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The American West's Uncivil War: What Would Wallace Stegner Think?

A MoJo interview with Don Snow. Part 1: seeing the region whole

Don Snow on a recent foray into his native West. Photo courtesy Don Snow
Don Snow on a recent foray into his native West. Photo courtesy Don Snow
Dear readers: when you conceptualize the American West, what is the imagery that automatically rushes forth? The archetypes of cowboys, rodeos, cattle and horses based on a favorite “Western” movie? Indigenous people? Dirt farmers? Lewis & Clark? Mountain men? Public land and rare vestiges of wildlife found nowhere else south of the 49th parallel? 

Maybe waves of “settlement” brought by those of European ancestry, by Anglos and Spanish, propelled forward by religious faith and iterations of Manifest Destiny?

Don Snow has spent his adult life being a ponderer—as writer, editor, publisher and teacher in the West ruminating on the convergence of imagery above.

Born in the coal mining camp known as Hiawatha, Utah, in 1951, he has a strong affinity for the working class, the downtrodden, dispossessed and forgotten.

Early in his adult life, Snow worked as a farm laborer, a stone gatherer,  freelance writer and a tobacconist. He believes that how America relates to the West is shaping the evolution of our democracy.

As a thought leader influenced by Wallace Stegner, Wendell Berry, John Wesley Powell, Aldo Leopold and others, Snow is most adept at navigating terrain where perceived reality merges with often-unreconciled mythology.

For several years, he oversaw the Northern Lights Institute in Missoula, Montana which produced the acclaimed quarterly publication Northern Lights. Think of Northern Lights having been a Paris Review, Utne Reader, Orion Nature Quarterly and High Country News rolled into one yet aimed at the West's human psyche. 

Snow is now a professor of environmental studies and creative writing at Whitman College, helping to establish the small liberal arts campus in Walla Walla, Washington, into a powerhouse in place-based education (which is to say encouraging students to reflect what the West means to them). This is the first in a three-part Mountain Journal interview with Snow.

MOUNTAIN JOURNAL: You’ve been described as “Stegnerian,” a compliment comparing your own nuanced overview of the West to that of the late Wallace Stegner. Why do you relate to Stegner’s observations so strongly? What did he get right and wrong? 

In this classic, Stegner offered a deep look into the West and warned about its limits.
In this classic, Stegner offered a deep look into the West and warned about its limits.
DON SNOW
: Stegner had some blind spots, to be sure.  He was too attached to the old frontier thesis of American history, and saw “the West” largely in terms of recent white settlement. There is little attention paid to a Native American West in Stegner’s work. Still, his great contribution was that he saw the modern West whole. 

MOJO: What are the elemental parts of that wholeness?

SNOW: Stegner understood it to be a region made coherent by essentially three things. 

First, aridity. Mindboggling arid and semiarid landscapes form the heart of a region with a simply crazy hydrograph – massive snow-sheds atop the mountains, and huge seasonal and elevational fluctuations in moisture, but the core of it is dry. Water policies, of a kind unique to the West, will thus drive its future even more certainly than they drove its past.  

Second, federal lands and agencies.  The vast majority of public land outside of Alaska exists in the eleven states of the West, and along with that comes a set of unique relationships with the federal government.  It’s the most deeply embedded political tension in a region that has long seen itself as the citadel of self-reliance. 

Atop all of the above is the West’s sheer massiveness, strangeness, and beauty. Stegner was well-aware, for example, of the world significance of Utah’s redrock desert.  He was a lover of the Tetons, and Yellowstone, “America’s Serengeti,” and the great, fabled rivers of the interior – the Missouri-Yellowstone, the Colorado-Green, the Rio Grande. He would surely agree that the national parks were America’s greatest idea, and he would add with pleasure that most of the crown jewel parks are in the West.  
The stunning beauty of the American West is matched only by its ever-complicated relationship with its finite supply of freshwater.  Photo courtesy Don Snow
The stunning beauty of the American West is matched only by its ever-complicated relationship with its finite supply of freshwater. Photo courtesy Don Snow
MOJO: Both of you address the West with effusive love.

SNOW: Most certainly. All of the above – but especially the stunning physical and ecological beauty of the region, seen whole – was what Stegner had in mind when he penned his most famous paragraph: “One cannot be pessimistic about the West,” he observed. “This is the native home of hope.  When it finally learns that cooperation, not rugged individualism, is the quality that most characterizes and preserves it, then it will have achieved itself and outlived its origins. Then it will have a chance to create a society to match its scenery.”
"One cannot be pessimistic about the West. This is the native home of hope.  When it finally learns that cooperation, not rugged individualism, is the quality that most characterizes and preserves it, then it will have achieved itself and outlived its origins. Then it will have a chance to create a society to match its scenery.”  —Wallace Stegner
MOJO: Over the years, we’ve had many chats about disconnects involving contrasts, contradictions, paradoxes and ironies—political, religious, socio-economic and cultural. Typically those conversations relate to what the West is, what it was, how it’s “management” often defies the laws of nature, and social trends of the rural non-indigenous West emptying out and a movement of its people to towns and cities. As a teacher, what are the challenges of making the West tangible in a way that yields smarter stewards going forward?

SNOW: I’m not seeing much of that broad geographic perspective you mention in your question. I rarely find it in students, but I won’t single them out for indictment – they merely reflect a national lacuna, which I find troubling. Our schools don’t teach the value of regions, yet many of our greatest writers and thinkers understood the prominence and power of regional identities. Thoreau and Frost in New England. Faulkner, Welty, O’Connor, Price (and a host of others) in the South.  Anderson, Cather, Smiley, Sandoz, Ehrlich all penned classics of the great Midwest. 

Stegner may be the dean of Western writers, but he, too, is surrounded by a cadre whose works fairly peal with the rich tones of region: Jim Welch, Leslie Silko, John Nichols, Bill Kittredge, Vardis Fisher—I could go on here for about an hour. What Stegner did better than anybody else was to show us how Western places will rise and fall together.  What he may not have pointed out with enough clarity is how fragile the key resources of the West actually are.
A movie poster from the 1932 Warner Brothers film.  How does Hollywood's portrayal of the West match up against reality and how much did film shape culture?
A movie poster from the 1932 Warner Brothers film. How does Hollywood's portrayal of the West match up against reality and how much did film shape culture?
MOJO: Fierce debates rage over public lands, and in many corners they are tethered to the awakening that a thing like “wildness” is finite. It’s being depleted and yet treated as a commodity that must be “used” in order to have its “value” confirmed. You’ve noted how public lands are the last crucible of wildness.

SNOW: The idea of hope in Stegner’s memorable phrase, “native home of hope,” boils down to wildness, which is to say, humans’ ongoing access to what Jackson Hole writer Jack Turner calls “gross contact” with the wild essences of ecosytems.  So much of that contact can only now occur on public lands—for the public lands are the only places left that are spacious enough to contain reasonably whole systems; and they are increasingly the only accessible spaces. 

Stegner seemed to take the public lands for granted, but I don’t. We have them, for the most part, as an accident of history. Public lands were never planned, there is no provision for them in the Constitution, and they are threatened in every generation by commercial forces that never wanted them in the first place. 
"Stegner seemed to take the public lands for granted, but I don’t. We have them, for the most part, as an accident of history."  —Don Snow
MOJO: You’re concerned we could lose them, if not by divestment then by indifference or lack of awareness that exists, ironically, in the modern era of constantly-available information.

SNOW: Public lands are the happiest accident in U.S. history, but the point is, they are mostly an accident, a serendipitous refugia in American law. You want to destroy the public lands?  Strangle the management agencies, or bleed them to death by a thousand cuts.  That’s precisely what’s happening, and it’s happening, most ironically, in the era of the West’s greatest population growth. Why are so many people coming here?  Look out the windows of your Prius, and the question answers itself.  

It’s a point I’m ceaselessly trying to get across to students: the central quality in our lives – in the lives of committed environmentalists – is access to the wild, and that access is in peril and will disappear without intense vigilance.  

MOJO: Some ideologues promoting “the free market” and the belief in maximizing profits from pieces of public ground are also involved with what their critics say is a distortion of history.

SNOW: Privatization refers to the fact that Congress originally had no designs on a permanent federal land estate.  There was no plan for one-third of the nation’s land to remain in the government’s hands.  In fact, the original intent was the opposite: full privatization of U.S. lands, with the understanding that individual land ownership conferred all kinds of rights, protections and benefits to industrious citizens.  

The big impediment to the full-privatization design was the condition of the American West itself: impossibly vast, much of it too dry to farm, far from markets, and topographically crazy.  So the grand dream of homesteading, which involved history’s largest transfer of lands from crown to peon, failed across much of the West. The “lands nobody wanted,” as they have been called, stayed in the public domain, and they have been controversial ever since. 
Snow and friends paddling one of the West's great rivers, the photo speaking to a number of divides including the profound one involving asking where does the good of society and future generations—versus the liberty of the individual in the here and now—begin and end.  Photo courtesy Don Snow
Snow and friends paddling one of the West's great rivers, the photo speaking to a number of divides including the profound one involving asking where does the good of society and future generations—versus the liberty of the individual in the here and now—begin and end. Photo courtesy Don Snow
MOJO: The so-called Sagebrush Rebellion has its strongest roots in a couple of states.

SNOW: In Nevada and Utah, where BLM lands constitute the majority of federal lands, you find the greatest animosity toward federal control.  These are the home territories of the old Reagan-era Sagebrush Rebels, but what people need to realize is that local rebellions against federal land control may rise and fall, but they are a constant presence in much of the West.  The Cliven Bundy crowd averted time in federal prisons, but their ilk will continue to pop up. What I’m constantly preaching to students is the idea that there are limits to how much you can generalize about “the public lands.” 

MOJO: How so?

SNOW: There are four separate land domains, each managed by a different federal agency, and each domain has its own distinct history and set of pressures and pathologies.  The U.S. Forest Service, for example, did a great job after World War II managing most of its lands to benefit the timber economy – and we’re now left with that legacy of ecological harm. 

The Park Service is awash in red ink, in the sense that a parsimonious Congress has for decades denied the budgets needed to keep up with national park maintenance and repairs.  The parks may have been “America’s best idea,” but we’re treating them as if we despise them.   
  
The point is that you can’t understand any of this stuff unless you look at it in detail.  You can’t blog your way into sound conservation citizenship.  Info-bits are just junk food for the mind.  You’ve got to study history, read books, come into an understanding of the ancient tensions between private rights and the public good, and then enter into the debates.  You can’t do that without rich intellectual nourishment.  

MOJO: During the latter half of 2017 and extending to the present, efforts have been made to weaken environmental laws and landscape protection and basically undermine gains in conservation that have been generations in the making. Things have happened that even moderate Republicans never, in their wildest dreams, thought possible.  What do you make of this?
 "I don’t see any real mystery in the Trump Administration’s attempts to finish off the last host of federal environmental laws, regulations, and protections.  This storm has been brewing since the Reagan Era and has finally formed a tornado."  —Don Snow
SNOW: I don’t see any real mystery in the Trump Administration’s attempts to finish off the last host of federal environmental laws, regulations, and protections.  This storm has been brewing since the Reagan Era and has finally formed a tornado.  

At the national level, we’ve seen a kind of sine wave effect for many years now – periodic oscillations of fairly constant amplitude.  Republican presidencies starting with Reagan caused  powerful push-backs against many federal regulatory systems, with environment in the lead.  Democratic presidencies tried to restore much of the “old” order shepherded in with the original Earth Day, and with some success. 

Environmentalists have seen those Democratic actions as restorations of normalcy. From Reagan-Bush, to Clinton, to W. Bush, to Obama the sine wave rose and fell with a kind of regularity – but the general direction has been clear: all-things-environment have been periodically under attack by powerful anti-regulatory interests, and environmentalists have been on the defensive.  

MOJO: How is this administration different?

SNOW: The Trump push is doing to environment the same thing it’s doing to many causes associated with progressive visions: it’s raising the stakes to new levels.  The Trumpsters are nothing if not bold – going where men and women have heretofore feared to tread.  My astonishment isn’t over the directions of the attack but rather the sustained intensity and depth.  The Trumpsters are doing serious damage – and some of it may be irreversible.  

MOJO: What kind of damage?

SNOW: I have said many times that issues come and go, rise and fall, shift and morph with normal tides of change.  But institutions need permanence.  My greatest fear now is not so much with what’s happening issue by issue, but with Trump’s naked hostility toward federal institutions, starting with the Constitution.  

Going back to the Conservation Era – Roosevelt, Pinchot, Muir, Leopold – there has been a solid presumption of faith in federal entities designed to safeguard the natural environment.  The Forest Service, the Park Service, Fish and Wildlife, EPA – all of these agencies were designed to carry the shifting banners of what I think of as America’s cherished environmental institution  -- the social compact to protect natural systems.  

My fear centers on the possibility of a massive erosion of public trust in that institution at large, such that practically no one among the brightest and best, no one in their right mind, would want to work for any of the agencies designed conserve and protect. 

EDITOR'S NOTE: Read part 2 of the interview:  Once upon a time, Northern Lights championed a vision of the New West. Don Snow worries today about the age of kakistocracy.

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