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The New West: How well do we know our neighbor?



CREDIT: David J Swift

By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist

Friends spar and become verbal foes over the fate of a couple of hundred acres of land set at the foot of a major destination ski resort that everyone loves to use, and, in the next breath, complain about its expanding size.

Bon amies, who have known each other for years dating back to the days when they first arrived in the valley as young swashbuckling outdoor athletes, barely talk to one another anymore because they disagree over the route of a proposed bike path through a national park, or guided skiing in the Forest Service backcountry.

Hunting buddies, who vote for candidates in different parties and who never bring up politics in camp, start bickering over the virtue of a local representative on the Game and Fish Commission who disses one prominent popular sportsman’s organization for another with the free licenses he doles out as a perk of the job.

Do these scenarios hit close to home? They should.

It’s uncanny, isn’t it? Place two people side by side and ask them each to interpret a scene in front of them. Their subjective responses, which is to say, their internal biases and social values, prevent them from reaching the same conclusion.

The test applies to everything we do but when it involves the environment, the outcomes tend to produce polemical conclusions that quickly turn into political litmus tests.

For example, a pastoral meadow with cattle grazing behind barbed wire affects people different ways. Or, a grizzly bear feeding on an elk carcass. Each is beautiful in the eye of a sympathetic beholder.

But just for a moment, turn these hypotheticals on their heads: Instead of cattle in the meadow, replace them with bison and remove the fences. Rather than having the bear feasting on wapiti, swap in a Hereford or domestic sheep.

Suddenly, the crowd of onlookers parts into Republicans and Democrats, hunters and non hunters, nature lovers who, for aesthetic, business and other reasons shaped by personal conviction, will worship native species versus another kind of nature lover who regards uncontrolled, unmanaged landscapes as a threat to their economic livelihoods and by extension their personal identities.

If you think the above sounds like terrain ripe for a melee, what happens when the beloved rancher, who has said repeatedly his sole purpose in life is to raise steaks on the hoof, instead turns his spread into a golf course after the public has paid him subsidies as an unspoken tradeoff for open space.

Or imagine the kind of whispered breakfast discussions at Nora’s Fish Creek Inn in Wilson, Wyoming, when an outspoken environmentalist builds a trophy home in the flood plain and wildlife winter range. The real fear ends up being the one that encourages silence in public discussions because no one wants to be labeled a hypocrite.

How many different ways can a community become fractured?

While it’s easy to make sweeping judgments such as pro-environment vs. anti environment, pro business versus anti-business, pro rancher versus anti-rancher, pro Bush or Obama or Trump versus anti-Bush, anti-Obama or anti-Trump, pro military versus anti-troops, is any conclusion we draw really that simple?

We share the same communities and we allow the issues to push us toward different sides of a room as we politely exchange nods because it’s the mythical western way. But behind their backs we label and extrapolate without knowing or attempting to understand the huge gray areas that color their thinking.

Only when the other person’s obituary—yes, that of our perceived antagonist—appears in the local newspaper, revealing a bit of surprising biography about their life that we hadn’t recognized or made an attempt to learn, that in the loss of our neighbor do we see a missed opportunity to have better connected.

I thought about this recently when I wrote an obituary. For some, this will seem like a column written in code. Only the guilty will know if it is or isn’t.

Todd Wilkinson, founder of Mountain Journal (, is author of “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek” about famous Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear 399 featuring 150 photographs by Tom Mangelsen, available only at His feature on the delisting of Greater Yellowstone grizzlies appears in the winter 2018 issue of Mountain Outlaw and is now on newsstands.

The Outlaw Partners is a creative marketing, media and events company based in Big Sky, Montana.

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