News » Features


and other small tragedies


A commentary by Idaho Author John Rember

In 1968, a professor of human ecology named Garrett Hardin published an essay titled, The Tragedy of the Commons. Hardin showed how humans, acting in their own self-interest, would inevitably wreck any resource held in common with other humans. Sharing, in spite of what we all learned in kindergarten, would result in the destruction of wilderness or clean water or forests or fish stocks, simply because these things don't grow with population and in the absence of constraint, an individual who takes more than his share benefits more than the individual who doesn't.

Hardin viewed human nature as nasty and brutish, but The Tragedy of the Commons has become one of the sacred texts of contemporary environmentalism. It's often seen only as a treatise on overgrazing, but Hardin's grassland commons are a stand-in for the larger commons of the atmosphere, rivers, oceans, natural resources and living space.

Hardin saw environmental protection as necessarily authoritarian. He recommended eliminating procreation-at-will and putting an end to immigration, and suggested privatizing public land or restricting access to it as a way to prevent its total degradation. He suggested that if we didn't reduce population, the United States would increasingly resemble the Third World: masses of poor people living in deserts, ruled over by a tiny and corrupt elite.

A counterpoint environmental movement of the '60s and '70s grew alongside its authoritarian branch. It wasn't libertarian, although it depended on free choice. Call it instead consciousness-raising environmentalism. Its chief proponent was Barry Commoner, who advocated ethical education in matters of the environment. If people understood the issues, Commoner suggested, they would voluntarily restrain themselves when it came to protecting the commons.

Commoner did not underestimate the magnitude of the cultural change needed. He suggested that capitalism itself, with its tendency to seize public property for raw material or dumping grounds, prevented sustainable environmental protection because it depended on continuous growth to survive in a world of shrinking resources. He suggested that capitalism could be modified toward a sustainable steady-state economy. Population could be stabilized by educating people to the joys of being kid-free and giving women free access to birth control. Resources could be conserved by teaching people not to buy what they didn't need, and making them conscious of the clean air, water and space that they did need.

Global corporations, free-market economists, authoritarian environmentalists, and the Judaic-Christian-Islamic religions have spent the last four decades discrediting consciousness-raising environmentalism. But Commoner's environmental vision becomes the only option when we look at the probably insoluble and probably deadly problems we face with global population or the human effect on the climate. Even though we're downwind, we cannot pass laws to regulate China's coal-fired power plants, just as China cannot enforce her one-child policy on southern Idaho's families. By his reasoning, we have to educate the Chinese that the limiting factor in coal-fired power is not coal reserves, it's carbon dioxide and mercury and the methane released by mining coal (and it would be good to convince our own leaders of this fact as well). The Chinese would do well to educate the rest of the world to the consequences of overpopulation, preferably by some other way than the appalling object lesson they currently present.

Since 1968, the planet's population has doubled. Much of what Hardin predicted has come true. Idaho and the rest of the American West are becoming Hardin's Third World, particularly in the debate on the commons that are Idaho's wild lands.

In the late 60s and early 70s, I was a wilderness ranger in Central Idaho, and spent several summers in the Boulder and White Cloud ranges, inventorying the area for possible recreational use. What I discovered in the course exploring the drainages of the two ranges was that the area is essentially a desert, fragile and harsh. In its high circs, I would discover my own footprints, a year later, where they had come down on small bits of moss or grass or sedge. The imprints of my soles were still sharp in dried mud. Often enough, the plants I had stepped on were dead.

My reports to my superiors in these years were that the Boulders and White Clouds should not be developed for recreation unless they were ready to see that recreation completely transform the area. It was impossible to visit the area without leaving some trace, and the impact on advertised sites above 8,000 feet would essentially destroy what was advertised. Lakes in the Boulders and White Clouds were both rare and typically a thousand feet higher than lakes in the Sawtooths. There was less water and less of a growing season. Neither place was a good place to put bunches of people, whether they were on their feet or on horses or on motorcycles.

By the late 20th century, because of experience in the field, there was a growing awareness among Forest Service land managers that protecting the wild did not necessarily mean designating it as Wilderness. The beautiful language of the 1964 Wilderness Act promoted values that none of us disagreed with. But the experience of many of us in charge of protecting those values made us suspicious of "Wilderness" in the same way we were suspicious of national parks. Giving national status to a wild area wasn't doing it a favor.

For me, the day-to-day police actions that I engaged in showed yet another disparity between the language of the Wilderness Act and the reality on the ground. I wrote more tickets in the Sawtooths than in the White Clouds or Boulders, because there were more people and many more rules. The Tragedy of the Commons came to mind when the popular campsites at Sawtooth Lake became churned-up ashpits. I almost became convinced, like Garret Hardin, of the unpleasant necessity of introducing visiting permits, charging fees, restricting visitors to trails and designated campsites or boardwalks, or reducing world population to a point where these areas weren't deeply harmed by the presence of humans.

But the grim authoritarian joy behind Hardin's solutions was something I lacked. I never enjoyed writing tickets to the 14-year olds who had ridden motorcycles beyond the wilderness line or the 25-year-old mothers who had left a disposable diaper in lakeshore bushes. My lack of enthusiasm did not matter to the many people who saw my uniform and demanded police action:

"They're cutting switchbacks up there."

"They're cutting branches off a green tree."

"They're riding their horses in the lake."

"They're in our favorite campsite."

"They stole the beer we put in the creek."

"They're shooting guns."

"They're rolling rocks."

"They're drunk."

"They're shitting on the trail."

I should note that in the late '60s and '70s, "they" almost always referred to hippies. At one point, just below Sawtooth Lake, I was almost run over by a man coming down the trail, out of breath and outraged.

"Arrest them," he said when he saw my Forest Service badge.

"Who?" I asked.

"They're having sex right by Sawtooth Lake," he said.

"Who?" I asked again.

"Hippies," he said. "Lots of them. They waved at me."

Apparently it was the waves that had set him off.

I was at that point in the tourist season that I had seen too many people pounding Sawtooth trails to dust, and I might have been willing to ticket those hippies if they were increasing the population. But it was a delicate matter to check to see if they were using birth control, and anyway, when I got to Sawtooth Lake, all I found was a group of fully-clothed young people hanging out on the lakeshore, smoking dope, an activity that by that August I saw as less criminal than making babies.

Perhaps because wilderness is supposed to be a place of pristine purity, it brings out the true believer in us, as well as the urge to contact the authorities and make Those People--whatever group we're currently scapegoating--damned well behave. The urge to make others behave is not an attractive human quality, but it's one we all recognize, and it leads to people making lists of rules, some of which are tricky to follow.

When I mention that wilderness, as defined under the 1964 Wilderness Act, is among the most-highly regulated real estate in the country, most people are surprised. The window-box lake whose waters reflect a distant peak is the usual image people have of wilderness, and the mention of extreme regulation and police presence always is a shock. But wilderness is a creature of law. If wilderness were a chunk of granite, it would be a chunk of granite engraved with the Ten Commandments.

There is little doubt that the wilderness system in this country has allowed a great many of our wild lands to remain wild. But it's also hard to get to most wildernesses, and that factor has been far more important than most people realize. Ever since the Reagan presidency, Forest Service budgets have been minimal, and the reaction of the Forest Service has been to preserve its permanent office positions at the expense of its seasonal field workers. For the Boulders and the White Clouds in Idaho, it has made for a kind of benign neglect: Roads have been closed because they couldn't be maintained, trails have been allowed to become filled with deadfall, and people-mitigation measures--including police presence--have been restricted to areas close to motorized access.

These facts should not be construed as support for a "Lock It Up" wilderness policy. People need to be in wild areas, and if I may give a nod to Barry Commoner, wild areas need people, if for no other reason that being in the wild raises the consciousness of the people who go there, and a higher consciousness is the only thing that will allow humans to survive the century. Without that consciousness, the discussion about wild lands in the American West has the quality of arguing over sleeping arrangements on Titanic.

In the White Clouds and Boulders, where motorized recreation has competed with backpacking and grazing and heavy use by organized groups such as the Boy Scouts, a "consciousness of the commons" has sprung up, creating a kind of wary cooperation between natural antagonists. Motorcyclists have cleared and maintained trails that the Forest Service couldn't. Grazing allotments have undergone a mostly voluntary restriction as Allan Savory's theories of holistic land management have penetrated the local agricultural community. Backpackers managed to have minimal impact on the land in the absence of regulation. Even the Boy Scouts have quit seeing themselves as 19th century pioneers and have begun to educate their members to be stewards of the land. There are of course exceptions, but in general, humans have treated the White Clouds and Boulders well in the 35 years since I first worked there. The area is in better shape than it was in 1970. Barry Commoner's vision of educated and conscious caretakers of the environment has been shown to be possible in the microcosm, without government coercion and in the presence of vastly increased population.

For people who have been supporting the idea of a Boulder-White Clouds Wilderness, these positives aren't good enough. Representative Mike Simpson's Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act (CIEDRA) bill has become a way of avoiding the consciousness issue. Groups like the Idaho Conservation League and the Wilderness Society have been getting money from the Pew Foundation, whose way of keeping score on the protection of the wild has been the number of acres designated as official wilderness. Those grants will continue if the scorecard shows more acreage as wilderness, regardless of the character of that wilderness.

The Pew Foundation has also begun promoting the idea of public-private cooperation in public land use. In the baldest of terms, that means that other money--private capital--is going to be invested in public lands management. Private capital always wants its investment back and more. It tends to view assets under its control as its property to dispose of as it wishes.

The other features of CIEDRA--such as the wholesale transfer of public land for trophy-house subdivisions, and the dilution of the 1964 Wilderness Act by the introduction of wheelchair-accessible trails and motorized access to within a day's walk of most of the area's recreational attractions--these dovetail nicely with a future where access to Wilderness is not a matter of democratic or economic freedom or even of education or intelligence. Looking at plans by the American Recreation Coalition and Disney Corporation, you can see that both the manufacturers of recreational vehicles and equipment and the prime manufacturer of a particularly sanitized and regimented recreational experience are turning their sights on American wild lands. Their vision of wilderness as a capital-intensive recreational experience has given CIEDRA much of its shape.

CIEDRA is touted as a wilderness bill, but it is so mutagenic to the idea of wilderness as expressed by the 1964 Wilderness Bill that it requires a separate identity. So I'll state the obvious:. There's a new entity in the landscape of land-use in the American West, and that is a CIEDRA.

A CIEDRA has a number of distinguishing characteristics. The foremost is a Boutique Wilderness, which can be defined as a wild area where the prime attractions are accessible by day-hikes. Motorized corridors are essential to this form of Wilderness, because a CIEDRA is concerned more with motorized access to what surrounds it than what lies within it.

Another CIEDRA characteristic is fuzzy math. Acreages will shift as the bill is introduced to the public. Economic benefits will be projected, and they will shift, too. Numbers will be manipulated to ensure public support. The amount of money granted to local governments and individuals will vary according to public scrutiny of the grants--the more scrutiny, the less money.

A CIEDRA will advertise itself as a singularity, a one-time, don't-miss-it event. It will deny that any of its provisions will have the power of setting a precedent. It will ignore the fact that precedents cannot be seen ahead of time and are always discovered after the fact, usually by attorneys going over the fine print of a law in order to discover economic advantage for their clients.

A CIEDRA will involve turning public land into private land. In many cases, this will involve trading land, but as in the case of Simpson's bill, it will often involve the outright transfer of public lands to counties and municipalities and individuals who will then be able to sell them for profit.

A CIEDRA will use lots of government money to ensure that ranchers give up grazing leases of dubious economic value.

A CIEDRA will involve trophy home subdivisions, as in the case of the 162 acres of tableland above Stanley, Idaho--itself indistinguishable from some of the meadows in the White Clouds. Indirectly, CIEDRA is designed to increase development in a large sacrificial donut around the Boulder-White Clouds Wilderness. The transformation of the Ketchum-Sun Valley area into a tract of unlit mausoleum-style trophy homes shows what happens toward the end of this process.

This last characteristic is worthy of close examination. A CIEDRA codifies the money-making development formula that has evolved in the American West, first in Aspen and Sun Valley, and eventually spreading to all of the other islands of the Lycra Archipelago. In those instances, a ski hill is designated. Then celebrities are invited to ski and build houses and hotels there. Then a trophy-home and real-estate industry utterly transforms the surrounding culture and landscape into a Disney-style suburb, one with a gate and gatekeeper and security force. They are called planned communities, but they're more plan than community.

In the case of the Simpson bill, there is no ski hill to support these suburban plans. In place of a new ski mountain is a hoped-for critical mass of Idaho wilderness: The Sawtooths, the Frank Church, and now the Boulder-White Clouds, all within a short drive of one another. This is the triad that will be advertised by the real-estate partnerships--some of them with former Cabinet members on their mastheads--that are even now nosing around recreation properties in Stanley.

This money-making formula has kept the economy of the American West going strong since Reagan's tax laws made second homes into appreciating assets. But the West is running out of first-tier locations for the process to happen. CIEDRA is an attempts to develop the second-tier locations.

So Stanley, Idaho, which has always been a second-tier location due to its eight-month winters, smoke-ridden summers and the general irascibility of its residents, is undergoing legislative cosmetic surgery to make it first-tier. I hope that there will be counseling available after that first post-anesthesia look in the mirror.

In The Tragedy of the Commons, Garrett Hardin defined tragedy as the unhappiness attendant to inexorable processes. Hardin's bleak assessment of what population growth will do to our free spaces lies behind much of the impulse to protect wild lands as wilderness. The Tragedy of the Commons started with grim assumptions about human nature, and any number of drastic compromises were justified from that point on.

Hardin saw no democratic way to stop the eventual destruction of the things held in common by human beings, whether they were the Boulder-White Clouds or the oceans or the gene pool. In the absence of the greater tragedies of a worldwide plague or nuclear war, Hardin saw our only hope to be a wise and incorruptible police force enforcing wise and just laws regulating land use, resource extraction, water and air quality, and population. He held no faith in the individual's ability to become conscious of environmental tragedy, much less to use that consciousness to effect change. Government coercion along with privatization was the only way to defend wild land from being overrun by a striving, compulsively breeding, voraciously consuming plague of human locusts. Hardin did worry about who would watch the watchers, but his philosophical descendants have no such concerns.

As a former member of a wilderness police force, I can say with some certainty that incorruptible police forces are not possible if the police are human. I was too easy on the people I was supposed to police, and some of my fellow wilderness rangers took an active and sadistic pleasure in being too hard. Nobody got it just right. One of the things that I am amazed by is the naïve faith of environmental organizations that uniformed enforcers will preserve the wild from visitors they assume would otherwise wreck it. They count on CIEDRA-style bills to both attract humans and regulate a human nature characterized by self-interest.

But if you look carefully at a CIEDRA, you will see that it isn't a way to stop Hardin's almost mathematical destruction of a commons. Instead, it is a calculated attempt to turn wilderness into commodity, and by doing so, it exemplifies the kind of thinking Garrett Hardin was trying to prevent. Lost in this vision of things is the intent of the 1964 Wilderness Act, and with it, the possibility of non-programmed experience of the natural world. Lost also are the conscious visitors implied by the language of the Wilderness Act. They have been replaced by the not-so-conscious visitors implied by the list of rules and regulations printed on every wilderness visitor permit. Most importantly, the transfer of public lands to private hands starts the process by which the federal lands of the American West will be bought and sold as commodities rather than held in trust for all citizens.

The idea that wilderness designation preserves wild areas for future generations is no guarantee of Barry Commoner's suggestion that those future generations could be composed of wise and aware human beings. Wilderness, as envisioned by a CIEDRA, loses its power to educate and ennoble. It becomes the backdrop for SUV ads and real estate brochures, or becomes a bargaining chip in the game of privatizing public lands. It becomes a charity-appeal statistic for acre-counting non-government organizations. It becomes a financial bailout for local officials. It becomes a payoff for environmental organizations whose partnerships with the recreation industry threaten to standardize and sterilize our encounters with the wild.

Like so many of our attempts to commodify wild things, a CIEDRA contains the seeds of its own destruction. Commodified, Wilderness becomes a purely human experience with purely human value, and it's Garret Hardin rather than Barry Commoner who gets to define "human." Ultimately a CIEDRA transforms every good thing into a transaction and destroys all but the financial value of the land it presumes to protect.

As someone who grew up climbing up and down the Boulders' and the White Clouds' canyons and noting their delicacy and beauty, I was hoping they would have a few more years under the radar, a few more years of benign neglect, a few more years of peace, and a few more years of avoiding the tragedy of the commons.

John Rember is a Stanley resident and author of three books, the short story collections Cheerleaders From Gomorrah: Tales From the Lycra Archipelago and Coyote In The Mountains and the memoir Traplines: Coming Home To Sawtooth Valley. He is a professor of writing at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon and writer-at-large at Albertson College of Idaho in Caldwell.