Environment, Economy, Democracy and Media

Put in The Book Argument of the Conference

If a tree falls in a forest – or if the entire forest is felled – and no media are present to report it to the larger society, did it really happen in any meaningful way?

And if a great social issue in the mass society were to “decentralize” and spread into the small towns and villages of the American West – or if some of the West’s small towns and villages were to attempt to “decentralize” themselves from what might be the world’s most centralized society – would it really be happening in any meaningful way if no media were drawing it to the attention of the larger, centralized mass society?

Questions like these are at the heart of Western’s 14th Headwaters Conference, November 7-9 this fall. We will be exploring what might be the most important, as well as most pervasive and persistent, cultural problem in American society: the conflict between economic and environmental needs. How do we move toward a sustainable but still (we hope) abundant economic society that exists within the constraints of environmental resilience and renewability? And almost as important in a mass society – how do we get the word out about progress in working toward those goals, when the mass media seem to be most drawn toward the presentation of everything in a context of conflict and controversy because “that is what sells”?

For this exploration, the Headwaters Project is joining forces with what may be the nation’s most respected environmental journal,The High Country News, published from Paonia, Colorado, just across the West Elks from the Upper Gunnison valley – but with a readership and influence that goes far beyond the Headwaters Region. Its circulation is only around 23,000, in a media arena of mass publications with circulations in the millions – but an unusual percentage of those subscriptions go beyond the Interior West to some of those major media who read it to learn what they need to be covering, and to the people who run the centralized society – more than 500 to Washington alone.

To some extent, the conference will be a celebration of the work of Ed and Betsy Marston, who, after 19 years as publisher and editor of The High Country News, are stepping back from the active management of the publication. But it would be in neither the tradition of the Headwaters Project nor the tradition of The High Country News and the Marstons to make it just a celebration. Call it instead a retrospective, an analytical and evaluative look at important changes that have been taking place in the mountain West over the past 20 years – and how media like The High Country News have helped those changes to happen.

Decentralizing economy v. environment”

The “economy v. environment” problem has been mostly portrayed as something unfolding at the higher levels of governance – as indeed, much of it has. The “Environmental Awakening” of the 1960s and early 1970s resulted in a wave of environmentally-oriented federal legislation – the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Acts, the Wilderness Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, et cetera. These actions emerged out of negotiations at the national level, between powerful industrial and commercial lobbies attempting to protect the economic status quo, and national environmental organizations like the Sierra Club and Audubon Society harnessing a growing national constituency wanting to protect and restore the degraded environment.

That surge of environmental action was followed, predictably enough, by an “equal and opposite reaction” from economic interests who perceived that their oxen had been gored by the new laws. This reaction gained force with the (first) energy crisis in the mid-1970s, and became official policy with the “Reagan Revolution” in 1980, and much of the momentum of the early environmental movement slowed; a lot of the action moved to the courts where the national groups attempted to make the government enforce its own laws, opposed by established economic interests.

Meanwhile back at the ranch....

The grassroots part of that reaction in the West was the much publicized “Sagebrush Rebellion,” primarily driven by the advocates of traditional western extractive resource industries – mining, logging and intensive grazing.

But an unanticipated grassroots response to the “Reagan Revolution” and its down-on-the-ground manifestations was a spate of environmental organizing at the local level in many western communities that was at least as pervasive and determined as the Sagebrush Rebellion, if not more so. Most of these grassroots environmental groups came into being in response to specific environmental challenges associated with the Energy Crisis and Reagan Revolution.

To cite just a few Headwaters examples – energy development proposals brought the Western Slope Environmental Resource Council into being in the North Fork valley in 1976; a molybdenum mine proposal gave rise to the High Country Citizens Alliance here in the Upper Gunnison in 1977; other extractive proposals brought the Uncompaghre Valley Alliance in the Montrose area, the Sheep Mountain Alliance in the San Miguel basin, the San Juan Citizens Alliance down in Durango, the Ridgway-Ouray Community Council, the Concerned Citizens Resource Alliance in the Grand Valley, and some others on the West Slope in the 1980s. Over in the Rio Grande Basin, the Citizens for San Luis Valley Water came into being in the late 80s in opposition to a plan for a major water diversion out of the valley.

By the mid-1990s, virtually every valley in the Headwaters region had an organized voice raising environmental issues against the long-standing resource-and-development oriented status quo in western communities; some of these organizations were organizing a level higher into regional entities like the Western Colorado Congress in 1980, which began supporting a lobbyist in Denver. And most of them quickly became adept at forming ad hoc alliances with the national environmental organizations that had previously carried the weight of the environmental movement – alliances that brought both financial assistance and expertise to local issues, to counter the industrial support for the “Sagebrush Rebels.”

This state of affairs led to a lot of pushing, shoving and grunting in many Headwaters communities, with the result usually being a temporary stasis that ultimately satisfied no one: no traditional resource-extractive idea was so bad that it could be permanently laid to rest, and an initial tendency for the dialogue to retreat to extremes often prevented both sides from seeing workable compromises – and meanwhile, the local communities continued to grow in ways that were not entirely satisfactory to either the local environmentalists or the local-economy traditionalists.

So at that point, something truly radical started to happen: people on both sides of these issues began to discover, or rediscover, the democratic processes of negotiation, dialogue and workable compromise. In procedures often awkward, noisy, rancorous and fitful at first, collaborations like the “Library Group” in Quincy, California, or the “Malpai Borderlands Group” in southern Arizona and New Mexico, began to work out flexible and dynamic land and resource management proposals that did not make the ideologues on either side entirely happy, but took reasonable steps toward an emerging vision – increasingly mutually shared – of environmentally sustainable local economies.

In the Headwaters region, after the firestorm generated a couple years ago by a White River National Forest plan revision deemed too “top-down” by both environmental and traditional economic groups, the Forest Service has been trying hard to set up collaborative approaches in its other forest-plan revisions – like the “Pathfinder Project” for water quality standards in the GMUG National Forest. Here in the Upper Gunnison valley, ranchers, environmentalists and public land agencies have been collaborating on the difficult task of keeping the Gunnison sage grouse off the endangered species list. These efforts among political and economic antagonists to sit down and work through their problem are not always successful, and the results are often back on the drawing board for revision with depressing regularity – but it is a dynamic and democratic process that does make progress down on the ground where people have to live with the consequences of their own decisions.

The development of this kind of local public process becomes even more important today as the federal government consciously tries to abdicate its responsibilities as a serious balancing mediator in resolving economy v. environment issues. And at both the federal and state levels, the ability of the governments to take an active role in moving American society toward sustainability is increasingly crippled by the tax-cutting impulse and the dependence of both the legislators and executives on funding from the economic status quo. If a sustainable society is going to happen at all, it may well have to at least begin down on the ground, at the local level.

The Importance of Media

But – is this “really happening” if no one notices? More specifically, if what happens in the Gunnison and Salidas and Carbondales of the West is not understood and reported by the regional and national media, through which most of us – and all of our policy-makers – develop our sense of cultural reality, does it really matter?

The mass media on the regional and national level tend to ignore what they perceive as “the hinterland.” Their orientation is toward the urban-industrial mainstream, and also toward conflict: they scan the horizon beyond the city for dust clouds and report the fights and arguments without a lot of follow-up attention to efforts to resolve those conflicts.

This is where High Country News, and a few other subsequent media like Ed and Martha Quillen’s Colorado Central and the (sadly now-defunct) Northern Lights in Montana, have been invaluable media in at least two respects. First, the Marstons set a standard for journalistic writing that, while it usually had its heart on its sleeve, still made of point of fairness and accuracy, so that even those who did not agree with its environmental stance found it a good resource for learning about the places and issues covered. Those 550 subscribers in Washington consulted HCN in drafting legislation. Reporters for the Christian Science Monitor and other major media use it as a “tip sheet” for emerging issues. Local has become more respectable.

The second thing HCN has done, in giving fair and accurate coverage to what is evolving on the local level in the economy v. environment tension, is spreading the word among the local communities about what is working and what isn’t in the long trial-and-error push toward sustainable and intelligent society down on the ground.

HCN under the Marstons’ watch has also been a kind of a border collie nipping at the heels of local environmentalists – reminding people that, however flawed, a West had been built here from a shared vision, and that a New West will have to have its shared vision and its builders too, and who is doing the heavy lifting there?

The nature, viability and importance of these changes in society, and how to give them a greater circulation and exposure, will be the focus of the 14th Headwaters Conference. See below for some of the participants.

– George Sibley, Conference Coordinator, with assistance from Ed Marston