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If the American West were a business or a nonprofit organization, what would be its mission statement? Thirty years ago, back when the current ‘New West’ was taking off, the region’s purpose seemed pretty clear: provide an attractive backdrop to an emerging amenity economy. Part playground, part nature reserve, with some residual natural resource extraction (cows, trees, minerals) thrown in, the American West, after decades of argument among competing visions, seemed to have found its calling as a majestic refuge. Its mountains, rivers, and plains were seen by many as a sanctuary for stressed-out wildlife and humans alike. Its chief product was relief.

Along the Frontier: A Burger with a Mission

If the American West were a business or a nonprofit organization, what would be its mission statement?

Thirty years ago, back when the current ‘New West’ was taking off, the region’s purpose seemed pretty clear: provide an attractive backdrop to an emerging amenity economy. Part playground, part nature reserve, with some residual natural resource extraction (cows, trees, minerals) thrown in, the American West, after decades of argument among competing visions, seemed to have found its calling as a majestic refuge. Its mountains, rivers, and plains were seen by many as a sanctuary for stressed-out wildlife and humans alike. Its chief product was relief.

Even as recently as a decade ago, this vision seemed to be holding despite the rise of new challenges, as well as the exposure of tourism’s less attractive qualities. Questions of society’s “sustainability” began to be asked, for example. Were our energy sources renewable? Was our food healthy? Where did it come from? Was our water supply secure? Should we being plowing under our best agricultural land for subdivisions? Was a materialistic culture undermining our youth? Why weren’t they getting outside more often? Was the climate changing?

Today, these questions – and more – dominate many of our discussions, suggesting that our decades-old vision of the region needs to be revised. In fact, it’s already happening. Here and there, a new frontier is opening as the West-as-sanctuary idea gives way to something else. Early signs suggest it will be a combination of something old and something new.

I caught a glimpse of this new frontier last week while visiting a burger joint in downtown Flagstaff, Arizona.

This was no ordinary burger joint. All the meat came from two large local ranches – the Flying M and the Bar T Bar. It also featured Belgian-style fries, cooked in peanut oil, hormone-free whole milk milkshakes, herbs, onions and tomatoes from local farms, bread and cookies from a bakery called Simply Bread in Phoenix, citrus from McClendon’s Select farm in Peoria, Arizona, ice cream from the Straus Family creamery and beer from the North Coat Brewing Company, both located north of San Francisco.

In other words, it offered something old and something new: fresh, healthy local food.

It’s called Diablo Burger. It is associated with (but operated independently from) the Diablo Trust, a collaborative nonprofit formed in 1993 to “keep the work in working landscapes” near Flagstaff. The tiny restaurant opened in early 2009 and by every account that I heard and saw it has become a successful enterprise. Interestingly, it aims its business at residents, not tourists. Local food for local people. The restaurant takes only cash – in order to keep the money in the local economy.

Why local? Here’s what the menu said: “Because local food retains more nutrients; because it supports the local economy; because it keeps local agricultural land in production, ensuring that future generations will still be surrounded by lots of open fields, grazing lands and wildlife habitat; because local food increases community food security by retaining the experts that know how to produce food; and because local food has a story – knowing where your food comes from means that its source is not anonymous, but accountable. Lastly, by eating local you are integrating ecology, community, and gastronomy…you are doing well by eating well.”

I did well. The food was delicious. I went back for a second burger the next day.

Don’t take my word for it. Here’s an online review by Katherine LaRue: “Upon my first bite, I realized this was not your average burger. The beef was the best I had ever eaten. It was lean and medium rare…equally delicious were the fries, which were cut on-site. All in all, the meal deserved a standing ovation…Their name might be Diablo Burger, but man, do they serve one holy cow.”

It’s all about the mission. Success depends on a clear vision. “While all of that may sound like it is trying to be noble,” write the Diablo’s owners on their web site, “for us it’s really about being tasty. We want to connect the well-being of our community to the sustainability of our landscape through gastronomy…which is just a fancy word for cheeseburger.”

What’s a fancy word for the American West in the 21st century? What is its mission? Decades ago, Wallace Stegner gave us one when he implored us to “create a society to match the scenery.” That New West didn’t happen. Now folks are trying again, starting with food – and new vision is emerging.

Author and eater Gary Paul Nabhan puts it this way: “You walk away from Diablo Burger with a lingering sense that your decision to eat there has pretty good for you, for the land, and for the local rural community. What more could you want?”

You can read Courtney’s entire series of columns, which are presented as a sequence, on his New West archive at www.newwest.net/courtneywhite. See the most recent columns below.

The New, Carbon West
Understanding the ‘New’ West: Whither the Public Lands?
The Geography of Hope
After the West’s New Gold Rush

About Courtney White

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9 comments

  1. The average food item in America travels about 1500 miles from source to mouth. Local food for local people (and schools, and hoepitals, etc) is the most effective set of actions we can take for our health and local economic sustainability, IMHO. Thanks for the great article. My wife and I have strong connections to Flag. Great town and people.

  2. There are over 30 breweries in Arizona, three in Flagstaff and you celebrate that they get their beer shipped in from California? Support your local brewery!

  3. Citrus orchards in a desert. That’s sustainable.

  4. jim,

    Very few citrus orchards left in the desert. They have just about all been covered by homes. I suppose these sub-divisions are more sustainable with the limited water supplies. Besides with the longer growing seasons in the desert the land is much more productive in growing crops than most any other place, but sadly again most of it has been paved over.

  5. “Were paving over paradise” is mythological nonsense. According to data from the Census and National Resource Inventory, only about 4% of the land area of the U.S. not including Alaska has been developed.

  6. “mythological nonsense” ??? You are trying to compare apples to oranges. It’s too bad most of the development in central Arizona wasn’t out on desert lands instead of on the most productive farm land in the US where they used to grow 10-11 cuttings of alfalfa in a 12 month period and that is just one small example. No where else in the US can this be done. Go to Michigan, go to almost any state in the lower 48, and you will see the same thing. A big share of the development takes place on the prime farm lands and not out in the other 96% of the land. This is one reason US is importing more and more of our food every year. The Frontier is shrinking, and Flagstaff doesn’t have much if any prime farmland, and the cattle numbers have shrunk considerably in northern AZ. so even local beef is probably at a premium. I agree with Helena in that, why import beer from San Francisco when they brew it locally.

  7. What a great idea — a mission statement for the West. There would never be consensus, of course, but what a fantastic discussion.

    This piece also addresses a question I’ve been pondering recently: Where in Missoula can I go to satisfy my occasional burger cravings with Montana-raised beef? Anywhere?

    On a related subject, why does Costco sell Australian lamb when Montana produces so many sheep?

  8. When I lived in Missoula, I drove a few miles south into the Bitteroot Valley and bought a live lamb and brought it back home and slaughtered it in my back yard. I skinned it and cut all the meat out of it and took it to the butcher and had him grind it up with about 20% beef fat. Best burgers I ever ate. I had the hide processed and used it for something warm to sit on.
    Economics of Free Trade: The idea being that on a level playing field, the consumer will get the best and cheapest products if every producer can compete for the consumer’s dollars regardless of production location including the cost of transportation and production. Costs of scale favors larger producers. A large percentage of U.S. agricultural products are exported to foreign countries. Still works. Locavore: Kind of a left wing fad idea that you should shop locally to support your neighbors and eat healthier. Ultimately its a protectionist idea that taken to its logical conclusion inhibits free trade and doesn’t benefit the consumer or the economy in the long run.

  9. Contrary to conventional wisdom, urbanization is not significantly threatening national farmland or agricultural productivity. 1.research shows that 26 percent of the decline in cropland can be attributed to urbanization. Structural changes in the agricultural industry, including declining profitability and shifting demand for agricultural products, accounts for the remainder. 2. Cropland (land used to produce food) has remained stable even as the amount of land in farms has declined. 3. Agricultural productivity is at an all-time high. The U.S. exports about 47% of its domestically produced rice, about 42% of its wheat, about 37% of its cotton, about 34% of its soybeans, and about 17% of it grain corn. 4. Most farmland conversion is to non-urban uses such as forests, pasture, range land, and recreational uses.