THE NEW WEST: It’s Our Turn

By on September 13, 2017

How Greater Yellowstone sees the rest of degraded America

JACKSON HOLE, WY — Maybe you still don’t realize it, neighbors, but we hicks of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem dwell in that part of the American boondocks otherwise known as “the flyover’ to tens of millions of sophisticated bi-coastal Americans.

Sorrowfully, our long tenure of splendid isolation is slipping away at blazing speed.

Today we’re being rapidly invaded by an unprecedented number of urban refugees who seem perfectly content to remind us how non-bourgeoisie we’ve been all these years. They believe it’s for our own good that they help transform our towns into versions of whatever lesser, blighted, overpopulated, suburbanized, traffic-ridden hellholes they are now fleeing.

Perhaps it’s time we schooled them on what the essence of living in our corner of the flyover is.

When illustrator Saul Steinberg drew his now-immortal cover image for The New Yorker Magazine in 1976—a cartoon titled View of the World From 9th Avenue—he confirmed the smug attitude that Manhattanites have of the Interior West, regarding us we are, at best, afterthoughts not even warranting mention on the map.

In pure jest, Steinberg actually poked fun at the provincial mindset of Easterners and their condescending belief that they reside at the center of the known universe. Certainly, it’s a point of view shared even today by those West Coast hipsters, be they from LA, San Fran/Silicon Valley, Portlandia or Seattle – and they still don’t seem to realize that the plural for wapiti ain’t elks.  

Unfortunately, we’ve often allowed outsiders to define who we are. The way the rest of the country thinks about us has been shaped mightily by the opinions of outside writers who parachute out of the sky, spending a couple of days in Greater Yellowstone and then return to Brooklyn Heights, claiming they are our interpreters for the rest of the world.

But, intimated by our wide open spaces, they think we ought to fill landscapes up. They write stories, based on their own lack of understanding about nature, that continue to fuel irrational fears about grizzlies and wolves. And they prop up malcontents like the Bundy clan as being representative of the general mindset of all ranchers.

But the truth is, Greater Yellowstone doesn’t need outside validation, neither from misinformed reporters who have anointed themselves our translators, nor must we prove Greater Yellowstone’s worth as a remarkable, unparalleled region on the planet.

Not long ago, I asked my oldest friend, the illustrator Rick Peterson, to put together his own Steinbergian take, not of how we are seen in the eyes of those on the coasts but rather the view from Greater Yellowstone looking east and west. Enjoy his portrayal of Greater Yellowstone as we look toward the East Coast. (To see the view looking westward, you need to visit mountainjournal.org)

What can the rest of America learn about us, especially those interloping developers who mistakenly believe our communities would actually be someplace special if only they had a Trader Joe’s and more spas offering seaweed wrap skin treatments?

Note to rest of nation: We don’t need you telling us Greater Yellowstone is cool because it’s so unlike the places you reside. What we need you to grasp is what sets our region apart—its abundance of large wildlife species—exists only because things are different here.

We have open spaces because we value them. We have forests and clean water because we haven’t logged, mined and exploited the heck out of our backcountry. We have grizzlies and wolves, in spite of the wishes of our politicians, because conservationists in the region touted and proved the value of bringing them back.

Yes, we have some damned fine places to explore, but the caliber of our wildlife would not exist if we adopted the same kind of industrial-strength models of outdoor recreation that are now de rigueur in Colorado, Utah, and California.

So what is your take-home lesson from the flyover?  There’s nothing that could be imported from the coasts that would make Greater Yellowstone better.  If you don’t have the sophistication to appreciate the wild essence of this ecosystem, please keep flying over or, better yet, stay where you are. PJH

Todd Wilkinson, editor of mountainjournal.org, is author of Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek (mangelsen.com/grizzly) about famous Jackson Hole Grizzly 399 featuring 150 pictures by renowned local wildlife photographer Tom Mangelsen.

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