Thursday, October 4, 2012

Consuming the rural, as a matter of privilege

Rural and urban folks alike "consume" the rural.  One way in which both do so is as hikers, campers and hunters on public lands.  Two recent pieces in the New York Times discuss possible changes to the availability of these lands, especially in the West.

The first piece was Timothy Egan's, The Geography of Nope, in which he writes of current conservative/Republican efforts to "tear away at [the] inheritance" that is our nation's "great, unfenced public domain" which he calls "the envy of the rest of world."  Egan asserts that the Republican presidential ticket has endorsed a "radical plan to overhaul a century of sensible balance" regarding use of national parks, national forests, and other public lands, most of them located in the Western part of the United States.  Most colorfully, Egan writes:
Handing over millions of acres of public land has long been a dream borne on the vapors of single-malt Scotch sipped inside trophy homes in the 1 percent ZIP codes of the West.
While the idea of handing over these lands usually vanishes, Egan asserts, it has persisted this year, and he challenges the moderator of the Presidential debates to raise the issue in that setting, essentially to put Governor Romney on the spot.

Of course, Jim Lehrer did not put the candidates on the spot tonight, but Romney did mention the public-private divide among lands where oil exploration is taking place.  Here's a subsequent commentary on that issue.

The second piece was Jack Healy's story about a Koch brother's effort to join two segments of ranch he owns near Paonia, Colorado by gaining access to a chunk of land long held by the public.  The story is headlined, "Political and Class Issues Complicate a Colorado Land Dispute," and here's the lede:
This is a story of a quiet billionaire and a middle-class mountain town, of class divisions, small- town quarrels and competing visions of the future of the West.  
It goes on to describe the land that Koch wants as "the corridor" sheepherders used a century ago "to drive their flocks from valley floors to high grazing grounds without crossing private property."
For decades after, it was mostly forgotten by everyone but a few hunters and hikers--one of dozens of such access strips that stipple maps of the West like a shower of hyphens.   
But recently, Mr. Koch has made it perhaps the most contested ground for miles around, setting off  a debate about private property and public access, privilege and tradition in an era when boutique ranches and sprawling new Western manors are brushing up against working-class rural communities.
Healy reports that Koch offered the government a deal that would give him access to that corridor and some other public lands--a total of 1690 acres that would bridge the divide between the two parts of his 4500-acre ranch.  In exchange, Koch would give the government "two smaller but more valuable and often visited private parcels to the National Park Service."  One of those parcels is in Dinosaur National Monument, near the Utah-Colorado state line, while the other is "near a dazzling reservoir" some 70 miles from Paonia.  Koch has also proposed building "23 miles of trails and new access routes to the forest and wilderness" as part of the trade.

Healy colorfully expresses the response to this proposal in terms that highlight the class issues:
Opponents saw it as a land grab, one that brought the chasm between rich America and just-getting-by America right to their corner of the Rockies.  To the staunchest opponents, it was simple: a powerful out-of-town landowner wanted to close public lands in their backyard so he could have the run of his.
And so this conflict on Colorado's Western slope--like the proposal to which Egan refers--raises issues about who is entitled to consume rural America, at least as manifest in public lands.

And since I mentioned hunting (as did Egan at the outset of his piece), I can't resist the link to this story from the front page of the New York Times a few days ago, "New Breed of Hunter Shoots, Eats and Writes." Since I'm on the subject class here, I can resist this quote from journalist Dwight Garner's review of several new books by young hunters:
But I liked the way [author Georgia Pelligrini] pays attention to class issues, noting how expensive hunting has become and how much of the prime hunting land is available only to the wealthy. 

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