Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

So-called "War on the West" a Myth

By Andy Kerr

Column #1 - Go to next column

Length: 1000 words.

Published: August 1, 1996, Wallowa County Chieftain

A few "No War on the West" signs can still be seen in the Wallowa Valley. They are fading, but the sentiment in certain circles remains unabated. Some of my neighbors believe that a conspiratorial campaign exists to subjugate the last of the free enterprise Americans who make their home in the "West."

There is no conspiracy led by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt or anyone else. There is no war on the West. There is, however, a vigorous debate about the West being waged in the West by Westerners, which some might classify as a civil war among Westerners.

No common agreement exists on just what is the "West." The 11 western states (including California!)? Or the West which isn't near Interstate 5? 70% of Americans living west of the Continental Divide live within 50 miles of I-5. Or is it the rural parts of the West as the "West", leaving out Boise, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, Spokane and Missoula, etc.?

It is more constructive to view an Old West and New West. The Old West—economically, socially and demographically—is already dead, but an old guard hangs on to significant power. Those crying about the "War on the West" really mean the New West dominance of the Old West. This old guard draws its strength from those who obtained privileged positions at the public trough. It draws its ranks from the disenfranchised working poor who foolishly believe that if we could only cut more trees, mine more minerals, graze more cattle and grow more crops that they'll finally get their share.

What built the West was not individual initiative; but federal spending. From the railroads to the interstates and all the federal subsidies along the way—mining, grazing, timber, water, crop, power, postal, to name a few; it has been the massive presence of the federal government that made "the West."

The new guard, as firmly rooted in the West, draws its strength from a vision of a West that lives within our economic and ecological means, with tolerance of differences and the encouragement of diversity. Historically, the new guard has drawn its ranks not only from the East, but also the urbanized portions of the West. New Westerners are moving into small rural communities who have different values and dreams than those who preceded them. Therein lies the rub.

This old guard is suffering, psychologists note, from increasing stress due to a loss of control. First, the old guard is having to share power with, or even lose it to, the new guard. Second is the loss of control of federal public lands. Local federal managers are less beholden to local special interests than they used to be. The fact that the old guard never held any legitimate control over the nation's public lands doesn't diminish the stress they feel.

The tensions between Oregon's 2nd Congressional District which sprawls over 73% of the state and the 3rd District which is densely packed in 0.5% of the state's land area will continue. But tension within the 2nd District will become more important, and not only between the Ashlands and Bends and the Antelopes and Beattys.

Tensions will increase in towns like Joseph, Baker City, Prineville, Halfway and La Grande, as these and other communities diversify demographically and the newcomers enter the debates about the future. It won't help for the old guard to simply seek to ban espresso sales; for such is evidence of, not a precursor for, change.

The old guard, being addicted to government handouts, is not well-positioned in this debate. The nation's bar tab is overdue and the recipients of such subsidies are being challenged by both libertarian right and liberal left, as they continue to shrink in numbers.

This debate centers around preserving "communities" and that small ones are threatened by the big ones. What, exactly, is this "community" we are debating? Is a community a geographically compact set of people who have "always" lived there doing the same thing they've "always" done? Or is it the same people in the same place, but doing different things? How about some different people doing different things in the same place? In this increasingly electronically connected world, how does one's community of place square with one's community of interests?

A central question is this: Is the small-town lifestyle dependent on harming the environment? Is being able to leave your doors unlocked inextricably tied to environmentally harmful and fiscally wasteful federal subsidies?

Communities can change, and change for the better. They don't have to urbanize to survive. But it requires a consensus in a community to proactively work for a commonly agreed-upon vision. Simply trying to retain the past is futile, especially when the past was conditioned on government subsidies that won't likely continue. If subsidies do continue, they will come in different forms and with more strings attached.

Water has always been a divisive issue in the West, and today is no exception. The old guard reacting to a charge from the new guard that cows kill salmon by simply noting that Portland's sewer system is inadequate and the outsider should worry about that instead doesn't wash. Oregonians must solve both problems.

Most eastern Oregon streams are harmful to fish. Portland's sewer system is adequate except when it rains. Both are unacceptable and in this democracy, one can be more effective in their criticisms of the actions of others if one is not doing the same thing.

Portland is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to rectify their problem. Some eastern Oregonians won't admit we have any problems with our streams.

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