Frontier What?

America's long debate about land use fascinates me. Since childhood, words like "river," "forest," "mountain," and "wild" moved me to explore their physical, intellectual, and spiritual meanings. Along the way, I filled crates with journals built by more words: wilderness, rhetorical, multiple use, apologia, Gaia, ethos, carrying capacity, mitigation, limits. Boxes grew into stacks; words accumulated subtle meanings based on long strings of stories.

By the time graduate school drew me to University of Oregon in 1979, my primary goal was to write a rhetorical history of land use. When it came to development of natural lands, I wondered almost daily, to what extent does persuasive language make a difference? A major in rhetoric and communication lent more structure to my understanding of language and land. Coaching a competitive debate program drove my interest to obsession. Writing mired it in context.

Nineteen-seventy-nine was also the year I began working seasonally for the U.S. Forest Service in Southeast Alaska. I was deeply drawn to the Great Land; a vast, solemn space constellated by communities where citizens engage in land use disputes like this was the last place on earth. For the next four years I collected data to produce a history of American land use rhetoric, including an Alaska case study. By the time Battle for the Last Frontier was completed in 1983, I selected a community for long-term study: Haines, Alaska.

In a State known for its "mavericky" tendencies, Haines was ground zero for land use debate in the Last Frontier. I fell in love with it. In the next thirty years I transitioned from fishing crew and trail grunt to newspaper reporter, radio program director, high school English teacher, and university professor. In the school context, coaching debate sharpened my obsession to a fine point. In the community, I listened to hundreds of hours of community meetings, recorded dozens of oral histories, and lost track of volunteer hours donated to assorted events. Along the way I taught everybody's kids, attended a thousand potlucks, and wrote a few articles about the language we use to work things out.

I call it frontier rhetoric, the study of civic persuasion advocating a type of human use for land and nature. Whether in a townhall or around a cookfire, each orator-storyteller holds a key to a Truth. If you want that Truth accepted by other citizens, you act and speak in ways that best sends the message. Some strategies predictably fail; a few succeed. Whether in a meeting or online, functional democracy depends on the contributions of passionate people who persist with their advocacy, but know the empathic side of democracy.

In 2011 I will publish the first in a series of books dedicated to the study of frontier rhetoric. Dancing at Deer Rock: How John Muir and the Community of Conquest Tamed the Warlike Chilkats examines impacts of non-Natives on one of the last tribes in the United States to accept the American Way. Click here for a more detailed description.

The next book, Glacial Rebound: Conflict and Community on the Last Frontier, conveys Haines in full rhetorical splendor, including epic battles over timber, eagles, cruise ships, heli-skiing, tourism, fish, bears, and noise.

Crossing for Home is a memoir about
building a home completely off-grid and learning to live in a fishbowl community. The fourth book, Arguing Down the Great Land, offers a rhetorical portrait of Alaska's huge natural resource issues and the persuaders behind them.

The last book in the forthcoming series, Unbroken Double Song of Love and Lamentation, draws from 30,000 road miles and interviews with nearly 300 land use rhetors, including tribal lawyers, environmental activists, industry lobbyists, property rights advocates, and government regulators. In its pages is a sweeping portrait of American land use rhetoric.

Aside from all the rhetoric, my greatest inspiration stems from my wife, Robin, son, Charlie, and the home we occupy on the roadless side of Mud Bay.