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Head 'em up, move 'em out, clean it up

By Patricia Nelson Limerick
Prairie Writers Circle

(Friday, Feb. 14, 2003 -- CropChoice guest commentary) --Cowboys in classic Western movies reliably make a mess. When they fight in saloons, they break chairs, tables, bottles and the big mirror over the bar. When they are finished fighting, they leap on their horses and race on to the next adventure. The broken wood and shattered glass await the attentions of an invisible, uncelebrated cleanup crew, wielding brooms and dustpans, mops and buckets.

Meanwhile, I yearn for the Western movie in which the cowboys, riding briskly out of town, will be suddenly stricken with conscience. They’ll halt their horses; they’ll look at each other with self-reproach; they’ll say to each other, "Boys, we are supposed to be the good guys, and yet we have left a terrible mess behind us. We’d better go back and clean it up."

Hollywood may be reluctant to show cowboys at work with brooms and mops, but in a number of ways, that image provides quite a telling analogy for what’s going on in the real-life West. Decades of full-speed-ahead development produced equal measures of benefit and cost, gain and loss. Reckonings with those complicated outcomes are under way everywhere in the region.

From attempts to restore wildlife habitat to efforts to improve air quality, the moral equivalents of brooms and mops are in wide use. The Bureau of Reclamation no longer builds new dams, but tries to make existing dams less destructive to fish, with water releases more closely mimicking natural flow. Meanwhile, engineers, limnologists, hydrologists and aquatic biologists tackle the legacy of mining, designing methods to deal with the poisonous acid drainage.

And there are comparable efforts under way in the arena of culture: undertakings to revitalize Indian languages, campaigns to preserve the buildings and structures of the Western past, projects to recover long-neglected writings of Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the Southwest.

The enthusiasm for repair, restoration, remediation, rehabilitation and recovery signifies a remarkable historical shift, an extraordinary reversal of what once seemed to be values that would not submit to challenge or change.

But the situation presents two cliff-hanger questions. Will Americans support -- or even tolerate -- the necessary political and financial investment to put the mops and brooms to work? Can a cultural preference for building, expanding, constructing and growing yield ground to a new preference for maintaining, sustaining, healing and repairing?

As revenues for state governments drop and dramatic budget cuts loom, the timing of this value shift seems decidedly ill-fated. War in the Middle East seems very likely to draw attention away from domestic dilemmas and to redirect federal money to weapons and troops. It will take considerable imagination and creativity to make the case for ranking remediation and repair as priorities in these very tough circumstances.

Cleanup, after all, presents a big attitudinal problem. For decades of Western American history, excitement, adventure, exhilaration and achievement were all tied to the activities of expanding and building, discovering and exploiting. Cleanup brings up an opposite set of associations: drudgery, tedium, dreariness, poorly rewarded labor.

It is, after all, a rare child who responds positively and eagerly to the announcement, "It’s time to clean your room." It may be an almost equally rare Western resident who welcomes the suggestion, "It’s time to clean your region."

And yet the remarkable and wonderful thing is that so many of those residents exist and take action.

It is my enormous good luck to work with people at the University of Colorado who approach cleanup with optimism, spirit and courage. I draw my inspiration from watching as civil engineers Joe Ryan and JoAnn Silverstein work on acid mine drainage, as atmospheric scientists Jana Milford and Mike Hanford push for air quality improvement, as journalism professor Len Acklund writes about the contamination of Rocky Flats and remedies for that contamination, and as English professor John-Michael Rivera pursues the cause of restoring the visibility of early Mexican American writings.

I list a few names to add specificity and concreteness to the assertion that an able and committed group of people are doing their best to lead us from the zone of pointless regret to the zone of productive and positive action.

Those folks are all around us. Let us try, even in these tough times, to give them our support, our applause and, especially, our money.

Patricia Nelson Limerick leads the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado, where she teaches history and environmental studies . She has written several books, including "The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West," and is a member of the Prairie Writers Circle at the Land Institute, which is developing perennial grain agriculture in Salina, Kan.