Teddy Roosevelt’s life, lands examined in ‘Leave it as it is,’ a must-read book for Coloradans in 2020
New book is part biography, part call to action
David Gessner can easily fill the pages of a good book with his observations on nature, his on-the-groud reporting and his access to wonderful people and stories.
Gessner does not struggle to put into words the freedom we feel from time spent in public lands and wide open spaces, and in his latest work, “Leave it as it is,” he gets the freedom to digress and explore the wide open space of the page, digressing not just in his topics, but in the genre itself as he shifts from biographer to youth author to skilled interviewer with ease.
Weaving the work together is the most uninteresting of all the otherwise compelling material Gessner chooses to get into, a road trip with his nephew. That part is similar to the connecting thread of his previous book, “All the wild that remains,” which he begins by drawing attention to the hypocrisy of an environmentalist going on a gas guzzling road trip during “a summer of fires and fracking” in 2014.
Aside from the time spent with Gessner’s nephew, which is slightly uncomfortable for the reader (as it no doubt was for Gessner), this book is a map to understanding some of the most important and complex environmental issues facing the West right now. I was mailed a free copy from Simon and Schuster and after randomly turning to a page in the middle of the book and reading, I found myself quickly hooked, and went back to the beginning to give it a proper read.
Gessner writes well about the promotion of national lands, the sanctity of national monuments in light of President Trump’s attempt to shrink a pair of them in Utah, and the idea that connection and expansion of the wildlands could offer living creatures – humans included – a chance at adapting to a changing planet.
“Adaptability – that is, evolution – is necessary in times of crisis,” Gessner writes.
Gessner’s targets are the usual suspects, the extractive industries operating on federal lands, President Trump and former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, and the cowboys and ranchers who covet the national lands they lease and harass Native Americans and environmentalists at the annual Bears Ears Summer Gathering, which Gessner attends and writes about.
But Gessner doesn’t fall into the common trap of letting the recreation industry off the hook, as so many do when exploring destructive use of national lands.
Gessner takes a dialectical look at the argument of national versus local control of public lands, and one of the best parts of the book is his interview with Phil Lyman, a county commissioner in Blanding, Utah, who would rather see the Bears Ears National Monument – a large land designation created by President Obama in 2016, which President Trump is attempting to shrink – go from federal control to local control.
“Traffic is way, way up,” since the creation of the monument, Lyman tells Gessner. “Tourism is way, way up. Just because something is appealing to a lot of people doesn’t mean you should sell it. And a national monument feels like it is selling Bears Ears to the rest of the world.
“My observation is that the environmentalists, the liberals, are the first ones to sell out,” Lyman adds. “Someone waves a little money, and they are ready … that’s what’s so ironic about a company like Patagonia coming in and criticizing local county commissioners, like myself. It’s like, ‘Wait a second, you’re the one that’s in the industrialized tourism business. Listen, the reason you’re a heavyweight with politicians is because you threw around so much money.'”
Gessner says Lyman’s views are not unreasonable, but as he talks more to the “Republican anti-monument rebel,” as he calls Lyman, Gessner starts to develop a suspicion that Lyman is simply mining the best arguments based on nothing more than a dislike for Presidents Clinton and, especially, Obama, who Lyman mentions by name in the interview.
“I would argue with (Lyman’s) contention that local people in his position thought they were being treated fairly and kindly ‘up until about 20 years ago,'” Gessner writes.
Biomass gets a pass
One person who gets a pass from Gessner is environmentalist Bill McKibben, who Gessner says he has known since college. McKibben had been recently doxed before meeting with Gessner, “receiving death threats because of his activism, and a commentator on a conservative website had given out his home address for anyone who wanted to follow through on those threats.”
But Gessner doesn’t mention the left-wing vitriol that has been directed at McKibben, as well.
The Michael Moore documentary “Planet of the Humans,” released in April, makes a villain of McKibben, likening him to one of the liberal sellouts as described by Lyman. The documentary shares video of McKibben extolling the practice of converting trees to energy — a boon for the logging industry — while speaking at the grand opening of Middlebury’s biomass gasification system.
“It’s incredibly beautiful to stand over there and see that big bunker full of wood chips,” McKibben says. “You can put any kind of wood in – oak, willow, whatever you want.”
Gessner describes deforestation as being a part of force of westward movement that is still very much with us, but doesn’t mention biomass plants and their insatiable appetite for trees.
But his description of the process by which the national forest was created, its origins as a forest “reserve” and how it can be used to protect the remaining trees in the forest, more than makes up for the lack of scrutiny on McKibben.
Gessner notes that national forest land needs to be saved from logging, fracking, grazing and drilling. Conspicuously absent from that list is wildfire, the prevention of which has been used as a justification for logging projects across the west.
The national forests are “reserves still, and what we do with them is up to us, the American people,” Gessner writes.
Gessner describes public lands as something that seems like “a prescient gift from an earlier time,” and says “The past, which we often seem so scornful of these days, offers guidance. It tells us that rather than ‘give back’ these lands to the states, we should hold on dearly to them.”
The image in the mirror
Gessner also gets to a familiar thread of his own self-loathing, although it’s not nearly as pointed as the hatred described in his youth memoir “Ultimate Glory,” where he rips a sink from the wall because he didn’t like the image in the mirror.
In “Leave it as it is,” Gessner tries find that level of anger again, but can’t quite muster it. In all the environmental issues facing us, the threat still isn’t quite immediate enough to bring about the type of blind rage where we act with no regard to the consequences. The image in the mirror isn’t right in front of us, it’s off in the distance, still a little blurry. We know what it is reflecting, but it’s still not in our face enough to make us want to rip the sink from the wall.
But Gessner is getting there. In writing about losses of trees, and losses of birds, he urges readers to “takes these losses personally.” In examining the life of President Theodore Roosevelt, which is also a major motivator for Gessner in writing “Leave it as it is,” he finds inspiration.
“To Roosevelt it was personal,” Gessner writes. “Despite an action-crammed life, he kept his eyes, and emotions, open to the losses, losses that it are much easier to tolerate when you are not looking outward.”
Gessner takes the reduction of the Bears Ears National Monument personally, “because the national monument that was in the crosshairs was one where I’d often hiked and paddled and camped over the years,” he said.
My favorite part of the book is Gessner’s acknowledgment, and quick definition, of something we know well in Vail, the process of “Disneyfication” that can happen when a beautiful area is made accessible and marketed to tourists.
Gessner knows that some level of Disneyfication is likely for Bears Ears if the National Monument status holds, and comes up with a plan to mitigate its effects.
In Bears Ears, an area which is estimated to contain more than 100,000 cultural and archaeological sites, “some sites might have to be sacrificed and Disneyfied – that is, to almost become dioramas of their original selves,” Gessner writes. “This is already true in many parks … I nominate the only site that Secretary Zinke visited for this Disneyfication, since it is an easy one mile walk in and right off the road … By all means put up signs and sacrifice this particular site in the name of tourism. But keep other places private. Leave them as they are.”
Support Local Journalism
Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.
User Legend: Moderator Trusted User
Vail’s updated plans regarding the state guidelines and isolation housing requirements is one of several pieces of information guests are waiting on heading into the 2020-21 season.