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Old 03-05-2001, 01:42 PM   #1 (permalink)
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Post Does Bush understand Westerners?

Does Bush understand Westerners?


Does Bush understand the American West?
by Russell Sadler http://www.hcn.org/wotr/dir/WOTR_010220_Sadler.html

TALK BACK - Discussion Forum
"I understand the Western mentality," said George W. Bush in justifying
his
nomination of Gale Norton as Secretary of the Interior, "and I want the
Western mentality represented in this administration." It is difficult to
tell whether such statements are mendacious or illiterate, but Bush clearly
does not understand the American West as well as he thinks he does. He's
not
alone.
Ignorance of the American West has a long history among Eastern and Southern
politicians. Missouri Sen. Thomas Hart Benton was an ardent advocate of
settling Oregon. He died without ever setting foot in the West. Politicians
who wrote the Homestead Act, the Swamplands Act, the Timber and Stone Act
and the Transcontinental Railroad Act imagined the West to be much like
the
East or the South.
For example, Western farmers were limited to irrigating 360 acres with water
from government irrigation projects. The idea was to encourage the "family
farms" that existed in the East and the Midwest. But in the real world of
the arid West, making a living required farming more than 360 acres. So
Westerners bent or ignored the impractical rules for decades.
Ignorance of the West is still a problem. Reporters based in New York or
Washington regularly produce stories based on their misperceptions of this
region. The CBS program 60 Minutes sent Ed Bradley to do a story on the
spotted owl during the height of that controversy. CBS producers insisted
on
framing the issue as a ratings-boosting "jobs vs. owls" sensation, rather
than as the ecological issue of liquidating the old-growth forests on which
both jobs and owls depended.
It should surprise no one that Bush, raised in New England and Texas, is
also ignorant of the evolving Old West-New West controversy.
The Old West is the West of Ronald Reagan's fertile imagination, Hollywood
movies and aging American history textbooks. It is the West of the Pony
Express, the Transcontinental Railroad and the Lone Ranger. The Old West
is
rugged individuals manfully scratching a living from the dry, hostile land,
the fertile forests, the fruited plains. The Old West is benevolent
government irrigation projects, grazing leases, government timber sales
and
mining leases at 1872 prices.
The New West is a legacy of conquest that began in Europe, sailed to
America's East Coast and, propelled by Manifest Destiny, slashed like a
scythe across the continent. The New West is myth-puncturing revisionism.
The Pony Express, for example, lasted only 18 months, from April 1860
through October 1861, when it went broke with the completion of the
transcontinental telegraph.
The "Western mentality" that Bush thinks he knows so well is the culture
of
the Mountain States, where folks wear cowboy boots and Stetsons just like
Texans. Bush's mindset ignores the fact that a majority of Westerners do
not
live in the Mountain States. About 75 percent of all the people who live
west of Denver live in a strip about 100 miles wide along Interstate 5 from
San Diego to Bellingham -- the Pacific Slope, where people are more likely
to wear Nikes than cowboy boots. Even the vast majority of folks who live
in
the Interior West live in cities.
If Bush really wants the Western mentality represented in his
administration, he should learn the mindset of the New Westerners. They
recognize the extraordinary environmental price paid to exploit the region's
natural resources for the benefit of Eastern industrialists, and they want
to put an end to the exploitation of the Old West before the last remnants
are gone.
The much-ballyhooed "War on the West" is a civil war among residents of
the
American West. The symbols in this war are everywhere: the efforts to stop
logging the remnants of old growth in federal forests; the dispute over
restoring buffalo herds, grizzly bears, and to reintroduce wolves to
Yellowstone National Park; the efforts to repeal initiatives in Oregon and
California restricting the methods of hunting of bear and cougar; the Nevada
Legislature permitting farmers to sell agricultural water rights to Las
Vegas, jeopardizing the future of Old West irrigated agriculture in order
to
boost the New West gaming economy.
"They just don't understand," complain the Old Westerners of the New
Westerners. That's right. New Westerners, raised in the suburbs and working
in air-conditioned sepulchers of software and high technology "office
parks," do not understand attitudes reflected in the lifestyle of people
who
work, live and play in the fields and forests.
Old Westerners do not understand that the suburbanization of the American
West is eroding Old West attitudes toward gun control, logging, mining,
hunting, fishing, "wise use" utilitarianism and exterminating predators.
The West has always been a place of complexity and contradictions. Unless
President Bush realizes this, he'll never understand the "Western mentality"
as well as he thinks he does. And his new Secretary of Interior will be
in
for a belligerent, unproductive four years.
Russell Sadler is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High
Country News (www.hcn.org). He teaches journalism at Southern Oregon
University in Ashland.


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