The West is an exploiter’s paradise

By Richard Knight

High on a mesa where everyone can see it, a trophy house is going up in the northern Colorado valley where I live. Some of my neighbors hear that the house will be as big as 15,000 square feet. Others say it will take three years to complete. Whether that is valley gossip or truth, the house is now the center of everybody’s attention.

Until this happened, my valley seemed to offer much of the best of what Colorado has to offer, including views of a snow-capped mountain range, and spread out below, irrigated hayfields with black cows on tan rangeland. But now, right in the center of the valley, will be one person acting out a lack of consideration for others.

Gigantic trophy houses seem to signal, “I built here to see, but also to be seen.” It’s a jarring reminder that we in the New West are remaking the Old West in our own image, a job that apparently requires a drastic redoing of topography. These big homes seem to follow a pattern of complicated rooflines, lots of windows that reflect the light and “ego gates” at the beginning of driveways.

Most of us in this valley delight in what we’ve been able to see from our front door: Uninterrupted ridgelines, cliffs, and the rounded slopes that converge to make foothills, which then rise into mountains. Nature made these views, and we’ve been fortunate to have them in our lives every day.

But more and more, houses that resemble castles are sprouting on ridgelines and hilltops, here and all over the mountains. And sometimes it’s ordinary houses or trailers that get built on ridgelines, interrupting the natural flow of the land.

Where only a few years ago our eyes might find comfort in tracing a ridge’s backbone — wondering how it got to be named White Pine Mountain when no white pines grow there — now we look at manmade structures that irritate the eyes.

People who have lived in my valley for decades share a different style. Appreciating what a winter wind can do to steal warmth from inside a house, they looked for sheltered areas to build. They saw it made sense to build low, tucking a home against the south side of a hill or cliff.

Most yard lights were few and hard to see, as were their homes. But the new Western lifestyle broadcasts yard lights at night for all to see, just as the homes are conspicuously visible during the day.

In this newfangled West that has “ranched the view,” people apparently need to stand out to enjoy an amenity lifestyle. Will these new folk ever take time to appreciate the human and natural histories of the place they live in now, to show respect for the land and its natural beauty? Will they learn to be considerate of neighbors and not take away from the views that define where we live?

It’s shameful to think that just as we first moved into the West to exploit its valuable resources, we now exploit the last resource our region has to offer — its heart-stopping beauty.

There is some good news, because in many parts of the West we are learning how to sustainably log, graze, divert water and develop energy. I hope it’s not too late for us to also realize the value of fitting into the land as residents, to keep intact our ridgelines, mesas, mountains and valley floors. Once a house caps a hilltop, however, that view is irretrievable, gone forever.

I hope we can learn how to value homes that blend with the land in shape, color and location. Maybe a new generation of home builders, architects, and developers will lead the way in paying due respect to our region’s natural beauty.

But I’m afraid that it’s too late for our valley. The great writer Wallace Stegner told us that the task of Westerners was to build a society to match the scenery. From what I see, we’re not doing the job.

Richard Knight is a contributor to Writers on the Range,, an independent nonprofit that hopes to inspire lively conversation about the West. He works at the intersection of land use and land health in the American West.

Outside Capitol Reef, photo courtesy of Michael Shoemaker

This column was published in the following newspapers:

02/06/2023 Mountain Journal Bozeman MT
02/06/2023 Vail Daily Vail CO
02/06/2023 Explore Big Sky Big Sky MT
02/06/2023 Craig Daily Press Craig co
02/06/2023 Steamboat Pilot Steamboat Springs CO
02/06/2023 Park Record Park City UT
02/07/2023 Grand Junction Daily Sentinel Grand Junction CO
02/07/2023 Four Points Press Garryowen MT
02/06/2023 Montrose Daily Press Montrose CO
02/07/2023 Yahoo sunnyvale ca
02/07/2023 Carlsbad Current-Argus Carsbad NM
02/07/2023 Denver Post Denver CO
02/07/2023 MSN.COM Seattle WA
02/08/2023 Glenwood Post Independent Glenwood Springs CO
02/08/2023 Kingman Daily Miner Kingman AZ
02/08/2023 Jackson Hole News & Guide Jackson Hole WY
02/08/2023 Salt Lake Tribune Salt Lake City UT
02/08/2023 Aspen Daily News Aspen CO
02/08/2023 Idaho Statesman Boise ID
02/08/2023 Greeley Tribune Greeley CO
02/08/2023 Bozeman daily chronicle Bozeman MT
02/09/2023 Boulder Weekly Boulder CO
02/09/2023 Wyoming Tribune Eagle Cheyenne WY
02/09/2023 Taos News Taos NM
02/09/2023 Pagosa Springs Sun Pagosa Springs CO
02/09/2023 Wenatchee World Wenatchee WA
02/09/2023 Twin Falls Times News Twin Falls ID
02/10/2023 Idaho Mountain Express Ketchum ID
02/10/2023 St. George Spectrum St. George UT
02/10/2023 Moab Times Independent Moab UT
02/09/2023 Camus-Washougal Post Record Camus WA
02/14/2023 Boulder Daily Camera Boulder CO
02/14/2023 Bandon Western World Bandon OR
02/14/2023 Del Norte Triplicate Crescent City CA
02/14/2023 Lake Powell Chronicle Page AZ
02/16/2023 Arvada Press Arvada Co
02/14/2023 Curry Coastal Pilot Brookings OR
02/14/2023 The Golden Transcript Golden Co
02/14/2023 Jeffco Transcript Jefferson County CO
02/19/2023 Summit Daily frisco co
02/20/2023 Colorado Springs Gazette Colorado Springs Co
02/17/2023 Aspen Times Aspen CO
02/20/2023 Coyote Gulch Denver CO
02/20/2023 Canyon Courier Courier Co
03/07/2023 Clear Creek Current Idaho Springs Co
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Honest Reviewer
1 year ago

There was a time in America when people were raised to think of others, not just themselves. We were taught to care and have concern about those around us and about the effect our actions had on others. Now people seem focused on acquiring their over-the-top dazzling prizes no matter what the cost to others or the environment. The puzzling question is why do people need the biggest and the best these days? Huge mansions on the hill shining like some perverse beacon of materialistic consumerism gone mad. Soccer moms dropping their kids off at school in humongous gas-guzzling Suburban monstrosities. Is it some kind of egotistical trophy held up to others to say “I’m rich and you’re not, ha ha…”? Is it about posting your wealthy, fabulous, and happy life on Instagram for all to see and envy? I don’t know what it’s about. I’m forever confused why people feel the need for grandiose rather than an adequate more modest version. 

By the way, check the license plates of the trophy house owner’s Escalade (or is it a Range Rover?) and I’ll bet they’re “California” plates. Just sayin…

Tim Taylor
1 year ago

Thank you for writing what many of us are thinking. The trend to try and make the houses stand out and the use of exterior lighting to illuminate the house at night are terrible things. It is as if the builders and owners are juvenile and screaming “look at me, look at me”. Our night sky is now obliterated by these monstrosities.

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1 year ago

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