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Book Review: Voices of the West
By Alice Bond

Reprinted from The Leader, Spring 2001, Vol. 16, No. 2

I became acutely aware of the array of opinions that can accompany complex local issues while canvassing this fall for a Sierra Club campaign to help head off the sprawling growth of Atlanta. I heard passionate and sometimes irrational statements like, "We have more trees now than when the Native Americans lived in Georgia;" "We have to grow to keep a strong economy;" or "I am so mad at the Democrats right now, I can't even talk to you." Whether or not you agree with these opinions-and I often didn't-they are crucial links to reaching compromises as a community.

When I moved to Lander, Wyo., this January, I realized I had a lot to learn about the West's political dialogue and culture. Fortunately, a new friend advised me to read Living in the Runaway West (foreword by Timothy Egan) to get a better grasp of the issues that affect people here. This collection of essays, selected from a service of High Country News called "Writers on the Range," is a mixture of personal accounts, social commentaries, and historical pieces on the most important issues facing the West. The collection is a dialogue, and an effective one, because its authors represent a variety of backgrounds and give a variety of opinions. They are ranchers, environmentalists, politicians, outdoor enthusiasts, and an assortment of other voices.

The issues discussed are grouped into six chapters: Growing Pains, Myth Busting, Whose Public Domain?, Political Turmoil, The Nature of the West, and Culture Clash. One of my favorites, Growing Pains, deals with the population influx to the western interior from both the east and west coasts: the rise in property taxes, the infiltration of chain store economies, the loss of culture, and the loss of the countryside to those wanting to get away from it all. In his article, "Crazy Horse Must Be Laughing," Dave Gowdey likens the invasion from the coasts into the West's beloved small towns to something akin to first white invasion of the West, but this time it's an economic slaughter: "The Rape of the West, Part II." Another essay from this section, "Dodging Bumper Cars," by Auden Shendler describes the way the West's quiet mountain valleys are increasingly turning into noisy, choked "commuter thoroughfares." It's the "death of a dream" for all the coastal transplants to face the kind of traffic they came to Colorado to escape.

I also enjoyed the section Whose Public Domain?, which discusses the problems facing our national lands. And these problems aren't limited to resource exploitation. Cody Beers, a Wyoming Game and Fish Department employee, writes in his essay "Cult of the Lazy Hunters" of the many changes effecting the West's hunting practices. New hunters, says Beers, are lazy. Their laziness, which manifests itself in the hunters reliance on all terrain vehicles, is "messing up my hunting, and future hunting opportunities for my sons." Christina Nealson also presents a powerful essay entitled, "The Wild, at the Cellular Level," an argument against relying on cellular phones in the wilderness. She contends that cellular phones change the character of wilderness and by eliminating the need for planning and responsibility.

For a better idea of the West's political climate, read the chapter Political Turmoil. These essays address the ironies, inconsistencies, and hopes of policies effecting our region. Former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt addresses the changing political attitudes towards damning rivers in an essay entitled,"Unleashing the Power of Rivers." Babbitt sees a whole movement shaping around salmon and the health of rivers; useless dams are coming down. Another article offers hope for the West's political scene. In his essay, "The Greening of Rednecks," Mark Matthews shows us that grassroots environ-mentalism can be found in communities where formal environmental groups are viewed harshly. "When it comes to crunch time when they are threatened by mines, clear-cuts, or dams," says Matthews, "Many of these same rugged individuals jump to the defense of their own backyards." Matthews calls this new phenomenon a "wonderful paradox."

I came to a clearer understanding of how people live in harmony with their wild neighbors in the chapter, The Nature of the West. NOLS editor and instructor Tom Reed challenges "the ultimate predator," i.e. man, in his essay "Living with the Big Bad Wolf." In a region battling over the reintroduction of large predators like wolves, Reed urges people to relinquish old fears and start accepting these creatures as a viable part of the West's ecosystem. "Wolves, indeed, will never wipe us out," says Reed. "We don't have a thing to fear from wolves. It's the other way around."

Voices of the West come alive in Living in the Runaway West. Whether angry shouts or hopeful prophesies for the future, the book will bring you into the dialogue and allow you to participate in the fascinating debates taking place in America's West. Although the collection is repetitive at times, the variety of perspectives and personal accounts makes it a read well worth your time. For me, it was a great introduction to the place I will call home for the next six months.

Alice Bond is an intern in the NOLS publications department. She hails from Macon, Ga., and is a graduate of a NOLS semester in Kenya in the fall of 1999.


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