Gavin Ratliff: Restoring the West in Who’s Image?

Gavin Blog 1From Missoula to the Rocky Mountain Front, we’ve read and met with Montanans about what’s valued in an inclusive, working landscape. As our readings and guest speakers have so far indicated, defining the ‘Original West’ is tricky, if not counter-productive. But a question lingers in many of our class discussions and peeks its head around bison herds, burnt conifers, and small western general stores: to continue enjoying and relying on this powerful landscape, what needs to change?

We tend to picture the American West as untouched wilderness before European settlement: fenceless ground with a fully sustainable ecosystem. Our time in the Scapegoat Wilderness gave us a similar impression: the ‘Wilderness’ sign abruptly turned cow prints to deer, and a rustling bush into potential danger. Yet before white settlement, there were millions of people thriving throughout the plains and mountains, draining wetlands and damming rivers. Wilderness areas today are maybe even more ‘wild’ than the land was on the frontier! Do we return the west to a pre-human, pre-European, or pre-vacationer landscape? All three have altered the terrain and culture of Montana to some degree.

The ideal western landscape has bits and pieces from each group who inhabit this place—some benefitting Native Americans, some ranchers, some developers and recreationalists. Despite some isolated efforts to work together on a collaborative landscape, we’ve seen little physical evidence so far on this field course. As we read William Cronon and Aldo Leopold, and meet with a fascinating variety of Westerners, I’ve begun to play with the idea of what the West could look like if interests remain individual; how would fragmented regions perform, splitting these beloved mountains into territories of agriculture, recreation, preserved wilderness?  Traveling through reservations, national parks, and ranch lands we’ve seen these groups at home in their west. But they could each easily belong to different countries the way they avoid coexistence.

Still, these thoughts imply an anthropocentric landscape. Where do the plants and animals come in? Do these taciturn species have no say in the future of the landscape?

Our two weeks on the Rocky Mountain Front and my college years in Colorado, the Tetons, and Bozeman have proven to me that West is as much a mindset as it is a place. The west, in European history, has been a cultural push back against outside authority—stemming from our roots in Manifest Destiny to a country voting red last November. Like the west, the rebels who first journeyed into unknown territory have been romanticized and admired in society. Are environmentalists—and those in favor of restoration—the next wave of western rebellion, challenging the way we live with the land?

For me personally, restoration to an imagined wild past holds the wrong implication. While our journey through Montana so far has certainly shown some of our misuse of the land, to discount the place humans have in this landscape seems detrimental. To remove species and developments critical to a working land’s future would be a step backwards in Western progress. Instead, why not work with our current ecosystem striving for a more unifying and holistic approach to conservation?

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Maizie Smith: Why Environmentalists Should be more like Journalists

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WRFI students talk with Hal Herring in Augusta. Photo Credit: Holly Herring 

In this day and age people are increasingly confined to their echo chambers of information. Whether it be the news sources we consume, the people we discuss issues with, or our previous assumptions, we are all suffering from some amount of confirmation bias. Meaning, we seek out information that confirms what we already know or believe and find ways to poke holes in any argument that differs from our framework. While avoiding these biases are important when looking at variety of issues, it is critical to bring this approach when engaging with complex environmental issues that involve a wide variety of stakeholders. Environmental issues are increasingly complicated with many stakeholders involved. These complex issues require creativity and collaboration by many different people to produce effective outcomes. So, as bias crowds out critical and collaborative thinking about environmental issues, both sides of the political aisle are failing to create meaningful change for their communities and ecosystems.

This is why I, as an environmental studies student in a liberal college town, look up to and seek out journalists like Hal Herring. Hal lives in Augusta, Montana, a town on the Rocky Mountain Front with just over 300 residents. He has been a conservation journalist since his mid-thirties. He writes for publications with a more pro-conservation readership like High Country News, as well as publications like Field and Stream, where he is a contributing editor, that have a less environmentally minded readership. Hal has the ability to look at conservation issues with nuance and depth. He waits to form an opinion on issues until he has acquired the facts and talked with a multitude of stakeholders. He prefers to do research on the ground, meeting with and talking to as many people as possible who are involved in these issues in varying degrees.

When I met Hal this fall he was as lively and insightful as ever. His southern accent and big smile couldn’t outshine his wit and attention to detail when discussing conservation in Montana. We talked about Forest Service budgets and conservation projects, as well as the diverse audiences he writes for. He is one of those rare people that enjoys reading the comments on his articles. He noted when writing about conservation for Field and Stream, in the comments he gets called “just about anything but a straight white male.” Beyond the fiery comments, Hal embraces the feedback from online readers and community members he talks with.

He talks with the people who are most intimately connected with the land, the people who rely on these places for financial and spiritual wellbeing. The people who have lived in these places for centuries and have acquired information, weighed all the pros and cons of an issue, and who are often fighting to be heard. Hal gives a voice to rural people and conservation issues all over the country, and he isn’t catering to anyone but a good story while he shines a truthful light on communities and wildlands. He takes pride in advocating for conservation to an often hard-nosed conservative Field and Stream audience, as well as having realistic, balanced, and place-based assessments when writing to a farther left audience. Hal’s best ally when writing to such varied audiences is telling a good story that is focused on relevant facts and experiences.

Beyond his talent to tell important stories, Hal is a great teacher in his own way. He meets with groups and talks about conservation issues in the west. For me, Hal reminded me that I should make no assumptions before I approach a new environmental issue. They are all unique. I am no journalist, but I am trying to help promote responsible land use, while also trying to meet people where they are at in terms of needing a way of life. I also want to respect and account for human and nonhuman historical knowledge intertwined in any environmental issue. To help guide myself and others in acquiring knowledge, I have a few guiding principles inspired partly by writers like Hal.

  • Avoid echo chambers and confirmation bias
  • Listen to multiple stake holders, seek out their opinions
  • Know that one universal ethical framework cannot be applied to every diverse landscape and environmental issue you encounter

Hal is not trying to get people to act in any way, instead his “passions as a writer and storyteller lie where they always have – in exploring humankind’s evolving relationship to the natural world, and all the failures, successes and deep tensions inherent in that relationship” (Herring). Like Hal, seek information that is as exciting as these landscapes we all want our children to see. Look at multiple sides of an issue before you make judgement, find journalists and publications that incorporate a variety of views, orient yourself to a landscape ecologically and historically, and always seek out a good story.