Edward Abbey died 24 years ago this week on March 14, 1989. In the second decade of the 21st century, his words live on. But is this the world and the West that Cactus Ed cherished and loved? Is the New West compatible with his vision of wilderness and wide open spaces?
In "Desert Solitaire," Abbey offered a unique reason for establishing wilderness. "We may need wilderness someday," he proposed, "not only as a refuge from excessive industrialism but also as a refuge from authoritarian government, from political oppression."
He warned that "technology adds a new dimension to the process," and believed (then) that the wilderness would provide escape from those kinds of Big Brother controls. For Abbey, wilderness was meant to be the vast "blank spot on the map," as Aldo Leopold longed for.
He also wrote, "A man could be a lover and defender of the wilderness without ever in his lifetime leaving the boundaries of asphalt, powerlines, and right-angled surfaces. We need wilderness whether or not we ever set foot in it. We need a refuge..."
In 2013, Abbey would not recognize the wilderness he sought to protect. Environmental groups, once dedicated to saving the wilderness that Abbey envisioned, now look at wild lands as a marketable commodity and a way to generate revenue for their own "non-profit" organizations. It's the economic value of wilderness that trumps everything else.
Environmentalists promote a swarming tourist economy. They've bastardized a favorite Abbey line: "The idea of wilderness needs no defense; it needs more defenders," and made it a Chamber of Commerce promo....the more money that can be made from the product, the greater the chance, they believe, of passing wilderness legislation. Never mind the collateral damage.
Even grassroots groups, who once worked for the protection of the land and the satisfaction that they were honest participants in "the good fight," now parse their battle cries. Their boards of directors are filled with wealthy venture capitalists and industrialists that would have had Abbey deported if they could have found a way. Together, they support a massive recreation/amenities economy that brings millions of tourists to the once remote rural West and with it, untold quantities of money and environmental devastation. Indeed, in Utah, the most powerful force for "legislative wilderness" is not SUWA or the Sierra Club or the Grand Canyon Trust. It's the Outdoor Recreation industry.
Abbey used to talk about wilderness and "a loveliness and quiet exultation." Nowadays exultation makes a lot of noise. Ed admonished us "to walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you'll see something, maybe." When he talked about riding bicycles, he imagined them as a replacement for cars, not feet. He did not envision luxury "adventure tours" and hand-held guided hikes to "remote locations," barely a mile from their cars.
He wrote, "We don't go into the wilderness to exhibit our skills at gourmet cooking. We go into the wilderness to get away from the kind of people who think gourmet cooking is important."
And he didn't envision a wilderness experience that included cell phones, smartphones, GPS units, or daily uploads to Facebook ("Here's what our sunset looked like tonight! Here in the WILDERNESS!" -126 LIKES). Yet, many of these recreationists convince themselves they are the latter-day disciples of a man they know practically nothing about, or bother to know.
He wrote, "If America could be, once again, a nation of self-reliant farmers, craftsmen, hunters, ranchers and artists, then the rich would have little power to dominate others. Neither to serve nor to rule. That was the American Dream." Most New Westerners love Ed Abbey and have no idea what that means.
Abbey may have hoped, when he left this world, that his time and effort here might make a small difference, might alter the future for the better in some way. But probably not. More than likely, he saw all this coming, just as he predicted so much that has already, sadly, come to pass.
But whether the world really does go to hell or not, or whether it's already there, for godsake remember who Ed Abbey really was. As Cactus Ed pleaded, "Throw a rock at something big and glassy..what have you got to lose?"
Jim Stiles is publisher of the "Canyon Country Zephyr -- Planet Earth Edition." It ran for 20 years as a print publication and is now exclusively online. He is also the author of "Brave New West - Morphing Moab at the Speed of Greed." Both can be found at www.canyoncountryzephyr.com. Stiles lives in Monticello, Utah and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.