a 15 week semester and its utility for use as part of a public history project, as our final product could potentially be accessed by tens of millions of Minecraft users.
Students also were tasked with researching thematic topics from within the social, economic, political, and cultural history of the city and the larger U.S. West to be incorporated into a companion website. Blue-colored information markers placed throughout the virtual environment allow for visitors to engage with a multifaceted, multimedia exploration of the history of Denver provided on our prototype Tumblr site still in development.
By layering online access to newspaper articles, historical photographs, and original student research onto the virtual spaces of the city, visitors will gain a deeper understanding of the spaces and places of this growing city seated on the edge of empire. However, as much as potential visitors have to benefit by an exploration of this virtual space, my students benefitted most from this complex process of creating a historical facsimile of Denver.
Student outcomes from participation in this project were varied, but several themes remain consistent as we come to the close of construction this semester. First, despite the fact that many students came into the course unfamiliar with the history of the U.S. West, they soon came to understand Denver through researching the daily practices and experiences of frontier peoples within the spaces and places of this booming city. According to French sociologist Henri Lefebrve, these public and semi-private places, real and imagined, represent the spatialized production of ideas, values, and memories that individuals and the state attach to them. In their individual research, students came to better understand that historical actors’ creation and ordering of spaces across the city had the power to “transform space into place,” capable of shaping and reshaping the cultural landscape of the city of Denver.
Secondly, as a prerequisite to constructing the spaces and places of the city, students did research at a level of detail unlike anything encountered in their previous history classes. To accurately recreate the historical spaces of Denver, research into the small details needed to do so revealed information about
Denver’s placement within the larger history of cities in the U.S. West. During the turn of the twentieth century, Denver strived to assert itself as more than a mere imitator of east coast cities and attempted to showcase itself as a unique center for local innovation and economic development. These aspirations of city officials and wealthy residents could be seen in our virtual version of historic Denver by reading the built environment like a text. The small details discovered by my students as they built the urban landscape from the ground up illuminated the social and cultural life of a city in transition, made visible through details such as the planting of non-native oak and maple trees in the green spaces of the city by homesick easterners; the manipulation of the Platte River and its subsidiary creeks for urban use; the ubiquity of saloons as gathering places for immigrant men; the grandiose theatres, opera house, and civic buildings designed to showcase the city’s cultural sophistication; the abundance and nature of peripheral businesses connected to the boom in mining and agriculture; and the technological advances in energy, communication, and transportation made manifest in the chaotic webs of electrical wires and streetcar tracks coursing throughout the streets of the city.
Thirdly, through this process of building a living city from scratch, my students gained an incredible amount of understanding of the history of the city and the daily practices of its residents, but equally as important, they came to understand the limits of historical knowledge and the impossibility of ever truly knowing the past. In their attempts to conduct research on the ethnic composition of Denver at the turn of the twentieth century, students were disheartened to discover a significant lack of photographic and written evidence for the existence of non-white peoples outside the cold figures of the census rolls. This marginalization of non-whites was further hammered home by a greater understanding of the spatial orientation of the city, as students came to realize the amount of physical distance placed between the wealthy elites in the city center and the immigrant laborers relegated to the growing periphery. Additionally, despite that the majority of my students were Colorado natives with a high degree of familiarity with Denver, despite the fact that our archival materials were incredibly extensive, and despite the fact that our research focused on a period roughly a mere century ago, many students were shocked by how little we can actually know about city life during this period. Huge knowledge gaps exist on the appearance of physical structures, the design and utility of interior spaces, and the aforementioned social and cultural practices of many non-white community members. As David Lowenthal famously stated and my students came to discover, the past is a foreign country, not an easily discoverable body of comprehensive, objective data.
Lastly, this kind of project-centered learning with a heavy emphasis on collaboration between students, archivists, and instructors to create an immersive and interactive means of exploring the past has been an amazing experience for everyone involved. A number of teachable and non-teachable skills were gained through the process of our project development, including leadership, problem-solving, locating and utilizing archival data, digital literacy, the practice of public history, and project planning. Looking to the future, the time-intensive nature of this kind of ambitious digital project requires far more than two semesters of labor to fully create the city of Denver at the dawn of the twentieth century, as we have currently completed streets and building exteriors for only around 40 blocks of the city. Our projected launch date for a living, fully completed version of historical Denver is currently the year 2020, but soon we will be releasing updated versions of the map on a regular basis to share it with libraries, schools, and the general public, allowing a unique opportunity for any interested parties to virtually immerse themselves within the living landscape of the city of Denver as it was over a century ago.
 Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991), 321-323.
 David Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
By Mike Childers
As mud season hits and westerners began dreaming of warmer days, the future of Eldora Mountain Resort appears to be a little more hopeful as concerned locals are now working with the resort’s owners and U.S. Forest Service in resolving what potentially could have been yet another chapter in fight over ski resort development on public lands. A fight brought further into focus with the rising tensions over the management and use of public lands throughout the West.
Last fall, Nederland resident Betty Bass contacted me by phone. Concerned over the Forest Service’s impending decision about the small ski area’s proposed plan to add several hundred acres and improve its facilities. In that first conversation, I had not been too encouraging about her hopes on halting the expansion, but wished her luck. Like many of us, Betty was not opposed to some of the ski area’s improvements. She and her family loved skiing at Eldora, considering it a perk of living in the funky little mountain town known more for its annual Frozen Dead Guy Day celebration than as a tourist Mecca.
Betty, along with several other locals, was worried that the ski area’s proposed construction would attract more skiers and snowboarders to the area, negatively impacting the local environment and economy. Now it seemed she and others would have a greater voice in the ski area’s future. It was a surprising development, particularly given the history of ski resort development throughout the West over the past half century.
Expansion is often a four-letter word when discussing ski resorts. This was certainly the case concerning Eldora Mountain Resort. The windswept ski area has long been the favorite of a small number of Colorado skiers unwilling to brave the bumper-to-bumper traffic clogging I-70 every winter weekend. Yet, over the past several seasons, Eldora’s growing popularity stretched its aging lifts, parking, and facilities to the brink. Overwhelmed and in need of serious investment to meet this growing demand, the area announced plans to modernize its ski lifts, add an on mountain restaurant, and yes, add roughly ninety acres of new terrain.
From there the story began to take on a familiar narrative. Needing Forest Service approval, Eldora worked with the local district office to conduct an environmental impact statement. Locals voiced their opposition to any expansion of the resort, fearing the impacts they would have on their community. Environmental groups soon joined the fray, along with Boulder County, condemning any expansion, arguing that it would have a profound effect on the area’s ecology and community. Such fears seemed to be confirmed, when, last February, the Forest Service released its Draft Environmental Statement approving Eldora’s expansion, leaving many opponents to begin considering bringing a lawsuit against the ski resort.
This is a well-rehearsed script. For the past several decades, ski resorts have sought to grow in order to meet our insatiable hunger for more terrain, faster chair lifts, and better amenities – all of which help grow their bottom line. Faced with growing public demand, the Forest Service is locked into a legal structure that requires it to seek ways in which to mitigate rather than halt development. Critics bemoan the loss of local character, sky rocketing real estate costs, and environmental impacts such recreational development brings.
But that is where Eldora’s story began to differ. While approving the upgrade of two chairlifts, expanding snowmaking operations, the construction of the new Challenge Mountain lodge, and the addition of 182 acres already within the current ski area boundary, interim Forest Supervisor Ron Archuleta deferred the most controversial component of the plan – the expansion of the ski area beyond its current boundaries to include an additional eighty-eight acres. Instead, Archuleta called for all parties to work collaboratively to resolve all “environmental and social issues.”
A week later Betty gave me a ring and asked for my thoughts. Dumbfounded, I noted that such decisions are far from typical historically, and meekly encouraged Betty that she and all of those concerned seize the opportunity to build a consensus over the future of Eldora. In truth, the final decision on Eldora’s expansion remains the Forest Service’s hands.
This decision could have ramifications much further than just within Colorado. As continued numbers of skiers and snowboarders flood the West’s ski resorts, such constructive conversations between concerned groups may help settle, or at least defuse, bruising legal fights over proposed ski area expansions such as those at Arizona’s Snow Bowl and Utah’s Park City, to name just two.
Perhaps giving equal weight to preserving local communities when considering expanding our ski resorts will help us achieve the greatest good for the greatest number in the longest run. After all, this is not a simple “them” or “us” issue. Rather, it is conversation that involves all of us and the future of our public lands. In light of recent events in Oregon and the Representative Robert Bishop’s stalled (failed) public lands initiative, it is clear that the future of the West’s public lands remains an emotionally charged issue, one in which we are all culpable in pushing our own agendas. Like many concerned over the implications of ever-large resorts built on National Forest lands, I anxiously checked my mailbox every evening last fall for my new season pass. How we meet these seemingly contradictory impulses deserves some thoughtful conversation. Maybe the conversation over the future of Eldora can provide a little direction.
There is no doubt that for many, a career working in the West’s vast public lands is a dream job. From the sublime beauty of Yosemite to the sagebrush flats of Wyoming, federal employees spend their lives managing and protecting our national heritage.
But while recent events in Oregon have focused attention on the struggles between rural land users, recreationalists, and local and federal governments, a darker, more troubling story has begun to emerge concerning the culture of sexism and intimidation within federal land management agencies.
Last week, the Huffington Post’s online magazine Highline published “Out Here, No One Can Hear You Scream.” Written by journalist Kathryn Joyce and producer Emily Kassie, the multimedia piece exposes the pervasive culture of sexism within every federal land agency, telling the stories numerous women and their struggles with unwanted advances, intimidation, cronyism, and rampant misogynism. It is a powerful condemnation of a culture too long accepted, and well worth a read.
A longtime friend emailed me the story. With nearly two decades working for various federal land agencies primarily in the West, the women’s stories in the article struck a deep chord within my friend. “And here I thought it was just me being a “damn feminist,” she wrote before launching into a testimonial of her own experiences. Needless to say, they mirrored many within the Highline article.
Reading, and then rereading both the article and her testimony, I went from being enraged to deeply concerned. When combined with the growing violence, or threat of violence, against federal land managers as chronicled by the High Country News, the rhetoric calling to “return” public lands to states, the incredible pressures federal employees face in trying manage millions of acres of land while under attack from all sides that believe that their use/view has primacy over all others, and the good ol’boy-networks that often run most rural western communities, it is frightening what dangers women face when simply attempting to do their job.
What am I supposed to tell my eager young students who dream of someday working in a National Park, National Forest, or on BLM lands who romanticize long days under a western sun, hiking, four wheeling, and protecting our western public lands? It is difficult enough to express the complex politics, laws, and histories of these places. What about the daily struggles of simply being seen as an equal? Fending off unwanted, and often unprosecuted, sexual advances? The inequities in promotions, access, and acceptance?
I am not sure what the answers to these questions are, but I do know that they should start with an acknowledgement that these women are a part of our western communities. They are our neighbors and friends, and so should be treated as such. We need to demand accountability from local, regional, and even national land management offices in rooting out such behavior. And we need to combat the often red-hot anti-government rhetoric that targets federal employees and has led to events such as the illegal occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by armed criminals. All of these untenable situations have helped create a climate of fear and intimidation in which we ask our land managers to not only protect our national lands, but also to preserve them for future generations. This is a tall order under the best of circumstances, and an impossible one if half of our land managers are marginalized, harassed, and out-in-out ignored because of their gender.
The national conversation about managing grazing on public lands is becoming more thoughtful as groups across the country weigh in, many pointing to helpful publications that predate the events at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. One of those organizations approached BlogWest and we appreciated the perspective they had to offer. The Property and Environment Research Center (PERC)’s Shawn Regan, a prolific writer whose work you’ve probably seen in the High Country News, Grist, and the Wall Street Journal, posted a piece on January 8th entitled “Managing Conflicts Over US Federal Rangelands” that appears on the PERC site and as a chapter in a larger publication Ranching Realities in the 21st Century (Fraser Institute, November 2015). The author takes seriously the issues of property and water rights, and provides a comprehensive and understandable explanation of how convoluted and prone to conflict the legal and administrative structures that govern public lands have become. Our thanks to Shawn for his efforts in helping us think about these issues.