LAKEVIEW, Mont. – Just a teardrop down from the Continental Divide, in one of the most remote hideaways in the United States, is a place that should be called Hope. At 6,700 feet above sea level, Centennial Valley is high, mostly dry, and slack-jaw beautiful. The fact that there are more trumpeter swans here than people is a story that tells much about why the American West has never been more vibrant.
The Koch brothers – yes, them – run cattle on a 250,000-acre ranch nearby. Even though the land is theirs, most of the Beaverhead County politicians are not.
The centerpiece of this valley belongs to you and me and a bunch of birds. It’s part of the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, a stunning scrap in the quilt of the nation’s public land, more than 600 million acres from Florida to Alaska. A president who was not much of a birder signed an executive order creating this refuge in 1935. Franklin D. Roosevelt has been repaid. The big-winged white swans, the jumbo jets of the avian world, were facing extinction; now the population is thriving.
The Koch philosophy is that government ownership is bad, and that land, or a health care system for that matter, managed for the public good is doomed to fail. A tangential idea, the tragedy of the commons, holds that individuals seeking their own private gain will ultimately ruin something shared by a community.
It’s a tidy theory, with more than a grain of truth. But it’s laughable when applied to the West. Here are some of the fastest-growing cities in the nation surrounded by much-used and still-vital national forests, national parks, national wildlife refuges and other public lands.
The big story of the West today is how the urban and the wild have produced a unique lifestyle – a new-century ecosystem. Each depends on the other. And the lands, though badly scarred during the last century, are being restored, showing the power of people to mend places they love. This is not to say there aren’t endangered plants and animals, drought-shriveled grasslands, oil-plundered prairies or entire forests killed by a surfeit of beetles in a climate-changed West. But another narrative is more compelling.
From a skyscraper in downtown Seattle, the core of a metro area of 3.7 million people, you can see three national parks – Mount Rainier, Olympic and North Cascades. In the heart of Olympic, the largest dam-removal project in American history has unshackled the Elwha River. Floating down that snow-fed waterway this month, I saw sockeye salmon racing upstream in a big stretch of the river that had been blocked by a dam. Hope is the thing with feathers, Emily Dickinson said. On the Elwha, hope is the red flash of sockeye in a river wild again.
On either side of the spillage of Tucson are the ancient, floppy-armed cactuses of Saguaro National Park. Not far from the gaudy clutter of Las Vegas, where the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson buys Republicans who vow to sell off our public lands, is the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. More than 1 million people visit the 200,000 acres of Red Rock every year – evidence of a constituency that will defy Adelson’s political acolytes.
The modern West is the most urbanized part of the United States. About 90 percent of Westerners live in areas defined by the census as urban. Utah, where most people live along the Wasatch Mountain Front, is slightly more urban than New York state, with its empty reaches in the north. Ronald Reagan was probably the last of the costume cowboys to fool Easterners into thinking that everyone who lives here is saddle sore.
Sure, Cliven Bundy, the deadbeat rancher with the 19th-century racial views, was a hero to the clueless indoorsmen of Fox News. Everyone else was appalled.
The West today is high-tech, young, more optimistic than other regions. And what gives joy, solace, relief and a thrill to the lives of so many Westerners is the one thing they all have in common: public land at their doorstep. There is no other place on earth like it. That is, fast-growing new cities surrounded by a natural world little changed since the founding of the republic.
It’s easy to be cheered by the return of bison to grasslands throughout the West. More surprising is the miracle of Southern California steelhead, a large trout that lives in the ocean and spawns in fresh water. Thanks in part to a public land buffer next to 20 million people, steelhead are getting a new lease on life in one of the most populated areas of the country.
The chaparral forests outside Los Angeles have very little in common with this former stagecoach stop in the lonely mountains of southwest Montana. Except this: A wounded piece of land can be made whole, if managed for the future by people whose capacity for wonder is limitless.
Timothy Egan, a Seattle native, writes for The New York Times on American politics and life from a West Coast perspective.