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Human interaction with the Rocky Mountain States has shifted tremendously since the beginning of recorded history. These changes can be broken down into three phases. The first phase would be the communal posture held by Native Americans. This period of time ran from the Spanish colonization in the 16th century until the era of the mountain man. With the establishment of the United States a new period of exploration for exploitation began. A dramatic shift in human interaction occurred as the economic interests of the mountain men and the United States overrode the communal interests of the Native Americans, indeed, it began to envelop them. The era of exploitation would flourish until the Progressive Movement. The first generation of leaders to see the footprint left by the over-harvest of natural resources would start the shift in policy to one of sustainability. This shift has continued at different rates of change all the way through the modern era.
The Native American tribes of the American Rocky Mountain States were long characterized as being homogenous with little difference between them. In reality they are as diverse as European states, but like Europeans the religions that shaped their actions held a common theme. “[A]ll their religions had important characteristics in common… the Indian visionaries felt the universe about them and dedicated themselves to keeping man’s world in balance with the cosmos... All of them sought to communicate with the powers of nature.” (Hurdy 14) The words of Hopi chiefs and elders, declared in 1951, are true for all tribes: “Our land, our religion, and our life are one.” (Martin 15)
This communal living was sustainable and based upon the indigenous plants and animals, especially the bison herds which spread across the prairie like waves on an ocean. “Oglala Sioux spiritual leader Black Elk… recalled that his people ‘were happy in [their] own country, and were seldom hungry, for then the two-leggeds and the four-leggeds lived together like relatives, and there was plenty for them and for us.” (Spence 3) Native Americans saw a special sanctity in taking anything from the earth. The Hopi Indians, for example “express[ed] regret to the hunted animal that they must take its life to sustain their own with the substance of its flesh.” (Hurdy 19) Ruth Underhill writes that the Naskapi saw “Hunting [as] a holy occupation… [but] so was the gathering of plants, the cutting of trees, even the digging of clay.
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Native Americans did not limit their spirituality to warm-blooded animals either, but extended the religious qualities to the rocks and trees.
“In one of the recorded symbolical ground-painting designs of the Diegueño Indians… four sacred places are indicated… [the] San Bernardino Mountain (or else the Gorgonio Mountain)[,] the Santa Catalina Island mountain-mass[,] the partly submerged mountain peaks known as the Coronado Islands [and] “The Mountain of Creation,” which may be Cuchama.” (Evans-Wentz 8)
Even the ordinary every day events can be seen within the perspective of a far reaching spirituality. Inés Hernández-Ávila writes “…the sweat lodge is female, she is referred to as the “grandmother sweat lodge”; when we enter the lodge, many say that we enter the womb of Mother Earth.” In planting crops the Native Americans would also perform rituals.
In a speech given at the American Indian Community Center in Spokane, Medicine Grizzlybear Lake describes it as such “[O]ur traditional Indian [teaches us] to see the whole of each thing and attempt to understand its relationship to each part that makes the whole, and each whole part as it relates to other parts in creation, and how all parts serve to make the whole of Creation.” (160) These critical thinking skills laid down the foundation for the system of values that led “All of them [to love] the earth and [hold her body and her children sacred.” (Hurdy 12)
In so doing they reached the same philosophical as Albert Schweitzer in is work Africa 1913 – 1917. The Indians have achieved what he would consider a perfect religion, as that it embraces the world and affirms the reverence of life. The Indians are thinking beings that feel “a compulsion to give to every will to life the same reverence for life that he gives to his own.” (285) They are acting ethically because “life… is sacred to him – the life of plants and animals as well as that of his fellow man – and” they devote their life to helping all life in need of help. One should note, though, that this was made possible in part by low population density in the American West. Scholars have estimated the population density of indigenous tribes north of present-day Mexico to range from 1 person per 10 acres land to 1 person per acre land. Given this, the abundant natural resources could very easily recover from human impact.
Into this system of thought came the Spanish colonization of the southwest, offering the first contact between western tribes and European economics. While the conquistadors came seeking God, glory, and gold, their impact on the latter was minimal, partly due to the obscurity of the country. Meanwhile, from the north French trappers made limited forays into the northwest to acquire pelts.
Enter the United States of America, recent buyers of the Louisiana Territories. President Thomas Jefferson orders a Corps of Discovery to take a survey of the region. They do, and return bringing stories of tremendous natural resources. Coincidentally, the European fashionistas declare that beaver pelts are now en vogue. The stage is set for the American west to be exploited, and the men who cut their teeth in the Ohio River Valley and in the Corps of Discovery take the lead.
Patricia Nelson Limerick sums up the means whereby they would achieve this goal. “To be moved from natural resource to commodity to profit, the West’s holdings clearly had to be transformed by and investment in capital and labor.” The first Americans to make this transformation would be the mountain men. They provided the labor for forays into the wild woods while Eastern merchants and retired mountain men would form fur companies to provide the necessary supplies.
Spreading into the west the mountain men came, seeking a fortune in pelts. The mountain men carried “with them the notion that animals were a source of wealth, a resource to be used just as minerals, timber, or any other resource is used. This skin of an animal was not just the property of the animal attached to it. It was legal tender.” (Maguire 255) This was a fundamental shift from the Indian’s view that all life is sacred, and greatly impacted the way humans interacted with the American West.
Because this new environmental ethic did not provide for the sanctity of all life, the Indian ethic was challenged to change or watch as the animals it was founded on be hunted away without any benefit to them. This combined with the ready availability of trinkets via the trappers led many tribes to work with the mountain men. Shoshone and Nez Perce tribes often worked with the American trappers by fending off the Blackfeet who had lost their benefactors in the French trappers. They also traded for skins they had caught.
John Work writes in The Snake Country Expedition of 1830-1831 about the resulting rapid depletion of the beaver population. “A small part of hunters 11 years ago took 300 beaver in two short encampments about this place… it is not known to have been hunted since.” (106) One should note that even though he observed the depletion, Work and other mountain men failed to realize its cause, so incomprehensible the original wealth of the west had seemed. Instead they placed on fires or distemper. (106)
As the mountain men boomed and busted, the environmental ethic of exploitation took new form. Throughout the West, gold, silver and other ores were quickly found. Boom towns in Montana, California, Colorado and other territories rose and fell but attracted thousands. Mining, by necessity, perpetuated the exploitation land ethic that the mountain men first laid down. The miners would empty the mountains of their minerals, often to the extent that they began to collapse and settle.
“Mining meant sudden riches for some and hard and hard and unrewarding labor for most… and extraction of a resource that could not be replenished and would eventually run out.” (Nelson 124) Like the mountain men, who began working as individuals exercising their land ethic but quickly formed fur companies, the miners caught on to the failure of individual mining and began work for companies. Similarly, the ethic was not limited to any single nationality. Chileans, Chinese, and French all came in droves. Many Indian tribes were also began mining individually or for companies. “What tied these disparate movements together was the imminent, and selective triumph of capitalist market economies, whose representatives sent tentacles out around the globe, linking many peoples, products, and places to each other in their pursuit of wealth.” (Johnson 58)
While mining and trapping continued timber companies began to take advantage of the vast forests in the Rocky Mountain States. Gifford Pinchot had seen similar destruction in the eastern forests where he said, “‘The American Colossus was fiercely at work turning natural resources into money.’ ‘A perfect orgy of forest destruction had begun.’” (Whitney 191) He and others were determined to prevent in the West the destruction that had been seen in the East, and mid-Western states like Minnesota and Wisconsin. The battle for a sustainable environmental ethic had begun a battle that would pit environmentalists against a “western trend of settlement [that] depended on cheap land and cheap wood (Clepper 6)
This new ideal of human interaction with the American West was dependent upon the election to office of Progressives like Theodore Roosevelt, and its history is best seen through the development of the system of public lands in the West. Its roots, though, can be traced back even earlier, though:
“One of the earliest and most successful efforts… to arouse Congress to the urgency of governmental action for forest preservation stemmed from an address by Franklin Benjamin Hough… In his  address, “On the Duty of Governments in the Preservation of Forests,” Hough described the severe damage suffered by other nations following deforestation, particularly of mountain slopes, and then proposed that the United States retain in government ownership its extensive forest lands in the West.” (Clepper 16)
This was the first call for the public lands to play a larger role in the development of the West, and the first call for them to no longer be a means to the ends of reckless exploitation. This call eventually was first answered in 1891 with the creation of a National Forest Reserve, and then through the National Park Service. However, the government’s answer was only successful thanks to the efforts of a handful of individuals out to save the forests from timber.
In 1880 the Oregonian, a newspaper in Portland, editorialized that
“the great destruction of timber, caused by the great storm of last week, naturally awakens some thought as to what the people of this land will do when the country is denuded of forests… the conclusion must come that, unless more economy is practiced, the green hills around Portland… will ultimately become as bald as those which surround those of San Francisco.” (Eber 200)
The Oregonian was owned by Henry L. Pittock, an early preservationist and peer of John Muir. Muir himself had his ethic shaped in part by his early days surveying sequoia forests. He was distressed to see “that ‘the human part’ was to extract the mountains’ wealth as speedily as possible, as wastefully as necessary, without a single concern for the future.” (Wilkins 122)
As time progressed, though, the environmentalist movement fractured. Two differing schools of thought emerged, one that sought to completely revolutionize the land ethic of the American West and the other whose aim was compromise between the former and the preceding exploitation ethic. The former wanted preservation, and the latter conservation.
Although conservation placed Gifford Pinchot at the head of the movement, and the goals of it are best described by him, its heart can be found in the writings of Aldo Leopold. “He had no romantic revulsion against plowing, or cutting trees, or hunting birds and animals, or any of the things we do to make our living from the earth. He was only against the furious excess of our exploitation, our passion to live on our principal.” (Stegner 237) Environmentalism marked a new way of interacting with the land, and during its early years it was men like Pinchot and Leopold who dominated it.
Preservation had many followers and the followers had many reasons for believing in it. Their goal linked them though, leaving land alone from man’s impact and having a “true” nature for aesthetic and spiritual purposes. However, during the vast western expansion of the first half of the 20th century, this failed to overcome the conservationist ethic which permitted for the great growth to tap into necessary resources. Curiously, though, the 1950s saw the revival of the preservationist movement as John Muir became the focus of many biographies, which in turn increased consumption of his writings. This “helped spur a general reversion of the conservation movement to an accent on the Muir tradition and to the ascendancy of his influence over that of Pinchot.” (Wilkins 273) Since this time the preservationist ethic has come to slowly dominate the way in which we view the west. Although holdouts exist, just as the did when the environmental ethic was first recognized, the creation of the Wilderness Act, Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and growth of National Parks and Wildlife Refuges are testaments to Muir’s beliefs.
The human interaction with the Rocky Mountain States has slowly but surely come full circle. The first inhabitants in recorded history believed in a land ethic that regarded nature as something sacred to be given equal respect as man himself. Our most recent history has seen the rise of a movement whose goal is to keep nature pure for nature’s sake and for its intrinsic value to humans. In the intermittent years there was a period of widespread waste: a real rape of the wilderness that destroyed much of the biological diversity and pushed many plants and animals to the brink of, or over extinction. Slowly but surely man was weaned off of it through a system of compromise and government action, moving the events in the cyclical fashion and returning us to the ethic of long ago.
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