The latest "War on the West"

Western jobs are under attack -- or are they?


Hey folks, did you know there's a war on? This isn't one of the international conflicts in Afghanistan or Iraq. It's coming out of Washington, D.C., and it's “The War on Western Jobs.” Or at least, that's the word from the capital’s Senate and Congressional Western Caucuses.

Last fall, 18 senators and 37 representatives released a 34-page report (PDF) explaining just how Western jobs are under attack these days. “Taxing energy use” might seem like a reasonable way to reduce consumption and the federal deficit, but according to the Western Caucus, it's a “job-killing” act of war, as violent as “Over-regulating coal” and “Restricting access to America's vast reserves of affordable oil and natural gas.”

The notion that there's a “War on the West” being waged by tree-hugging Eastern elitists is nothing new. The phrase, or some variant thereof, may have been around since 1907 when Henry M. Teller, a U.S. senator from Colorado, got perturbed by the forest reserves -- ancestors of today's national forests. “Are not men more important than trees?” Teller asked. “I would rather see people living on the land than see timber on it, no matter how beautiful it is.”

I first heard about the “War on the West” in 1977, after President Jimmy Carter issued a “hit list” of pork-barrel Western water projects he opposed. The immediate reaction from many Western politicians to this burst of fiscal sanity was that Carter had “declared war on the West.”

The phrase popped up again in Grand Junction, Colo., in the fall of 1996. Campaigning there, Republican vice-presidential candidate Jack Kemp promised that he and Bob Dole would “end the Clinton Administration's War on the West.”

Just a year earlier, William Perry Pendley had published the book War on the West: Government Tyranny on the Great Frontier. Pendley, a lawyer and a native of Cheyenne, Wyo., heads the Coloardo-based Mountain States Legal Foundation. It's a job that James Watt, Secretary of the Interior under Reagan, once held, and as you might have guessed, the foundation is partial to resource development.

In his 1995 book, Pendley laid out elements of the “War,” as it was supposedly conducted by environmental extremists who, by means of a subversive process known as a “national election,” had seized control of the federal government, which owns a fair chunk of the West.

The region’s enemies, Pendley wrote, had a major weapon in the Endangered Species Act, “declaring that the creatures of the West were more important than its human inhabitants.” According to Pendley, environmentalists had declared war on the General Mining Act of 1872, the West's scarce water resources, the use of public lands for timber harvest and energy development, and even on the cowboy.

Those making “War on the West” must have fielded some remarkably inept soldiers, because after 16 years, they still haven't been able to claim victory. But they're still dangerous, as we learn from the Western Caucus report about “The War on Western Jobs.”

The Senate side of the caucus is chaired by John Barrasso, R-Wyo., while the House side is led by Rob Bishop, R-Utah.

These are rather curious regional caucuses. You could probably argue that Texas is part of the West (even though it votes with the South). Or that Great Plains states like Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and the Dakotas qualify as Western. But some states are past argument. The “Western caucus” has members from Georgia, South Carolina, Pennsylvania and Louisiana. The West is a big place, but it isn't that big.

Further, the Western Caucus has no senators from genuine Western states like Colorado, New Mexico, Montana, California, Oregon and Washington. Why is that? Well, those states are represented by Democrats in the U.S. Senate. The so-called “Western Caucus” is really “Some Republicans, some of them not from the West, claiming to speak on behalf of the West.”

And when you read their “Jobs” manifesto, you can see that they take a very narrow view of Western employment. It's as though we were all sitting around waiting for the big mine to re-open, the imaginary one that was closed by federal environmental regulations, rather than the real one that shut down during the Reagan years on account of Republican free-trade policies that made imported minerals cheaper than domestic production.

The Republicans are trying to have it both ways on mining. The War on Western Jobs Report blasts "the Obama Administration and Democrats in Congress" for implementing "policies that send high-paying mining jobs overseas to countries with less regard for the environment," which "dangerously increases our reliance on foreign nations for the metals and minerals that power our economy."

So they could fix this by putting tariffs on imported minerals, thereby making them more costly, and thus encouraging domestic production, right? Except Republicans are, by-and-large, in favor of free trade, and their big-business campaign contributors prefer cheap supplies, no matter where they're imported from.

Timber harvests are down. More of that War on Western Jobs, with spotted owls receiving preferential treatment? Or could it be that new-house construction has pretty well tanked, and there’s no point in harvesting timber if there's no market for it? Do these Republicans actually believe in markets?

Apparently not, since they also bemoan "a restrictive new regulatory framework for U.S. oil shale resources." It isn't restrictions that prevent development; it's the market. There's no profitable way to extract fuel from shale at current energy prices. But the Republicans are not for higher prices, either, since taxing other fuels would raise prices and perhaps make oil shale competitive, and they call that "Job Killing Policy No. 1."

To the Republicans, we're all roughnecks, miners, lumberjacks and cowboys. The jobs that people around my corner of the West do -- river guides, hunting outfitters, art-gallery owners, baristas, web developers, teachers, cooks, nurses -- well, they're invisible to the Western Caucus. Sure, we used to have a lot of resource jobs around here, but they vanished 30 years ago during the Reagan years. Eventually, we figured out that those jobs will never come back, and we found other pursuits.

It's time, past time, to put away “War on the West” and its rhetorical relatives like “War on Western Jobs.” “War on the West” simply echoes what certain Republicans have chanted for at least 34 years, whenever there was a Democratic administration. And somehow the West has survived all these “wars.”

We'd all be better off if these Republicans dropped the military talk and started giving some serious thought to the West we live in -- the one where people pay premium prices to live next to public land, the one where clear air and clean water and abundant wildlife are important economic resources. Their mythological West, in which rugged frontiersmen are prevented by intrusive federal regulations from making a living, is dead. Matter of fact, it never existed.



Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at