The Rape of the West
New York Times Sunday Book Review, September 6, 1998


Away to the New West

By Timothy Egan.
266 pp. New York:
Alfred A. Knopf. $25.

"IN MY BOOK a pioneer is a man who turned all the grass upside down, strung bob-wire over the dust that was left, poisoned the water, cut down the trees, killed the Indian who owned the land and called it progress.'' Timothy Egan is quoting a surprising source, the celebrated cowboy artist Charles Russell. But he could as easily be quoting himself. In ''Lasso the Wind,'' Egan, a national correspondent for The New York Times, alternately comes on as a Jeremiah with notebook and running shoes, and the Peck's Bad Boy of the New West. ''I'm in Big Timber, breakfasting at the Road Kill Cafe,'' he writes, after pridefully describing the ''nosebleed'' section of the high Rockies as ''one of the few places left in the world where bears still eat people, semi-regularly.''

Egan grew up in Washington State. In an earlier book, ''The Good Rain,'' he wrote eloquently about what has been done to salmon, Indians and the environment in the Pacific Northwest. Now, on a larger canvas, he rages against big ranchers, mine owners, dam builders, real estate moguls, timbermen and, of course, the dead-hand grip still exerted by the Legend of the Old West, which he sees as a ''pitiful excuse for a history,'' a brief, shameful period (1846-90) driven by greed, lawlessness and attempted genocide.

Environmentalists and revisionist historians have been making similar points for quite a while; often, it seems, because however ghastly the past may have been, the historians wanted us to know that women, blacks and Indians played their part. Initially, ''Lasso the Wind'' promises more: a kind of reflective reportorial tour of the 11 states ''on the sunset side of the 100th meridian,'' in which Egan manages to come to tentative conclusions about the elusive New West. He makes 14 stops, two each in Arizona, Montana, New Mexico and Utah, one in Nevada, Colorado, Idaho, Oregon, Washington and (last) California, a place where, he writes in Delphic mode, ''it is a quick ride from the Geography of Hope to the cliff of fear.''

Effete Easterners will possibly want to fly out West, rent a car and follow in Egan's footsteps as he describes zinging around in the wide open spaces. Drop in, as he does, on a local hero of the Sagebrush Rebellion in Catron County, N.M. (Catron is one of several places where ranchers claim that the Government has no right to charge them for grazing cattle on public land, even though the fees they pay are so low as to amount to what Egan, with much company, regards as a Federal subsidy of a dying industry). Move north to Lake Havasu City, Ariz., where London Bridge, transported stone by stone, was reassembled in the midst of an ersatz English village. Head on up to that water-guzzling urban monstrosity, Las Vegas, as the Sands Hotel (the iniquitous landmark of many a Sinatra-struck youth) is blown sky high by ambitious developers. Hike with him in the burning rock country of southern Utah as he looks for petroglyphs. Egan is a connoisseur of rock drawings, and a man wild about wilderness. When he finds a splendid glyph covered by wire mesh to protect it from possible vandalism, he is deeply cast down. ''No longer wild,'' he writes, ''it was as if it had been put in a zoo.''

Any reader of ''The Good Rain'' will recognize here Egan's nimble skipping between past and present, his high-powered invocations of natural scenery, his easy grip on the geography of hills and rivers, as well as a talent for writing in provocative sound bites. It is soon clear that a good deal of the book will be less a journal of inquiry than a didactic tour. He wants us to understand that the upstart West does too have an ancient history. A section somewhat brassily labeled ''Plymouth Rock West'' gets into Coronado's armed incursion into New Mexico in the 1540s, then Don Juan de Onate's savage assault in 1598 on the ancient Indian hill town of Acoma, which Egan describes as the ''first battle over religious freedom in what is now the United States.''

Soon he is off to fast-growing Douglas County, outside Denver, where the optimistic Ken Turnbull hopes to turn ostrich steak into America's preferred protein. The creatures weigh 340 pounds, run 40 miles an hour, are cheap to feed and can kick a coyote to death. Egan lightens up a bit, imagining a past in which John Wayne et al. try to herd these unherdable birds. But comic relief is not in sight. For, in addition to low-life cowboys, 19th-century railroad barons, merciless copper-mining kings and powerful cattlemen then and now, Egan has it in for the cow itself. An alien creature that was imported from England after the longhorn cattle died out, the cow, he insists, has ruined the rivers, overgrazed and stomped bare the once-green ranges of the West.

Egan does not make the argument of the reformist author Jeremy Rifkin. In ''Beyond Beef: The Rise and Fall of Cattle Culture,'' Rifkin insisted that raising cattle to eat not only bids fair to destroy the South American rain forest but is also bringing starvation to many parts of the world because it is a much less efficient use of land (in terms of feeding people) than growing grain. Egan's grudge against cows seems more personal, and deeper, than such standard environmentalist complaints. He apparently wants them banished -- to be replaced not by ostrich but by bison (read: buffalo burgers), once wantonly destroyed and now making a mild comeback with help from Ted Turner and a few Indian tribes. ''Unlike cattle,'' Egan writes, ''bison know how to drink from a stream without destroying it; their hooves are thin, and they don't lie around in . . . mudflats, as warm with flies, waiting to be herded off to the next meal.''

Worse than cattle, as he sees it, is the West's continued misuse of water. Instead of ''following the plow,'' as the creators of various Homestead Acts officially hoped it would, water mostly ''flows uphill to money.'' The result is dams on every Western river except the Yellowstone. Seven states have water rights in the mighty Colorado. The United States, in fact, has more than 75,000 dams. When it comes to curtailing the flow of Western rivers, Egan works in the shadow of Edward Abbey, who in his novel ''The Monkey Wrench Gang'' created a lively crew bent on blowing up the 710-foot-high Glen Canyon Dam. In Egan's view dams deform nature's rivers, drown great scenery, destroy ancient Indian relics and play hob with wilderness, wildlife -- especially migrating salmon -- and the ecosystem in general. And for what? Often, Egan insists, not to make the desert bloom for the deserving small homesteaders but to further line the pockets of the undeserving rich, among them land speculators who create unsustainably huge, air-conditioned cities -- Phoenix in particular -- in unlivably dry and hot places.

Western water is still allocated to a remarkable degree by what Egan memorably calls the ''hydro-extension of gold-fever grubstaking,'' or the doctrine of ''first in time, first in line,'' meaning that if, historically, you had first crack at a river's water you always have considerable say in its use. Distribution rights have been modified, but not enough, and in the past have set states at virtual war with one another. As Egan notes, quoting Mark Twain, ''Whisky is for drinking, water is for fighting over.'' He predicts that unsustainable Las Vegas, which squanders millions of gallons from great artesian wells that belong to the Paiute Indians and siphons more and more from Lake Mead, will end up having to be protected by the National Guard. In 100 years it will be gone, he says. In 500 years ''archeologists will be puzzling over the site of the Sands.''

About the misuse, unfairness and chicanery involved in distribution of Western water rights past and present, few will disagree. How to fix the problem will involve more than ironic cries of outrage. Water involves a struggle for a crucial, limited resource, as well as a quasi-religious war between those who hold the earth holy and those who don't -- at present the vast majority of a huge population whose very existence is a greater threat to the environment than the bad guys in black hats Egan constantly blames. Implicitly, he seems to be an old-fashioned populist who can hardly imagine that once freed from the evil grip of greedy special interests ''the people'' might side against him.

Egan takes a measure of cheer from the fact that just in the last several years a few dams have been scheduled for demolition, while others are under (often acrimonious) discussion. His book would have profited, I think, from examining a few more dam cases and looking closely at who actually uses the power America's dams generate -- an estimated 10 percent of the country's total electricity, and 90 percent of our renewable energy.

''Lasso the Wind'' is at its most attractive, and least polemical, toward the end, when Egan gets back on his home turf. In the Northwest, he really knows the people, and shows affection for them -- even when they disagree with him. In Joseph, Ore. (named for the remarkable Nez Perce chief), he finds an angry crowd: frustrated ranchers and timber men, along with large numbers of the local unemployed, are protesting the Endangered Species Act and a plan to make Hells Canyon into a national park. Everyday people ''know the New West is inevitable,'' Egan writes. ''They just don't know what their role will be in it.'' What they don't want is ''to become bit players in a new economy, flipping buffalo burgers for mountain bikers from the city.'' Still, his advice is essentially to forget the old and, as he sees it, doomed economy of cattle, timber and mining, and go along with the New West flow, forsaking angry caricatures like ''yuppie scum.''

Moving even closer to home, he finds his vision of a peaceable and prosperous future. Sunnyside, Wash., he says, is a place where ''much of the West'' is headed. Sunnyside is awash in Hispanic immigrants, new and old, already almost 65 percent of the population. In the West ''entire valleys, counties, cities have, almost overnight, become majority Latino,'' with more to come. What Egan has in mind is nothing less than a regional multicultural melting pot, with Latinos enriching the customs and language of the United States but becoming old-fashioned Americans at the same time, as they are now doing locally in many parts of the country. Indians at last will be somewhat integrated into local society, and everyone will do O.K. with espresso bars, heritage tourist centers, rodeos, art and music shops, microbrew and jazz festivals and stores that sell both snakeskin cowboy boots and Mexican guitars.

It is a warmhearted vision, though not entirely compelling, even if you factor in, as he rarely seems to, all sorts of high-tech projects now sprouting in the New West. This is, after all, an age in which we are constantly reminded that the melting pot no longer works. Many minority groups come equipped with lawyers dedicated to divisive self-interest. And since Egan himself invokes the centuries-long presence of Latinos in the West, it may be fair to note that, for whatever reason, most Hispanic countries of the New World have yet to show a real gift for stable parliamentary democracy.

The one convincingly upbeat moment in this heartfelt jeremiad of a book comes, appropriately enough, not from the works of man but from the resilience of nature. In his final chapter, Egan is floating down a stretch of California's American River, where gold was found in 1848, setting off what he sees as the plundering of the West in the name of greed and commerce. Reckless mining and sluicing totally ruined the river. After looking at late-19th-century pictures of it, Egan writes, ''Kuwait after it was torched and bombed in the gulf war may have looked better.'' But the river refused to die, and now it is beautiful and tranquil, clean and full of wildlife. Why? Because it has been left entirely alone.