Saturday, August 11, 2007

The West: "extreme-sport natives"

At lunch today (in a small Wyoming town) I read the Mountain Gazette. Several articles weighed in on moral dilemmas of mixing backcountry extreme sports such as whitewater kayaking, rock-climbing, skiing, etc with conservation and impending development.

While some of the articles made provocative, useful points, some instead held a "native" (native to the West, as opposed to somebody from San Diego or Boston) viewpoint I found frustrating, something I have encountered before in the West.

Take, for example, lamentations over latte-drinking yuppies on vacation, buying second homes and ruining mountain towns that are little slices of progressive, open-minded, green, sports-loving heaven.

First, it is not just your town to lament over. The fact that you or your parents moved there fifteen years before the tide of disposable income rose does not give you exclusive rights to living there. Think about how that town was likely founded in the first place - by miners who illegally prospected on Native American lands, found a valuable mineral, then petitioned the US Army to come kill off the indigenous population.

Second, as the cost of living goes up due to the influx of new money, yes, rent will go up and that will suck. However, if you are living a ski bum or climbing bum lifestyle that relies on part-time low-wage jobs so you have more free time to pursue your sports, my sympathy is limited. Choosing the asceticism of cheap apartments and unsteady work in Jackson Hole has its obvious risks and does not yield the same rarefied viewpoint as choosing asceticism for social benefit (volunteering for humanitarian work in a poverty-stricken area, for example).

Third, extreme sports does not a conservationist make. If you want to get up in arms over new condos being built on your favorite backcountry slope, go for it - but that doesn't make you a crusader for all that is natural and good in the world. Conservation is a complicated, sprawling issue that concerns the whole landscape, and it is not centered on your favorite gnarly lines and wicked chutes.

Upset extreme sport natives, those who live in mountain towns in the west mainly for the benefits of excellent skiing, climbing, and kayaking, make some damn good points: our growing and redistributing population needs some thought and recreation can be an excellent impetus for conservation. But in some aspects, the viewpoints just seem unrealistic.

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