Wednesday, February 1, 2012

You Can Outthink a Tree…But You Can’t Outrun It’: Ruminations on Nature, Culture, and Redevelopment

A Brief Vignette on Nature and Culture in the Wildland-Urban Interface

“It is true. All we’re doing is just making rich peoples’ yards prettier. That’s what we do.” - Keedy

We ate our bagged lunches along the freshly paved, two-lane road leading up the mountain to “The Colony,” a gated, skiing community in Park City, Utah. We were taking our lunch break in a muddy area near a drainage culvert between the road and a steep, snowy stand of blown over aspen and firs. We had been working that morning to protect the community from wildfire by removing “hazardous” fuels (1). The juxtaposition of Red Mountain Fuels Mitigation crewmembers in hardhats and work clothes to the business-casual, community residents driving by in their new SUVs, trucks, and Mercedes could not have been more dramatic. In between bites of a bologna sandwich, Rat Face asked, “Where are all the homes?” Medina dragged hard on his cigarette and then replied, “They’re up at the top of the mountain…the rich go higher." (2)

Park City is a thirty-minute drive along I-80 from Salt Lake City. The drive to Park City takes one along a slow, winding ascent into the mountains to skiing and outdoor recreation areas. Narrow canyons with reddish-pink, rocky soil, abundant sagebrush, serviceberry, and gambel oak initially surround the traveler on his or her way to Park City. It is a dry, often flammable, landscape consisting of numerous rocky peaks and sparse valleys. The only significant developments in the area are the occasional large, dusty mineral mines visible from the highway. Urban sprawl seems to have leapfrogged this location, leaving only the highway behind to connect Park City to Salt Lake. It is, admittedly, a hard and uninviting landscape.

However, the view changes as the elevation increases and the temperature drops. The vegetation becomes a greener, yet similarly flammable, mixture of species such as lodgepole pine, subalpine fir, engelmann spruce, and aspen. The soil and rock are now dark gray in color and snow is visible on the mountaintops. The views must be what have inspired so much human settlement and development in this fire-adapted landscape. Small communities such as Parley’s Summit reveal brick, stucco, and log homes at the foot of the hills, behind the large, granite walls that line the freeway. These are precursors to the upcoming city. Human development increases, becoming denser as one approaches Park City and its various residential and commercial enclaves. Homes become bigger and more spread out as you climb the mountain. The transition starts with small, attractive, new houses and condominiums packed together at the bottom of the mountain and ends with behemoth estates spread across spacious, mountaintop lots.

Most of the buildings in Park City try to capture a certain woodsy quality, with many structures made of beautiful, golden pine logs—the houses, shopping centers, signs, even the car wash. The simulated rustic flavor in Park City attempts to portray this recently developed locale as anything but developed. Even the Mountain Dew machine at the local plant nursery has a picture of a waterfall pasted on the front. It is an enchanting scene, but as my coworker’s comments illustrate, it is defined by inconsistency: “Are those log homes? Because they look plastic, they’re so shiny.” “Yeah, my grandfather has a real cabin, it doesn’t look like that.”

Similar to Blakely and Snyder’s (1997: 14) discussion of the history of the suburbs, the creators of Park City have done “everything they could to dissociate their developments from the city.” Subdivisions in Park City boast nature inspired names such as “Jeremy Ranch,” “Bear Hollow Village,” “Deer Park,” “Red Pine Adventures,” “White Pine,” and “The Canyons.” The names are “meant to conjure up bucolic rural imagery and only coincidentally to reflect the actual landscape” (Blakely and Snyder 1997: 14). Slowly ascending the mountain in the old crew buggy, it is as if we have wandered into a countrified theme park—a commoditized romanticism of what the rural experience must have been like long ago. When we pull up in sight of an old fashioned wooden fence surrounding a grassy field in The Colony, my coworker Cymbals rants, “Rich people man, gotta put up a fake fence to make it look like they’re in the country even though everybody knows they’re fuckin’ rich.” Park City has all of the charm and beauty of a backwoods-hunting lodge with none of the associated inconveniences. This is urbanity’s wilderness, exurbia. This luxury class of residential and recreational development constitutes a re-“capitalized nature” (O’Connor 1993: 12) within the wildland-urban interface (3)  and it is one of the bigger constraints to appropriate fuels management and the reintroduction of natural fire cycles in America.

Significantly, it is here that a mottled transition from utilitarian, extractive industries to those based upon service sector expansion and aesthetic consumption continues to reinforce the tendency towards ineffective fire management practices in the name of market maintenance. It is this reality that my coworkers and I became closely acquainted with during our season of work as we consistently performed aesthetically pleasing, yet minimally functional, fuels reductions in an apparent effort to maintain privileged lifestyles in beautiful landscapes. This was the reason for our presence in The Colony, a community whose name and features wittingly or unwittingly connoted a sense of imperialism that led me to further question the distribution of costs and benefits resulting from this form of (re)development.

Anthropology and Development

“So what are you gonna write about…how people hate slopes, sagebrush, and fires, but they like trees?” – Chunk

I cut my anthropological teeth, so to speak, working on a wildfire fuels mitigation crew and studying the relationship between contemporary wildland fire management and the re-capitalization of nature in the American West. This was not what I originally intended to study however. My original research interests were as naïve as they were tentative and do not really warrant sharing. Luckily, my coworkers would push the project in a much more important and largely unforeseen direction as once again I would confirm, “the old saw that ethnographers end up studying whatever their hosts want to talk about” (Metcalf 2002: 32). In my case, my hosts wanted to talk about issues that would leave me forever engrossed in an effort to understand the dialectical relationships between environmental management, economic development, sustainability, and equitability. I guess one could argue that I went “native” and never came back, but I prefer to think that I just found my niche doing what they call the anthropology of development.

One of the themes this issue is supposed to cover is the role of anthropologists in the study of development. Well, I am not yet a full-fledged anthropologist and my theories tend to be under-theorized, but the way I see it is that the anthropologist’s primary role is to tell the story. Tell the story of development; tell it as accurately as possible and in a way those outside the academy might be interested to understand. And, keep telling it. My own thoughts on the best way to go about doing this revolve around an increased effort to study the production and consumption of commodities equally (Bakker and Bridge 2006) in a way that connects the resilience of the capitalist system to the resilience, broadly construed, of its ecosystems (Gunderson and Holling 2002).

It is only years later that I have come to see that this was the fundamental process that I was witnessing during my time in Utah’s wildland-urban interface. In the palimpsest of forest and agricultural industries largely transferred abroad lay a resurgent landscape ripe for the consumption of scenic views and bucolic ideals; the consumption of the palimpsest. The emergent processes of capitalist dis-integration and re-integration were entirely contingent and yet oddly predictable. As some places became areas of increased consumption, others necessarily became areas of increased extraction and vice versa. I think these are the types of connections that Bakker and Bridge would like us to make, in the true spirit of the dialectical method.

When thinking back to my time working in the wildland-urban interface, I am consistently reminded of a classic line of advice offered to me and the rest of the “S-212 Wildland Fire Chainsaws” class by our lead instructor Wayne about the need for a proper plan of action before any tree felling operation: “you can outthink a tree…but you can’t outrun it.” I, like most of my classmates, laughed at this statement when it was originally uttered. Of course we did. It was silly. It was meant to be funny. And yet, it was a warning; a warning that now functions as a useful heuristic for my own thinking on the subjects of nature, culture, development, and the intrinsic relationships between the three.

What does it mean? Like all good heuristics it means a bit of nothing and everything all at the same time. Mostly, however, it just reminds me of the fundamental ties that bind the socioecological “collective” (Latour 1999) - the ever-evolving processes of production and reproduction (Foster 2000). If you are seeking to gain some insight into the essence of the human existence in Earth then these processes will probably form the basis of your studies. And, if you are looking at these processes, then you are probably studying development in some shape or form. So, can you outthink development? I do not know. Can you outrun it? Absolutely not. But, if you pay attention, you might be able to tell the story in a way in which others could learn.

Jason Roberts

(1) Manipulation or removal of vegetative fuels by mechanical means to reduce the likelihood of ignition and/or to lessen potential damage and resistance to control.  Fire Terms Glossary.  “Fuels Mitigation.” Accessed May 2010. (
(2) All personal communications with coworkers and other research participants were made in work-related settings (5/08 – 8/08) and are related to the reader through the use of pseudonyms.
(3) “The line, area, or zone where structures and other human development meet or intermingle with undeveloped wildland or vegetative fuels” (U.S. Department of Interior and U.S. Department of Agriculture 1995: 21) 


Bakker, Karen and Gavin Bridge. 2006. Material Worlds? Resource Geographies and the ‘Matter of Nature.’ Progress in Human Geography 30(1): 5-27.

Blakely, Edward J., and Mary Gail Snyder. 1997. Fortress America: Gated communities in the United States. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press.

Foster, John Bellamy. 2000. Marx's Ecology: Materialism and Nature. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Gunderson, Lance H. and C.S. Holling eds. 2002. Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems. Washington: Island Press.

Latour, Bruno. 1999. Pandora’s Hope. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Metcalf, Peter. 2002. They Lie, We Lie: Getting on with Anthropology. London: Routledge.

O’Connor, Martin. 1993. On The Misadventures of Capitalist Nature. Capitalism, Nature, Socialism 4(3): 7-40.

U.S. Department of Interior and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 1995. Final Report of the Federal Wildland Fire Management Policy and Program Review. Boise, ID.


Sarah said...

This is a great paper! I'm working in Emergency Management in Texas right now, helping the recovery efforts from the wildfires in Bastrop and Spicewood. A few days after the fire we were looking for survivors and came across an elderly gentleman (who didn't live in the neighborhoods that burned). He told us the history of Tahitian Village, a neighborhood built in the pines against the advice of all the descendents of original settlers, who knew that pines burn quickly and that every 75 years or so there's a massive wildfire. He told us he could remember sitting at the feet of his great-grandmother in the early 1900s and listening to her remark on the follies of building in an area so at risk for fire. Though it was wiped out in September, and common sense would dictate that it isn't safe to build a community among pine needles in a state with a drought problem, developers are still planning to rebuild the neighborhood. The pines are beautiful, and despite the dangers, people with money want to develop and build on an area unsuitable for habitation. Which, as you pointed out, seems to be endemic in North America.

Anonymous said...

Great stuff JRob...thanks for dismantling the only city in all of Utah that I really liked! Great paper...there is more to you than just a flannel shirt and a sweet 'stache.

Jason said...

Hello Sarah and Taung,

Thank you so much for your constructive feedback. I always appreciate it. Please contact me at if there is anything you would like to discuss in more depth. I should have included my contact information previously, but it totally slipped my mind.


Anonymous said...

Great. Nice to see only one reference was written by an anthropologist!