Some thoughts: Brave New West by Jim Stiles

Old West versus New West? Sometimes it’s difficult to tell that anything has changed at all. The extractive industries are alive and well. The glitter had a different glint, that’s all.Jim Stiles, Brave New West

The small desert town I call home, population 10,000 if we include the surrounding areas, sees over three-million visitors a year.

In many ways, Moab now follows the classic ski-town model. A model that means lots of vacation homes and hotels, jobs almost entirely centered around the tourist and service trade.

Without three-million tourists ATVing, hiking, biking, paddling, etc. where would Moab be?  Would it be another modern semi-ghost town where the mining days are long gone? Is it inevitable that Moab followed the path it did? Perhaps there’s a middle way? And is the town of Moab a model that other western communities should follow?

The book Brave New West by Jim Stiles asks these questions and makes you think about them. First published in 2007, the book perhaps holds more meaning now be it for Moab or similar towns in the “New West.”

Jim Stiles is a bit of a regional legend. He worked in Arches as a ranger in the late 1970s, counted Eb Abbey and Ken Sleight among his friends, publishes the always interesting Canyon Country Zephyr, and provided some thoughtful commentary on a recent Bears Ears documentary.

I may not always agree with the views of Stiles. But I can respect them. And, more importantly, his thoughtful writings make me reconsider my views and actions.

And that is my overall view of this book. I may not agree with all Stiles wrote, but I certainly appreciate what I read and how it made me think.

If there is a central thesis to the book, it is that the “New West” values of ecotourism might be more harmful than traditional “bad” industries in some ways.

If someone drives hundreds of miles from Boulder to mountain bike 10-miles on the Slickrock Trail, is that better than a rancher who uses an ATV on BLM land he leases? Why are hundreds of runners going through the desert better than a lone pickup on a dirt road? Is one form of exploiting the area (selling gear, tours, building condos, and hotels to house the ecotourists) better than other types of exploitation?

In my opinion, there is no 100%correct  answer. I live minimally, yet part of my income stream means I guide mainly affluent people through the desert who flew and drove to my desert town — people whose own lives aren’t perhaps minimal. In my personal experience, I embody the odd dichotomy inherent in the allegedly green-friendly industries.

Fortuitously, Backpacker Comics posted a comic today (11/22) that also explores the odd dichotomy of the New West or the outdoor industry in general:

 

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Poking some holes in the conventional wisdom.

A post shared by Backpacker Comics (@backpacker_comics) on

Celebrate simplicity, yet focusing on the tools themselves. And able to celebrate this simple lifestyle because of higher socio-economic mobility from self or inherited via cultural capital.

And I do mean outdoors industry as the industry needs to sell new gear and experiences continuously to grow or even sustain itself.  Arguably the New West ends up being more of a consumerist culture than the ranchers and miners who might “exploit” the land. Mainly due to their modest financial means more than anything, perhaps, live a more simple lifestyle in truth rather than aspirational myth.

Of course, it is easy to overly romanticize the ranchers and miners as Stiles does at times, in my opinion. After all, part of the romantic mythos of the rancher is because of government-subsidized land and water rights that enable the lifestyle, at least in part.

But the overall arc of the book checks out, in my opinion: Is the exploitation of public land for financial gain a good thing?

I have no answers.  And, as mentioned, I am perhaps guilty of this hypocrisy too. And the question deserves more nuance. What I do know is that Brave New West informed, made me think, and challenged my views. And what more can I ask from a book?

I think any reader who wants to understand where “The West” might head in the years ahead should read Brave New West.  This book is now in my pantheon of books I’ll suggest for people who want to know a bit more the underpinning of the region I’ve called home for twenty years. (Some other books I recommend? Cadillac Desert, of course. Along the similarly focused Backbone of the World. And finally, An Empire Wilderness by Robert D. Kaplan.)

Stiles quotes a speech by Robert F. Kennedy shortly before his death that I think encapsulates both the heart of Stiles philosophy and the heart of any who love the land regardless of political views:

 Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product – if we judge the United States of America by that – that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. 

It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them.  It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. 

It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities.  It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. 

Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play.  It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. 

What is the value of public land? And should it be measured by financial gain, whether mining or biking?  Read Brave New West, think about the issues raised, and form your own opinions beyond catchy memes found on Instagram or Facebook.

Disclosure: I purchased Brave New West with my funds.

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