Heidenreich and Gass: CDT Thru-hikers

An Innocent Abroad: Being Green in the Wild West
By Adrianne Gass
  |  Gorp.com

"You're not an environmentalist, are you?"

More people asked Sarah and I this question as we traveled through New Mexico than anywhere we'd ever been. And it's ubiquitous—in a car, by the side of the road, at someone's house—and usually when the person is already doing us a favor. There is also, almost always, an implied negative connotation attached to the e-word. If we answer "yes" it feels like we'd be admitting that we eat small children for breakfast. Most of the time I just nod, neither denying nor confirming what feels like an accusation, and let the conversation continue.

I actually earned my undergraduate degree in environmental studies, and it has absorbed my life for the past four years. I am intrigued by questions of how people interact with the land and how to balance and find a correct place for humans on earth—neither separating ourselves from the rest of existence nor reverting to an earlier way of life that denies and excludes modern advances. Usually I do consider myself an environmentalist. But out here I'm not so sure that's how I want to be identified.

In New Mexico the belief seems to prevail that there are two kinds of people—environmentalists and ranchers (a.k.a. landowners). Environmentalists, according to this dichotomy, are non-locals and friends of the government who do not believe in using the land at all, and undoubtedly do not understand the land.

On the other hand, the landowners, whose life depends upon the land, are its best stewards because they know it intimately. A few people we met claimed that ranching is the best thing that can be done for the land. For instance, ranching makes more water available for wildlife (and hikers).

To many here, it seems, environmentalists are the ones responsible for the recent fires at Los Alamos, since they are the ones who oppose wood collecting. This allows the dead wood to accumulate on the forest floor, where it dries and acts like a tinder box.

These attitudes about environmentalists and ranchers are very different from what I learned in school, where ranchers typically get a bad rap. I learned that cattle trample vegetation, which causes erosion, and produce manure that is high in nitrates, which pollutes the water. The production of beef also uses many resources that could otherwise be redistributed to feed hungry people.

In academia, landowners are often portrayed as people who abuse their land the most because they make short term decisions fueled by profit concerns. Environmentalists pride themselves in keeping a larger, long-term vision in mind and feel they have a duty to educate the uninformed.

Although this is a simplified version of the issues and sides, it hopefully provides a glimpse into why the conflict between environmentalists and ranchers seems unending. Getting to know ranchers firsthand since I've been here has shown me that the how a lack of communication fosters an unproductive us-versus-them atmosphere. It's easy to sit in one place and judge a person in another. But when you actually get outside the ivory tower and meet the "bad guys," you discover a situation that's much more complex.

Meeting the "other side" has also shown me that underneath tightly held beliefs and differences in lifestyle, people are people—some good, some bad, some ugly. Most people are well-intentioned, trying to do the best they can with the resources they have. Perhaps if everyone recognized these basic similarities in each other, we would find that we're all not after such different things.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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