Anyone who has relocated to a small community knows that figuring out whos who and whats what is no quick task.
The Southern Poverty Law Center writers who came to Southwest Colorado to write about the dispute over public-lands road closures didnt stay long enough to see the whole picture. As a result, their portrayal of area residents as extremists ready to wage war on the federal government missed the mark.
Looking in from the outside, its easy to see a small community in very simplistic terms, which is probably why the story entirely neglects the ideological center. Disagreeing with the government does not mean one is an extremist. Quite a few people disagree with the decision to close roads on the San Juan National Forest, and many of them could have explained their opinions logically and eloquently, without posturing and threats. Quite a few others could have described their support for the road closures, had they been asked.
The writers failed to understand that, because so much of the local landscape is controlled by the federal government, residents are rightfully concerned with federal policies. Land-use discussions are not nearly as abstract as discussions about the federal debt. They affect the real lives of real people who live out here in the real West. This isnt just the Sagebrush Rebellion revisited; its an ongoing relationship between the people and their government.
The SPLC writers also failed to acknowledge that in the interior West, with its big spaces and recent pioneer history, people really do interact differently, depending less on structure than they do in more densely populated places but they still manage to do it mostly without shooting one another.
The writers contrived link between current dissatisfactions and the murder of a police officer more than a decade ago opens old wounds. They ignore the fact that the three fugitives had little local support even before the shooting, and afterward, the community stood united and appalled. That tragedy certainly was not an illustration of how Western communities deal with conflict.
They also suggest that some forest users may be less principled than desperate, pointing out that some people depend on big game hunts to provide meat for their tables without explaining that they wont be barred from doing so. In many ways, the article highlights extremes almost to the exclusion of reality.
However, when the next issue of the SPLC Intelligence Report is released next month, local readers may still find it instructive. In tourism, perception is nearly everything, and the Intelligence Review article will influence others perception of this place in a profoundly negative way. Those who have worried that Texas hunters might be deterred by the road closures should also wonder if other visitors might be deterred by the fear of armed extremists.
Theres considerable irony in the idea that city-dwelling readers may be willing to believe every implausible thing they read about a bunch of Westerns who are apparently willing to believe any conspiracy theory that comes down the river. The SPLC writers mistook or perhaps were willing, for a wild story, to look like they had mistaken a small group of extremists for the whole of the population. Their portrayals of the people they interviewed were accurate as far as they went, but the loudest voices are not always the most representative.
The Intelligence Review story will not cast any useful light. Too many people were turned into caricatures, although some apparently were willing. Too much nuance went unnoticed. Too much context was missing. Thats too bad, because the real story, told well, would be a compelling narrative about the past and future of the American West.