Back to Stories

The American West's Uncivil War: Assessing Watt, Zinke, Future Generations

A MoJo interview with Don Snow. Part 3: how we got here and where the environmental movement goes next

How do young people not only find their voice but seize it in intergenerational discussions about the future of the American West? Here, students from Whtiman College gaze into the maw of Badlands National Park's South Unit located inside the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.  They are not far from the 100th Meridian, the place where John Wesley Powell said the West, topographically, begins. Photo by Todd Wilkinson
How do young people not only find their voice but seize it in intergenerational discussions about the future of the American West? Here, students from Whtiman College gaze into the maw of Badlands National Park's South Unit located inside the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. They are not far from the 100th Meridian, the place where John Wesley Powell said the West, topographically, begins. Photo by Todd Wilkinson
As a Baby Boomer who came of age during the last half of the 20th century, Don Snow saw the rise of the modern environmental era. He both observed and participated in a movement that made the case for public lands receiving better protection, citizens being given a stronger voice in scrutinizing management,  foresighted environmental laws coming on the books and an ethic of self-restraint putting a break on Manifest Destiny. 

What follows is part 3 in a three-part interview with Snow, who is considered a thought leader in contemplating the future of the American West. In the first part, Snow reflected on Wallace Stegner. In part 2, he offered thoughts on the old publication, Northern Lights, and how it was founded to explore the meaning of the "New West."

Here he dives into the events that resulted in a time of reckoning for the environmental movement and uncertainty about how younger generations will deal with the construct of conservation.

MOUNTAIN JOURNAL: A criticism that's been leveled at some of the younger generations is that they seem to hold less regard for the events—and the ferocious battles—that resulted in better protection for 650 million acres of land they own in common.  What is the danger of not heeding the lessons of conservation history?

DON SNOW: I have been dealing with those younger generations for 30 years in the college classroom both at the University of Montana and at Whitman College.  They are not the cause of American indifference to history, but they certainly reflect it.  If your parents, teachers and mentors don’t emphasize the value of history and the sense of contextualization which history uniquely brings, then it’s no wonder that you carry the same disease.  

The public lands are remarkably easy to take for granted, but if you study their history— the distinct histories of how all four domains of federal lands came into being—you’ll readily see how vulnerable these “given” lands actually are.  The public lands are ceaselessly under attack by forces of privatization, incompetence, and indifference.  

MOJO: You mentioned in the first part of this interview a fear that the Trump Administration, in league with anti-government, free-market zealots tied to large corporations, is willfully undermining the public trust in government and land management institutions like the National Park Service, US Forest Service and others.

SNOW:  Yes, many of these institutions used to attract the best and the brightest who heeded a call to higher public service. By doing right by nature they believed they were doing right for society.  Considering the tone of rhetoric emanating from those in power, I said no one in their right mind would want to work for any of the agencies designed to conserve and protect a heritage that belongs to all of us. 

MOJO: A generation or two ago, was there more excitement among students potentially going to work for a government natural resource agency?

SNOW: Teaching at a very environmental college, I see practically no students today with goals to work for federal environmental agencies.  Trump didn’t start the spread of this poison, but he has been ordering it up by the train load and spraying it everywhere.  The crops are falling alongside the weeds. This administration hates all green things.  
"Teaching at a very environmental college, I see practically no students today with goals to work for federal environmental agencies.  Trump didn’t start the spread of this poison, but he has been ordering it up by the train load and spraying it everywhere.  The crops are falling alongside the weeds. This administration hates all green things."                                                —Don Snow
MOJO: One thing we've observed in conversations with college-aged twenty somethings is a tendency among some, especially those who grew up in cities or suburbs, to disavow or write off the history of the wildland conservation movement, to question its validity and to not absorb the reason why many of these landscapes are protected and remain in relatively good shape. What's behind this?

SNOW: Totally different, totally the same.  

I was an ardent little campus activist at the time of the original Earth Day.  The mood I remember was one of hope – at least in Colorado where I went to school.  The governorship of Richard Lamm was right around the corner, and I learned about Dick Lamm around 1971 while he was still in the Colorado legislature. He’s the first candidate I ever went door-to-door for.  When he won his race for governor, he appointed as his principal environmental staffer a guy named Jim Monahan, who had been the leader of our campus group – quaintly called ECO, the Environmental Corps.  

By 1975, Lamm and company were leading the charge against Colorado’s opposition to the winter Olympics, and the electorate did a marvelous thing: it rejected the Olympics on environmental grounds.  They never came back to Colorado – praise God and Gaia.  
Pictographs in the Southwest. Humans have been trying to make sense of the American West for many millennia. How many? No one knows for sure but the past tells us that civilizations which do not heed the warning signs of ecological sustainability collapse, and  sometimes not with a whimper.  Photo by Don Snow
Pictographs in the Southwest. Humans have been trying to make sense of the American West for many millennia. How many? No one knows for sure but the past tells us that civilizations which do not heed the warning signs of ecological sustainability collapse, and sometimes not with a whimper. Photo by Don Snow
MOJO: What inspired you to get involved?

SNOW: As a student, I jumped on the Green bandwagon because of the positive energy it radiated.  So many issues of that time felt so bitter to me – and so many revolved on anger and antagonism.  The best example was Vietnam.  Some referred to it as the peace movement, but most of time it seemed to be called the anti-war movement.  I didn’t want to be an “anti,” I wanted to be a “pro”—and pro-green (I sound like a Ortho salesman) sounded really good to me.  

Pro-wilderness, pro-wildlife, pro-choice, pro-environment.  I grew up hunting and fishing with my father, so environmental issues were a natural for me.  I think I started to understand the meaning of habitat when I was still in grade school. 

MOJO: On a purely objective basis, can it be fairly argued that the party of Abraham Lincoln and the conservation ideals of Theodore Roosevelt resemble little of what the GOP represents today?  

SNOW: National Republicans today are really good at getting elected, and really bad at governing. The Reaganites, for example, came out charging like rodeo bulls against all manner of regulation – environmental and other (remember the air traffic contoller debacle?) – and grossly over-shot the mark.  

The first iteration of the Sagebrush Rebellion, for example, was an episode of almost comical blundering.  Reagan declared himself a “Rebel, too,” without seeming to understand that the Rebellion had no central organizing force, principle, or goal.  Was it about the full privatization of the federal lands, or just some lands?  Was it about state control of, say, BLM lands in the states with the largest acreages of the Public Domain?  Was it opposed to all forms of governmental subsidies attached to resource extraction on publc lands?  If so, how were all those little resource-dependent communities of the West going to survive?  
The "Sagebrush Rebellion," rooted in anti-federal sentiment and today closely associated with the Bundys, did not begin with former Interior Secretary James Watt and the Reagan Administration. It goes back generations and Jackson Hole was a touchstone for one of the early manifestations. In 1943, then Teton County Commission Chairman Clifford Hansen (a local rancher who would go on to become Wyoming governor and a U.S. senator), lead a protest by driving cattle across a new national monument that would eventually become today's Grand Teton National Park. Those advocating protection and assisted by the largesse of John D. Rockefeller Jr., argued that it was important to safeguard the foreground of the Tetons and not have scattershot development destroying the view and wildlife habitat. Hansen predicted economic calamity if the lands were protected. Later in his life he said he was glad he failed in his attempts to thwart conservation. Photo courtesy Michael Gäbler/Wikimedia Commons
The "Sagebrush Rebellion," rooted in anti-federal sentiment and today closely associated with the Bundys, did not begin with former Interior Secretary James Watt and the Reagan Administration. It goes back generations and Jackson Hole was a touchstone for one of the early manifestations. In 1943, then Teton County Commission Chairman Clifford Hansen (a local rancher who would go on to become Wyoming governor and a U.S. senator), lead a protest by driving cattle across a new national monument that would eventually become today's Grand Teton National Park. Those advocating protection and assisted by the largesse of John D. Rockefeller Jr., argued that it was important to safeguard the foreground of the Tetons and not have scattershot development destroying the view and wildlife habitat. Hansen predicted economic calamity if the lands were protected. Later in his life he said he was glad he failed in his attempts to thwart conservation. Photo courtesy Michael Gäbler/Wikimedia Commons
MOJO: Then, as today, there seems to be a lot of railing against public lands as alleged liabilities and talk of making them go away. Yet those lands come replete with a lot of taxpayer subsidies, the absence of which would be disastrous for many people using the land, yes?

SNOW: The fierce exercise of the pure free-market worshipped by the Reagan people would have killed many rural communities.  The Rebellion broke apart – exploded like a hot-air balloon from the force of its own internal idiocies.  

Wyoming’s James Watt contributed a lot to the debacle.  His appointment to Interior was, again, an indication of over-shoot, and he was not the only one. The Administration was full of wingnuts, many of them rabidly anti-environmental figures who, collectively, made a hash of sober attempts at environmental “reform” from the Right’s point of view.  

It’s little wonder that the national environmental movement enjoyed a tsunami of support during those years.  

MOJO: Did the wind, in the aftermath, leave the sails of the environmental movement?

SNOW: With that sine wave I mentioned comes complacency.  Things flame up, then die down.  Perhaps the biggest mistake made by American greens in the wake of Jimmy Carter’s loss was to ally themselves too strongly with one political party, the Democrats.  Given Reagan’s hostility toward conservation—an idea that had originated in his own party a century earlier— it was little wonder that enviro’s doubled down with the Democrats, but it was a mistake. 

Too much investment in the regulatory state, too little recognition of the rising despair among the traditional working class.  We paid scant attention to how many Democrats turned to Reagan, and what that might mean. 

MOJO: What does it mean?

SNOW: Clinton’s was a pivotal presidency – he was no sterling example of an environmentalist himself, but he was also not a one-man eco-demolition derby.  To the contrary, Clinton made some fine appointments—Bruce Babbitt [a former governor of Arizona] at Interior and [renowned elk biologist] Jack Ward Thomas at the Forest Service being the best for the West.  With Clinton came opportunities to ally with rising powers of responsible entrepreneurialism (remember the “New Democrats”?), and plenty of Greens did that, but we failed to notice over those years of peace and prosperity how solid the walls had grown between the “two Americas,” and what that might mean for environmental issues. 

Now we have reached an utterly bizarre position.  Global warming directly threatens every coastal city and every ecosystem on the planet, and entire human cultures of the far North, and yet the party in power in Washington and most states that will be hardest hit by drought and water shortages in the West and rising seas on the coasts refuse to do anything about it. Now that's a partition.  

MOJO: Politics has galvanized and hardened tribal identity. Is that reflected in the thinking of young minds on campus?

SNOW: My students today are utterly shocked to learn that the Endangered Species Act, perhaps the strongest of all the federal environmental laws passed in the 70s, went through with hardly a dissenting vote.  Nixon, a Republican, signed it and the Clean Water Act, too.  The etceteras go on and on.

What do my students face today?  Well, one was in my office just this week reporting to me that she and many of her generation are strongly considering a life without children.  The world is getting too grim for child-bearing to feel like a positive moral choice.  That may be sad and shocking, but it isn’t new. 

I told that student about Stephanie Mills’ 1969 commencement address at Mills College, “The Future Is a Cruel Hoax.”  Stephanie, a graduating senior then, said, “I am terribly saddened by the fact that the most humane thing for me to do is to have no children at all.  But the piper is finally demanding payment.”  
Whitman College's "Semester in the West" students, also known as "Westies," gather to discuss events of the day. Every evening, students come together in a circle and share observations.  They are camped along the Upper Missouri River in Montana discussing the indigenous West, Lewis & Clark, and the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument.  Semester in the West, which involves students ground-truthing myth, legend, culture and politics, is led by Snow's colleague, Phil Brick, but together, at the campus in Walla Walla, Washington, they and colleagues have tried to build a place-based curriculum. Photo by Todd Wilkinson
Whitman College's "Semester in the West" students, also known as "Westies," gather to discuss events of the day. Every evening, students come together in a circle and share observations. They are camped along the Upper Missouri River in Montana discussing the indigenous West, Lewis & Clark, and the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument. Semester in the West, which involves students ground-truthing myth, legend, culture and politics, is led by Snow's colleague, Phil Brick, but together, at the campus in Walla Walla, Washington, they and colleagues have tried to build a place-based curriculum. Photo by Todd Wilkinson
MOJO: So, are generational comparisons being exaggerated?

SNOW: I do see some helplessness, and I do hear some tones of despair, but what I mostly hear are questions and pleas for meaningful involvement.  I do not agree that so-called Millennials are jaded, cynical, or disconnected.  I think many are rightfully confused, in ways I was not, because so many avenues that were open to my generation now seem either closed or futile.  I push back pretty hard against that sense by pointing out three things, over and over.

MOJO: Those three things are….

SNOW: First, most environmental enactments are made today at the state, county, and local level – and in Native American issues, at the tribal government level. Too tight a focus on federal gridlock and decay can lead to paralysis.  I tell ‘em to fight it.  Look to where good things are happening, and try to work there.

Second, there are still huge terrains for environmental action outside of the “traditional” centers of regulation and management. Some free-market approaches are great, and far less fettered by federal stasis. Look at the astonishing work of the American Prairie Reserve right there in Montana. Lots of businesses want to green up, and they need help.  Look to the private sector, as you continue to invest in the public.  Look to opportunities for collaborative enterprise – those “coalitions of the unalike” I started writing about back in the ‘90s.  Great things get done when former adversaries bring their diverse expertise to the table.  

Third, dedicate yourself to the thing that most refreshes your spirit.  For me, it’s beauty – of the kind I find ceaselessly in nature and art (literature mostly, since I’m a lifelong word-guy).  The human span of mind and action is so immense: horrific ugliness and hatred at one end; soaring beauty and the even more soaring appreciation of it at the other.  We’re mammals with metaphysical minds, and we need – we positively need– things to live for.  Find that north star and follow it.  It’s so very easy not to see it at all today.  Too much carbon in the air.
"It’s true – there is generally less interest and enthusiasm for wildlands conservation, per se. In fact, students today are being taught to sneer at it. There’s a potent literature out there which depicts the orginal wildlands conservation movement as privileged, white, racist, nativist, and four or five others 'ists' we’ve been taught to despise."  —Snow
MOJO: Academia pays a lot of attention to environmental social justice issues and yet there seems to be a dismissiveness when it comes to recognizing the urgent need of safeguarding habitat for other species to exist—a foundational aspect of wildlands conservation.

SNOW: It’s true – there is generally less interest and enthusiasm for wildlands conservation, per se. In fact, students today are being taught to sneer at it. There’s a potent literature out there which depicts the orginal wildlands conservation movement as privileged, white, racist, nativist, and four or five others “ists” we’ve been taught to despise.  When the emphasis is placed only on the human side of the wildlands conservation argument, it’s very easy to – as we like to say in academia – “problematize” most conservation histories and strategies.   But this is what I tell students:

I quote an old Grace Slick line from a Jefferson Airplane classic,  “doesn’t mean shit to a tree.” 

MOJO: And the translation is?

SNOW: Pay more attention to the non-human side of the wildlands conservation argument. The lands (and waters) themselves; the wildlife and plant life, fungi, soil ecologies.  In a word, habitat

Wildlands conservation efforts, from the 19thcentury until today, have tried to be responsible for what David Abram calls the more-than-human world.  That attention to the non-human doesn’t excuse or forgive insensitivity to people, but noticing its deeper implications can really help restore some contemporary faith in wildlands protection.  Keep the center of the target clear.  The center of the target happens to be the original center of the conservation-environmental movement in the first place: human concern for the non-human world, in the face of exploding human populations, technologies, economies, cities, footprints.  It doesn’t make you a misanthrope to say so. 

MOJO: Critical theorists on many college campuses are teaching students to dismiss wildlands conservation, claiming it doesn’t possess validity or relevance because it was a construct largely of white males. 

SNOW: It would be a colossal mistake to turn our backs on wildlands protection because we’ve been told that John Muir and Aldo Leopold were privileged white guys. The best thing we can do with and for wildlands is to work a lot harder to share them sensitively with people who don’t get many chances in life to fall in love with wild nature.  Those kinds of places speak for themselves, if given a chance.  If we let them all go, they’ll never get a chance – and neither will those people for whom the anti-wild crusade claims to care about.  

MOJO: What is the antidote? If a Whitman student says, "I don't care about the survival of a grizzly bear. I want another trail to mountain bike on?" What do you suggest they consider?

SNOW: Restoring faith and interest in quietude, contemplation, solitude, natural beauty, respect toward beings outside of ourselves.  

Leopold said, in reference to species extinction, “for one creature to mourn the passing of another is a new thing under the sun.”  He penned that line en route to his articulation of a land ethic in Sand County Almanac.  I consider it to be one of the most radical and profound lines in the book.  
"Wild places were not set 'apart' for the mere purposes of human pleasure and self-gratification.  The Bob Marshall Wilderness Area should not be renamed Fun Hog High Speed Wheeled Machine  Place."  —Snow 
What is not a new thing under the sun is the gluttonous feeding of the human ego. Wild places were not set “apart” for the mere purposes of human pleasure and self-gratification.  The Bob Marshall Wilderness Area should not be renamed Fun Hog High Speed Wheeled Machine  Place. 

It’s true that things change over time.  It’s not true that all change is for the better.

MOJO: Whitman has a good track record of turning out students who do get involved in community organizations and conservation and progressive-minded entrepreneurial businesses. What is important to a student's incubation?

SNOW: The classical goals and verities of a liberal arts education.  Critical thinking skills; the ability to write clearly and compellingly; the acquisition and development of a reading-life; a deep sense of compassion toward all human beings; sensitivity toward the dilemmas of privilege; a willingness to serve, and the humility to do so; an abiding respect for truth.  Yes, I still believe in truth.  

To those, I would add something I’ve pointed to several times in this interview: our traditions in this part of the world teach us to be a megalomanical species.  Our Euro-American culture is radically selfish – selfish at the root – in that we have normalized the failure to imagine other lives.  In the entire Bible, only two animals speak (the serpent, symbol of evil, in Genesis; and an ass in Numbers).  That fact can be taken to be a substantial silencing of the natural world – especially if we look at it in light of other cultures’ cosmogonies.  I want my liberal arts students to catch at least some glimmerings of a therio-centric imagination, meaning an imagination which can accommodate the “beast” (Gk., therion), centrally.  It’s a start toward a different kind of resurrection.
Increase our impact by sharing this story.