Idealistic Naturalist or Violent Criminal?: Individual vs. Community Rights in our Forests

It’s been almost two months since the Cold Springs Fire and it has ignited quite a bit of controversy in our mountain community. Official and grassroots meetings, Facebook and in-person groups, local and national media attention—it appears that anyone and everyone has an opinion about people “camping/living” in the forests right outside our back doors. (Yes, even the vocabulary is fiercely debated.) Part of my role in our community is confidentially listening to people’s stories, whether in my office or at Roy’s, the B&F or Taggert’s, and for each of the following viewpoints I’ve heard plenty.

Sometimes this debate is framed in terms of valuing the individual. This argument is full of stories of loving families living idyllically in the national forest, bringing their children up in the wilds of America and being confronted by bullying locals who force them off the land with fear and intimidation. Additionally when these kind-hearted souls come to town for supplies, local businesses are cast as discriminatory and intentionally refusing service and resources. Non-profits and locals are accused of not really understanding these folks and needing to have more compassion concerning their (perhaps) challenging lives. (I added in the perhaps; I’m not a fan of assuming we know information about someone’s past based on our assessment of their present life circumstances.)

On the other side, this debate is framed in terms of valuing community. Stories from this perspective include violent, mentally ill, addicted assault-weapon carrying packs of adults who bring entire living room sets into the forest. From this side of the argument, locals spend their weekends hauling out truckloads of trash, and kindly educating people about fire safety. Mountain businesses and non-profits go out of their way to provide resources and culturally-appropriate services for little to no money, providing jobs, housing, counseling and childcare.

I think part of why this hits such a nerve for us is because rural, mountain folks tend to value self-sufficiency and the frontier Western spirit more than our urban neighbors. We are more sensitive to being told what we can and cannot do, especially when it comes to land use. However research consistently shows the more geographic space between people, the stronger the community bond. So as we continue to debate answers to these complicated issues, let’s take time to remember that whether we like it or not, our individual lives are tied to those around us and we need a comprehensive solution we all can live with.