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Wallmarts, Pavement Undermine Old West

Column by Anders Hove
Opinion Editor

Although my columns have appeared daily during Residence and Orientation Week in Cambridge, I myself have been criss-crossing the American West. The journey from my home in Montana to Southern California has become an annual circuit. I have studied, traveled, and lived in the region all my life; it is a part of me.

And yet, many aspects of the West disgust me, Westerners today live in blatant disregard for their heritage. Our sprawling cities consume tens of acres a minute. Our most pristine lands are given over to movie stars who inevitably choose the tallest bluffs and most picturesque mesas for their ranch houses. Our historical sites are laid low for the likes of Walmart and Pizza Hut. We're seen our clear mountain lakes and rivers drained to fill fake waterfalls and to irrigate unnaturally green country clubs in Phoenix.

Meanwhile, liberal politicians and environmentalists chase red herrings. They talk of endangered species and water quality while an army of ten thousand works around the clock spreading tar and gravel over mile after square mile of virgin land. County by vast county, the West I grew up in is disappearing under tract housing and strip development. And it wouldn't be possible if development like this weren't immensely popular with Westerner's themselves.

Some see the transformation as just another chapter in the history of exploitation. Here is a place stolen from its first people, and from nature itself, by a government of land speculators, settled by rapacious entrepreneurs. A place where lawlessness prevailed, and where people praised self-reliance and grandiose dreams.

But that is the paradox of the West. The settlers came to overthrow and replace but found themselves the more transformed. They made a grudging peace with nature even as they struggled with it. Finding the country lawless, they made their own law of duty to others. To save themselves and the lives they'd build, they banded together and learned to rely on one another.

From this rugged land, and from among its people, sprang the first conservationists. The same men who broke their backs felling redwoods, cutting sod, and sluicing gold ore turned out in droves to urge their government to save their country, to preserve their natural resources in in trust for future generations. What other nation in 1910 could claim over 200 million acres of protected forests, grasslands, and desert? And almost all of in was out West.

A lot of Westerners say their greatest heritage is the freedom to do what they own with their land. And yet, firmly avowing their libertarianism, they are the first to demand federal highway funds for multi-lane divided highways right to their doors. They claim the region's natural beauty as its greatest attraction, and, unlike their ancestors, wouldn't lift a finger to protect it.

The West today is both a continuation and a perversion of the past. The entrepreneurialism, individualism, and exploitation remain, yet these qualities are no longer balanced by any hardship of condition. The difficulty of life in the past compelled the respect of our forebears -respect for our resources, for one another, and for those not yet born. Without this respect, the very idea of the West as a distinct and beautiful place is disappearing, as are its values.