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Utility vs recreation: the ultimate land-use debate

There is a strange gap between the views of those who spend enormous amounts of time outdoors utilizing the land for activities such as ranching and those who spend time outdoors in pursuit of recreation.  Often at odds with each other are mainstream environmentalists and farmers, ranchers, loggers, fishermen, miners and others working in the outdoor environment. What is often not acknowledged are the complex, even contradictory world views that each group holds.  It isn’t so black and white that those who work in the oil field, for instance, don’t appreciate the environment while dedicated backpackers do. Robert Moore, writing about surveying an extension of the Appalachian Trail through Morocco with a local pathfinder, Hammou, in his book On Trails captures this idea near perfectly:

“Hammou and I differed radically in our regard for the landscape.  I had often felt that Hammou saw the Atlas Mountains as nothing more than impediments to our progress, and that he, like New England farmers of yore, would gladly flatten them if he could.  This kind of thinking in the United States had ultimately led to a deeply destructive mindset, the most obvious manifestation of which was a string of notorious Appalachian mining operations involving the literal removal of mountaintops.  But I had overlooked the possibility that Hammou, who had grown up among these mountains, might have a connection to them that was subtler but vastly more intimate than what I felt for my beloved Appalachians…”

Moore goes onto explain how Hammou recited with a smile on his face the route he, Moore and another guide had taken through the mountains completely from memory.  The route passing several mountains, villages and landmarks Hammou knew.

The strangeness of how different people have different views and connections to the land is one that can be captured in different forms in the persons of both Edward Abbey and Theodore Roosevelt.  Both men were extremely individual and both revered wild landscape of the west and western culture. Both men came west from more eastern areas and each had their own differing lives in the west. Ultimately, Roosevelt returned east after making prolonged sojourns and Abbey made the west his permanent home.  Each man had different views on how the landscape should be protected and each occupies an important but very different place in the pantheon of American environmentalism.

Roosevelt worked as a rancher on his beloved Elkhorn Ranch, near Madora in the North Dakota Badlands.  This is also where Teddy Roosevelt hunted Bison, before he worked on a breeding and reintroduction program for the endangered mammal.  For modern environmentalists, many who are vegetarian and often detest ranching, especially on public lands; it’s hard to reconcile Roosevelt the rancher and hunter with Roosevelt the father of American Conservation.  Roosevelt himself after establishing the backbone of public lands in the U.S. turned his back on John Muir and failed to prevent the flooding of Hetch Hetchy Valley.

Abbey himself is something of a conundrum.  Books like The Monkey Wrench Gang and Desert Solitaire Abbey rallies against the control of ‘wild’ places by the federal government while simultaneously working for them.  Abbey was a military veteran, social worker and a professor who is better known as an Anarchist. At the heart of his contradictions is how he viewed the western lands he so well loved.  Abbey’s use of a cowboy as his hero in his second novel, The Brave Cowboy is telling.  Ed Abbey even talks about working for ranchers moving cattle in Desert Solitaire.  Yet later in his career, as Terry McDonell, one of Ed Abbey’s previous editors at Outside wrote:

“He was writing and giving speeches about how the beef industry’s abuse of our Western lands is based on the old mythology of the cowboy as a natural nobleman, the most cherished and fanciful of American fairy tales.”

I find a bit of the contradiction between utilizing the land and enjoying it within myself actually.  Although I don’t often bring it up, I worked for a season in oil and gas exploration in the western United States, and it bothers me that some of my work at an unthinking time of my life might damage such beautiful lands as I worked.  I also remind myself that I continue to use gasoline and continue to be culpable in the destruction of lands near and far. More importantly, I remember hiking all day through rough desert country to drill holes in the land. I remember the driller I was working with raising his arm over the desert of southwestern Colorado and saying, “This is your office,” implying the streak of luck that we were both working there in a beautiful, rough land.  I remember riding home in a helicopter at the end of the day, watching cliff dwellings pass before my eyes and falling easily into deep, untroubled sleep in the hotel of that night. Many of the conversations I had with the men I worked with in oil and gas exploration were about the landscape, a delicate arrow head found, national parks in the area. At the end of the day oil, gas, lumber is about what the land can give you; it’s about extracting something, not giving back.  

Commercial paleontology, a business I’ve worked for much longer, is also about extracting but in different ways.  To mount the skeleton of an extinct animal is to be intimate in a certain way with that creature. Most of the people I know in paleontology enjoy landscapes now as well as the past landscape they recreate in their minds.  Commercial paleontology is about digging things out of the Earth, but it’s usually small scale and less destructive. I remember sipping beer with a paleontologist next to the truck at the end of the day, watching deer graze in the quiet twilight.  Another man I’ve worked for told me the field is where he goes to heal body and spirit, speaking about the therapy of working to exhaustion and the beauty of place. Paleontology is about extraction like oil and gas but it also depends on an acknowledgment of inherit beauty in the natural world. has a detailed survey that I took on my views related to conservation.  Although I consider myself an environmentalist and not a conservationist, the two are similar and I found the survey enlightening.  The graph at the end of the survey comparing my views to those of others has two axis, one which shows how compatible I view capitalism to be with conservation, the other showing how much I view human good to be compatible with conservation.  The graph left me in a lonely place, I was right in the middle on how compatible human needs are with conservation goals. I was at the bottom of how compatible I consider conservation to be with capitalism. From my experience those in the business of extracting from nature tend to view it as a resource capable of great regeneration, something to be used.  Many of the people I’ve worked with and talked to over the years appreciate the beauty but think that they can and should take from nature for their own and the economies benefit.

In some ways those I worked with in the oil field have more in common than I do with the ‘New Conservation’ school of thought.  The New Conservationists use economy and emphasis of the utility of nature as a tool for conservation. I feel much the same as Jack Turner when he noted in The Abstract Wild, “The new economic conservationists think they are being rational; I think they treat Mother Nature like a whorehouse.”

The difference between the two groups is largely one of scale; I believe that many of those logging forests, fishing oceans and yes, drilling for oil are willing to protect some nature as long as their livelihood isn’t threatened.  The main difference is how much is too much when it comes to using nature.

The difference between how Native Americans and mainstream environmentalists has also often been noted.  Joni Adamson in American Indian Literature, Environmental Justice, and Ecocriticism: The Middle Place notes that the American Indian students she worked with were more likely to be utilitarian in their environmentalism than many in the mainstream.  American Indians are more likely to have a strong tradition of working the land, where many European American environmentalists are divorced from this type of labor.  The difference is often seen in Native American views acknowledge landscapes as having long been inhabited by people rather than as pristine wilderness. Adamson notes in her book writing of Ed Abbey:

“At various points in Desert Solitaire, he constructs nature as “escape,” but at others as “home.”  As escape, wilderness becomes a paradise, an Eden, a place that existed before the corruption inherent in the civilized world.”

The point here I think is the contradiction between those who identify as merely using the land and those who identify as merely enjoying it.  Every person on the planet uses the environment for their food, shelter, water, entertainment and all other needs and wants. I hope every person on the planet also enjoys the environment in some capacity and I have no reason to think it isn’t so.  

Those people working in extraction industries tend not to be the wealthiest or most highly educated people.  Environmentalists tend to be educated and relatively wealthy. A survey done by the Carsey Institute on people in the Puget Sound region showed that people in urban areas are more likely to view environmental issues as a problem, people living in rural areas are more likely to view economic issues as a problem.  This is the heart of the problem. People in both areas seem to see only one side of the coin.

To really understand nature we must acknowledge our dependence on it.  Working a farm, fishing the ocean, even mineral extraction shows us that we depend on the planet for our life.  We must also acknowledge that the joy, peace, wonder and happiness we can have in this life is dependent on the beautiful planet we live in.

The utilitarian view is often short sighted, based on making money or a living from nature without acknowledging the inherit values and dare I say rights of the land to exist.  Many utilitarian views also fail to take into account common sense sustainability issues.

The view of recreationists and many environmentalists also have a limited view of the world.  Many working in the environmental field pretend that they can solve all the problems by something as simple as making people care.  We first need to recognize our own sins, our own culpability. Anyone reading this uses electricity in some form or other and has an environmental impact.  Anyone eating has an environmental impact. Many environmentalists (myself included) fly in airplanes, drive motor vehicles and at least sometimes use electricity from fossil fuels.  We do need to change industry but it’s my view that capitalism as a ‘force for good’ won’t do it.  I have just as little faith in technical changes. We need to learn to live with less. We need to work the land ourselves and understand what we’re taking if we really want to save it.             

By Zach Fitzner, Contributing Writer

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