Opinion » John Rember

Diamond in the Back

Connecting the dots for anti-NIMBYs


One result of the recent Idaho election didn't get a lot of coverage in the Treasure Valley. The advisory vote for the Boulder-White Clouds National Monument on Custer County ballots came in at 1,613 against, 118 in favor and 83 undecided.

When voters speak this unequivocally, it's a good idea to look into what they know that you don't. But thus far, the organizations advocating for the monument are ignoring the vote or dismissing Custer County voters as NIMBYs, Not-In-My-Back-Yarders opposed to progress and the public good. NIMBYs are bad, greedy, and they and their opinions can be dispensed with.

It's an old argument. It was popularized by Robert Moses, the brutal city planner who used it to build freeways through tight-knit New York residential neighborhoods. It's a way to disenfranchise those closest to a desired resource, especially if they keep objecting to your happy, profit-making, totalitarian schemes.

The proposed monument lies almost entirely in Custer County. It is our backyard, and we've spent long enough in its delicate dry mountains and sagebrush hills to know it pretty well. We've also had enough experience with the tourist-industrial complex to know how it makes money, what sort of pollution it produces and what is forever altered by its presence.

NIMBY is a term of scorn, but I wear it proudly. If NIMBYs had been listened to when the Snake River dams were proposed, we'd still have wild salmon in the Boise River. If NIMBYs had prevailed against cold war radiation experiments, we wouldn't have Idahoans dying of cancer and MS downwind of Hanford. If NIMBYs had not stopped an open-pit mine on the shoulder of Castle Peak, trucks would be carting out White Cloud molybdenum right now.Some of the people yelling NIMBY the loudest used to be NIMBYs themselves. Cecil Andrus is as good an example as any.

A national monument is to industrial tourism what a hydroelectric dam is to Idaho Power, what nuclear waste is to Lockheed-Martin and what the Gulf of Mexico is to British Petroleum.

The pollution that industrial tourism produces is not limited to people who flee California for an idealized Idaho, where they hang around the Cabela's gun counter, wearing camo and talking about living off-grid in the Sawtooths. It also comes in the form of SUVs that clog highways from Mountain Home to Ontario. It comes as glossy real estate brochures that promise doubled investments, mountain living, happy family camping and exclusive restaurants.

But industrial tourism's worst pollutant is its relentless management of people, which in the end is toxic to human curiosity and even to the human spirit. Tourist attractions come to reflect tourists themselves, or at least their expectations, their fears and their money. Yellowstone becomes little more than a vast system of boardwalks, hotels and snack bars for many of its visitors. A hardened tourist-industrial proletariat ushers tourists through planned-and-canned experiences. Administering bureaucracies become fee-collectors, then police forces, then fiefdoms.

It’s a process that has nothing to do with free choice. When the superintendent of Idaho’s Craters of the Moon National Monument calls for an “upgrade” to a national park, he’s the bureaucratic equivalent of a salmon deciding to swim upstream, spawn and die. Consciousness is not part of the equation.

In an equally unconscious progression, a sacrificial ring of development grows around designated national treasures: Yellowstone becomes West Yellowstone, Glacier Park becomes a gated Whitefish suburb. Sun Valley becomes a ghetto for the 1 percent, its servants commuting 60 miles or more. Tamarack becomes a Tyvek-wrapped Scream 7 set.

The planners of national monuments, even as they tout revitalized economies, ignore what those economies depend on: a waste-generating infrastructure that supplies tourists with hot dogs and pizza, gasoline and plastic-wrapped firewood, souvenir T-shirts, flushable toilets in campgrounds, cell towers, planted rainbows, paved trails, RV dumps and rough-and-tough mountain-man guides who often as not view their urban clients with a weary contempt.

It's sad that the call to "protect" the Boulders and the White Clouds is coming from people who exaggerate environmental threats to extort money from the well-meaning. Recent letters from the Wilderness Society and the Idaho Conservation League play fast and loose with the truth when they suggest that current SNRA protections are inadequate. When they say that retired Forest Service land managers who oppose the monument don't know what they're talking about, they're ignoring years of experience in favor of their own fundraising hype.

Along with 90 percent of Custer County voters, I voted against the monument. If I could have, I also would have voted against the people promoting the monument. I don't like their practice of scaring folks into giving them money that might otherwise go to protecting rainforests or sending poor kids to college. I don't like their attempts to marginalize the people of Custer County by calling them NIMBYs. I don't like their definition of progress or the public good, especially when it involves taking a beautiful, fragile area and prostituting it for profit. We all know what to call the people who do that.