Why Mike Lee is not full of it

A week ago the junior Senator* from Utah caused a good stir with a speech that all you readers ought to peruse, as it is both better and worse than the typical outpourings of press releases and 250 word “articles” have made it to be.  I’ll pick some nits in conclusion, but it’s worth hopping over Lee’s questionable history and logic, straight to the best point he makes, that tourism and recreation are not for rural America the panacea that popular opinion likes to make them.  As Lee writes

The radical wing of the environmental movement today is a multi-billion dollar juggernaut that uses its cultural and economic influence to rig the game against hard- working rural America.

It is an alliance of privilege between a new class of royalty: celebrities, activists, and corporate elites who want to save the Earth at the expense of our rural communities.

They delight in seeing vast swathes of untouched lands, fulfilling their idyllic notions of the West.

They envision a landscape dotted only with picturesque resort towns that exist for their pleasure: destinations where they can jet in, spend a few days at the cabin and the shops, take a few pictures of some animals, and then retreat to their enclaves on the coasts.

A charming picture—for them.

Less charming is the picture for the people who live in these areas full time. While tourism has contributed much to the West, communities can’t survive on it alone.

It is a complement to – not a substitute – for broader economic development.

Skip the rhetoric and political red meat and focus on the content they largely cloak.  Are Moab and Aspen (or Crested Butte, or Jackson), or even the less extreme examples of Bend or Bozeman (or Flagstaff, or Laramie), what anyone in the rural west would actually want to hold up as the future?  A tourist economy brings seasonal, and generally low wage, employment, and in fairly short order vacation homes and tourist infrastructure which creates three classes of “normal” permanent residents:

  • seasonal bums, generally young at heart if not also of age, and content to pay big dollars for a couch, closet, or parking space
  • old timers who got in just before the golden days and are weighing the rate their nest egg (e.g. real estate) fattens versus the rate their cartilage decays
  • couples and families working a few too many hours and paying far too much mortgage to get in while they can

When public school teachers and the folks who manage your favorite hangout begin to slide out of the third category, it doesn’t take long for the fabric of a town to become thin indeed, the few thick strands left not enough to catch anyone not just passing by to enjoy the view.  Folks who are new to the whole western scene are generally wowed enough by places like CB and Moab that they don’t see through the facade at all, don’t realize that the barrista commutes 45 minutes each way by bus, and the only reason the 2nd grade teacher they chatted with on the lift can own that perfect house two dirt blocks off main is that his spouse inherited it from great-grandpa miner, or is the head lawyer for the ski hill.  What these same folks almost always don’t realize is that the facade seems so perfect and invisible because it was shaped, by the anonymously intentional force that is culture, exactly for people like them.

It’s quite a bit easier to see the dirty skeleton of Moab, as the town has grown so quickly and so much and so ungracefully.  No goes to La Hacienda and likes it, something which was been true for decades, and yet rather than the 1 hour wait for a table being a regular feature 5 months a year, as it was 15 years ago, that season has grown to 9 months.  This article by Outside Magazine, on Emery County’s quest to build a tourist economy out of Joe’s Valley and the San Rafael Swell, encounters what we might as well call the Moab Question without actually engaging with it.  Do the folks mentioned expect their kids to take over the coffee shop, and would they ever have considered starting it without a spouse whose job provided a steady, reasonable or better income, and presumably along with it, health insurance?  Then again, what choice did they have?

Lee would doubtlessly pipe in here to remind us that families loosing extractive incomes and viable ranching operations is part of what starts the spiral towards sprawl and housing problems.  Cows not condos, as you’ll see on bumper stickers.  The Outside article mentions that local economies around Grand Staircase expanded in the 21st century.  What the article doesn’t mention, but the report it cites makes quite plain, is that a not insignificant part of that increase has been in non-labor benefits, in this case, more residents retiring and going on Medicaid and Social Security.  What the report and article fail to mention is the steady decline in school enrollment, with Escalante High having a total of 67 students (and 4 teachers) in 2016.  Perhaps more growth, and more sustainable growth, is yet to come, but Escalante and the monument with which it has become associated ask real questions about how well conservation can be justified on economic grounds.

This is the flip side of stoke not saving us; a recreation-based economy which incentivizes, and perhaps in the end demands, that those most attuned with big empty wild places not live too close to them.  But if, as Mr. Linck contends, attachment to a place is the most probable driver of long term conversation, are we forced to relegate that to expensive long-distance vacations.  And even to increasingly expensive (but still far less, comparatively) fees for public campgrounds, rentals, and park passes?

One model, which the aforementioned second tier towns (Bend, Flag, etc) have done well with, is to invest in recreation infrastructure as a means to be more competitive on the quality of life front.  Our own little city has a free biking and hiking shuttle, which seems to be 80-90% locals on any given evening.  It’s a draw regionally, and a talking point, but more importantly it is simply an awesome thing to have on hand.  It, and the trails right out the back door it serves, fosters place attachment in a broad swath of folks, and hopefully serves as a model for the future of the western US.

In his speech Lee asks the rhetorical question of why the western states turned out differently than the east, why they have been as he says “handicapped” with so much public land.  The answer, as he is surely well aware, is that by 1890 we were as a country finally figuring things out.  The frontier was officially closed.  People like Theodore Roosevelt were connecting the lose of the bison with the loss of far bigger things, spiritually and ecologically.  No one in the 21st century will ever see what it was like for a squirrel to go from the Ohio to Lake Erie without touching the ground, but anyone who cares to can see clear mountain water flowing through the unroaded labyrinth of the Escalante.  This is so because a few people convinced the many that it was important.

Lee sees himself doing something similar, taking back local land for local people.  And this is important.  It is also important to recognize that those who live far away can have an attachment to a place, and that living somewhere so different can create a perspective and appreciation that is can be more acute precisely because of the sense of contrast, even loss.  On the one hand places like Escalante are overdue; they rode a bubble of cutting and digging and grazing subsidies that were never sustainable.  Just like the logging towns of western Montana and the Pacific NW have had to painfully graduate from the brief era of large clearcuts to the modern era of targeted ones, so to will the desert SW have to find out what a proper way of life actually looks like.  The scary prospect today is having someone like Mike Lee oversee this process.  It’s easy to see him having his way, and the 22nd century opening on a Colorado Plateau with a lot more holes, roads, and condos, without any more multi-generational connections.

Lee claims he wants to give power back to the people, but his sense of “the people” is far too narrow in both time and space.


*Let’s all take a moment and recall what a decent person Bob Bennett was, perhaps the Tea Parties most ignominious casualty.


9 responses to “Why Mike Lee is not full of it”

  1. It’s nice to hear a measured opinion that actually acknowledges what so many locals feel and know. So few environmental types bother admitting the tourism jobs are a band-aid at best. As a poor local working-class kid in Coastal NorCal, I feel like I somewhat understand what Utah locals feel like. I can’t imagine an excellent solution, but I pray there is one. It would be awesome to see healthy jobs with real wages flourish in tandem with protection for parks.

  2. Glad you have the time and sensibilities to write such Things. Lee raises some good issues as you say. Power back to the people? Nah. You were kind, sorta to him and we still have it.
    A small group is always the core of political action in a Republic.

    “But stoke fundamentally centers on the self and the quality of human experience, and thus has no intrinsic stake in biodiversity or ecosystem stability. More than anything else about recreation culture and its relationship to conservation, this troubles me.”
    When you realize only a certain set of personality types actually perceive, value like life itself, the long term sensibilities of a total eco preservation then false hopes don’t give way to despair, instead if you are one of those, it is incumbent on you to become, be and stay involved. Many of the Others will follow and be thankful.
    Just like this Posting.

    Very complex issue and they center on the false ideas of Individualism and American Exceptionalism.

    Thx Dave.

  3. As usual, I’m struggling to adequately voice what I want to say, but practice makes perfect.

    As the previous poster noted, the measured opinion is very much welcome. Tourism is not a panacea (although I will note it’s Spain main’s industry and they manage to exceed us in many measures of quality of life), and just on grounds of fairness nor can everything we decided based on the desires of tourism and preservation. As much as I would love to protect every inch of wilderness possible, our existence will always involve taking from it, i.e. destroying some part of it (even if it’s just a road to access some part of it).

    Anyway, I digress, but I think your measured approach is what is lacking today in politics. While I appreciate the truth contained in Lee’s message, I don’t trust him not to be abusing it for what is the opposite extreme of the tourism problem as described here. There seems to be so little, I don’t even want to call it middle ground, but rather thoughtful consideration of all people involved (American selfishness, or as the most annoying want to call it American individualism?). Everyone currently with power (although I’ll make no bones, I feel the extreme conservatives are the worst at this), instead of governing, seems to be pushing their own, self-protecting and self-enriching, agenda and supporting it upon emotion evoking concerns of their constituents in an attempt to rile them and gain their support while hamstringing them along the way.

    But still, what I see as ultimately Lee’s attempt to make the rich richer is ultimately the same problem (if approached from the opposite side) you so accurately describe with the left’s ecotourism industry…the middle class and lower, regardless of side, is left with little upon which to build sustainable lives. And as I read through your post, both things returned me to an idea I have been mulling over as central to America’s current problem: the stratification of job status. Everyone, liberal or conservative, devalues so many jobs in America…hardware store clerk is a low paid (and low knowledge) job now rather than a proud career. Even the coffee shop or diner you mention…I don’t see why running one should not be a sustainable adventure. Or barbers…most would view it as a lower status job, and yet, it serves a function that I see as pretty integral and of value to daily life.
    America for all it’s “love of hard work” consistently insists on devaluing hard work unless it is done in a position predetermined to be of value (and again, all do this…how many times was I told as a kid, “that job sucks…get a college education so you don’t have to do it” or similar).

    Now, I’m not advocating for any sort of communist pay scale, but rather a return to appreciating what each job provides (whether it’s a stock boy at Wal-mart supplying the middle class with all the cheap merchandise it buys with it’s higher status job), and actually providing a living wage. Along those lines I firmly believe in Universal Healthcare (again, which isn’t to say it wouldn’t be hard at first)…when you don’t have to worry about breaking a bone or getting cancer and going bankrupt, one is liberated to enjoy a wider variety of jobs and build a life one enjoys, as opposed to one focused on what one earns…and again a living wage contributes to this.

    It just kills me that the message of “get off your ass and get a job” is then changed to “oh yeah, get a real job” in order to continue to devalue people and deny them a chance at the life baby boomers reaped. I know the jobs my grandparents and parents had, and none of those jobs today (with the possible exception of one) would allow me to obtain the comfort in life they achieved. And yet, that is the time period of values we are supposedly destroying as we seek progress?

    So in short, I guess my message is rather than worrying about the grand industries fighting for control over an area and what they might offer, maybe the focus should be on making sure the individuals in those areas start with a certain level of respect and value neither industry can exploit. Industry culling interest by promising whatever appeals to people’s fears and interests inverts what see as the direction of life.

    And on a last note, a bitter liberal one (that is totally biased), I have seen numerous hunting accounts call on people to protest Lee’s plan in order to protect public lands. But considering how red so many of those Western states are, I find the request not just a little bit frustrating, near sighted, and selfish. I can’t help but imagine that so many upset by his plans also wholeheartedly threw down on this disgusting administration and the representatives who support him and limiting environmental protections. But hey, when it interferes with your desire to hunt, sure, call on everyone to do something to help you out.

    Maybe I’m wrong though. I’d be happier if I knew I was.

    1. Collin, have you read Mat Stewart’s Atlantic essay from last month (https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/06/the-birth-of-a-new-american-aristocracy/559130/)? Addresses the structural complexity of class stratification better than any other single source I’ve seen.

      Political parties (in America especially) grow into a certain moment in history and then have to jump or lurch after 60-100 years when that moment has passed (i.e. the people raised in that moment have died off). The GOP is in the thick of that, just like the Democrats were in the 1930s. While distance papers over a lot of the bumps of the FDR years, it is fair to say that the GOP lacks a leader of stature sufficient to ease their transition towards a conservatism that isn’t based on failed cultural stances and corporate graft.

      It might be that modern medicine and health are prolonging this cultural process. A century ago someone of Trumps age and habits would probably already be dead, along with a larger percentage of the people most likely to vote for him.

      1. Great article…I hadn’t seen it as honestly I don’t read much, although I know I should. Thank you.

        It reminded me of two things I think about a lot…
        1. privilege, which has become such a polemic word, but I think is so very accurate. Americans love to think that if they aren’t doing outright wrong, they are doing right, but as the author basically notes, just because you’re not enclosed in a golden castle ignoring the problems of the world, doesn’t mean you aren’t living in a closed world, ignoring the problems (school systems for instance) and making them worse.
        2. I think what he speaks of is at play in the various strata of the 90%. I have often mused that my generation (which isyours) is in many ways living in a bubble, benefiting from the wealth accumulated by our Baby Boomer parents, even if they didn’t reach the 9.9%. I know because of mine I have low debt in terms of education, vehicle, and even house (relatively speaking). While I have a good job, what I have is not commensurate with that job alone, but rather that job and what advantages my parents were able to offer me. I think many of my generation will suffer when that help runs out, and even more so when many realize they can’t provide it to their own children…their children in turn representing the millennials and their complaints about college debt and housing processes. Problems I see continuing to develop from pits into chasms unless something changes, especially as education deviates farther from it’s definition toward a product purchased with money and a modest investment of attention to the professor.
        Likewise, the way doctors and physicians and CEO’s look at the working class is the same way most of my friends in the working class look at employees at Walmart or in fast food..as less deserving, as having less merit.

        One last thing related to the article: my jaw literally dropped when my doctor friend told me Bank of America would give him up to $1,000,000 to buy a house despite several thousand in school loans, and only I think 10K to put down as a down payment. And they would do that just because he’s a doctor.

        Your comments on the evolution of political parties is interesting as well. I can’t believe how bound to antiquated cultural stances many Republicans are, especially at the expense of other stances that will truly define their quality of life.

        Other than that I’ll say one day I hope to have a beer with you and talk about these things. Hopefully things are on a different course by then though.

  4. Scary to have Mr Lee oversee- scary might not be strong enough

    Boulder, Jackson not good models to follow- definitely

    Hopefully some middle ground can be found and I’ve always found a good douse of common sense never hurts

  5. It is hard to see what the alternative is – unless it is some kind of managed development, including subsides for many ranchers (most of the small operations in WY are subsidized by second jobs anyway).
    Suck on that Mike Lee.

    And it is a mistake to include activities like mining with Ag.
    Addiction to boom, bust and meth has no side benefits

  6. […] which makes up that town.  Along with Moab, it is the ideal, simple example of how tourism is not the answer to maintaining a livable and thus sustainably wild western […]

  7. […] in short, is not a sustainable answer to how a community can exist. What is an answer, as many of the non-trophy […]

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