Hal Clifford is a known hypocrite," wrote one of my many fans several years ago. I've always treasured that phrase, and I repeat it often because it's completely true. I fight logging companies, but I live in a house built of wood. I despise modern gold mining but wear a gold ring. I hate oil drilling but drive a car.
I lived in a Colorado ski town for 15 years. When I left, I told friends I was tired of trying to be part of Aspen's solution; I was going somewhere else to be part of the problem. Of course, I'd been part of the problem in Aspen, too -- I just didn't like to admit it.
Jim Stiles, publisher of the Moab, Utah, Canyon Country Zephyr, recently admitted the problem was as snarled as a bird's nest and trickier to unravel. He pointed out that those of us who came to the West to "save" it from loggers, miners and ranchers might have overdone things a bit.
Is it worse to have a few cows grazing in the desert or mountain meadow, or for the place to be rutted by thousands of mountain bikers and hikers? Just because humans are members of the Wilderness Society or Sierra Club doesn't make their poop smell any better or their footprints less erosive.
The root of most problems in the West has less to do with what is being done than how much of it is being done. As more of us leave our mark on the land, our hypocrisies become harder to hide -- or ignore. Yet we continue to believe this is the Marlboro Man's West, where we can do what we want. Never mind that our valleys face urban levels of traffic, crime and social dysfunction. We're in paradise!
Everyone else is the problem.
I'm not the problem on my mountain bike, but that guy in the Jeep is. My car on the highway isn't the problem; it's all those other jerks. When there were fewer of us here -- 17 million people lived in the Intermountain West in 1970, compared to 50 million today -- you could get away with behaving badly. There was a lot of elbowroom. But our hypocrisy is starting to show.
If you drive your Montero SUV to a trailhead while wearing your synthetic Lycra tights and drinking a banana smoothie, and then go for a ride on your molybdenum-steel mountain bike, are you an enlightened eco-sportster, or: someone who supports a Japanese conglomerate that wants to build a factory in a gray whale-spawning area (Mitsubishi); a Colorado mining company that wants to tear down a mountain outside Crested Butte, Colo., (Amax, which mines molybdenum); a major chemical manufacturer (DuPont, maker of Lycra); and a firm with a questionable human rights record in Central America (Chiquita, the banana folks)?
Like me -- a known hypocrite -- you're both.
Now what? Our hypocrisies are important to understand, and we ought to minimize them. But rather than point out each other's flaws, we might do well to recognize that we in the New and Old West are jointly creating something in these mountains that is new in America.
It's an odd, urban-rural (rurban? urbal?) place we're building, and the fight now needs not to be between the hypocrisies of New and Old West. It needs to be New and Old against a third force, those who want to do what big money has always wanted to do in the West: cut and run.
Hunter S. Thompson got it right a generation ago when he railed against "greedheads." And as Stiles points out today, the foe hasn't changed. Shopping center developers, publicly traded ski companies, second home ghost-community builders -- these are the real enemy of the West, and all of us who love this place can fight them together.
Wealth is a multifaceted thing, and spreading it around is a good thing. Greed is a single and destructive force. All of us hypocrites can band together to fight that.
Hal Clifford is a contributor to Writers on the Range,
a service of High Country News (www.hcn.org).
He practices his hypocrisies in Telluride, Colo.