We are all preservationists now!
If you have yet to read Jonathan Thompson’s feature Wind Resistance in the December 09-January 10 edition you have a treat in store. By describing in vivid detail the politics surrounding wind power development in Wyoming, Jonathan elucidates what may be the largest cultural change which the West has experienced in this century so far – the mainstreaming of preservation.
As western urbanization, industrialization and flight to rural areas has accelerated, more and more westerners discover that they have become preservationist. No matter that your background is in one of the West’s traditional extractive industries; no matter that you are a Republican; no matter that you are a friend and colleague of Dick Chaney….you find yourself none-the-less highly motivated to protect western landscapes that you have come to love. If you go down this path you are likely to find yourself in coalition with local environmentalists whom you have attacked and disparaged for years.
Is this just standard NIMBY behavior or does it indicate a basic shift which will change western politics fundamentally? It is probably too early to tell. But the Wyoming wind story is not the only indication that change has occurred. Consider, for example, the following resolution passed recently by the National Grange and California State Grange:
WHEREAS: THE KLAMATH RIVER WAS THE THIRD LARGEST SALMON FISHERY ON THE PACIFIC COAST, AND
WHEREAS: IN SEPTEMBER OF 2002, LOW FLOWS AND WATER QUALITY DEGRADATION CAUSED A KILL OF MORE THAN 33,000 MIGRATING SALMON AND SIMILAR CONDITIONS CAUSED SIGNIFICANT SALMON KILLS IN 1994, 1997, AND 2000 AND,
WHEREAS: A DRAFT KLAMATH BASIN RESTORATION AGREEMENT WRITTEN BY THE KLAMATH SETTLEMENT GROUP (CONSISTING OF 26 STAKEHOLDER ORGANIZATIONS) WAS RELEASED IN JANUARY OF 2008 SETTING FORTH SHORT AND LONG TERM RESTORATION GOALS AND RIVER MANAGEMENT STRATEGIES, AND
WHEREAS: THE PLAN IS INCOMPLETE AND DOES NOT INCLUDE INPUT FROM ALL POTENTIAL STAKEHOLDERS AND DOES NOT APPEAR TO HAVE BEEN ACTED UPON, AND
WHEREAS: UNDER THE PUBLIC TRUST DOCTRINE, THE WATERS OF THE KLAMATH RIVER ARE OWNED BY THE STATES FOR THE PEOPLE IN PUBLIC TRUST,
THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED: THE CALIFORNIA STATE GRANGE AND THE NATIONAL GRANGE SHALL PETITION THE CALIFORNIA LEGISLATURE AND THE NATIONAL CONGRESS TO CONVENE HEARINGS TO ACHIEVE A KLAMATH BASIN RESTORATION PLAN AND TO FUND A COMPLETE STAKEHOLDER WORKING GROUP TO PRODUCE A DEFINITIVE KLAMATH BASIN RESTORATION PLAN TO BE SUBMITTED TO CONGRESS FOR FUNDING.
While this resolution reflects the traditional populist approach of the Grange it also refers to the Public Trust Doctrine. That doctrine is anathema to the western anti-environmental right as well as to Big Ag which is working hard to convert public trust water into a private commodity.
Just a few years ago it would have been inconceivable for the California State and National Grange leadership to endorse such a resolution because the organization was dominated by strongly ideological anti-environmental individuals. Grange membership still includes many folks who fit that definition. But something has change; folks with a different perspective are now in leadership positions.
These examples point to an opportunity for environmentalists. The Greens could make common cause with right-wing rural preservationists in opposition to large power generation developments, intrusive transmission lines and top-down command and control government action. That would build relationships and could pay huge environmental dividends down the line. But there is a problem: the Sierra Club and other major environmental groups have endorsed the Obama Administration’s push for large, low-carbon energy generation developments and the major transmission lines needed to bring that power to where it is consumed. That puts the environmental establishment into direct conflict with the new rural preservationists.
The alternative to large centralized power plants and ugly high voltage lines to supply the grid is decentralized generation, also know as distributed generation. Distributed generation “reduces the amount of energy lost in transmitting electricity because the electricity is generated very near where it is used, perhaps even in the same building. This also reduces the size and number of power lines that must be constructed.”
Distributed electric generation was the way commercial electric service began in this country. The first commercial power plant – the Pearl Street plant in New York City - was constructed by Thomas Edison in 1882. It utilized the waste heat of generation to heat neighborhood buildings to which it also supplied electricity. Edison favored a distributed electric generation systems using direct current. But his views did not prevail. Instead the ideas of Nikola Tesla - who favored alternating power and large centralized generation - came to dominate.
The need to transform electric generation from high carbon fossil fuels to non-carbon sources presents the opportunity to reorient electric generation from centralized to distributed systems. Such a transformation would also preserve western landscapes. But, as noted above, the Environmental Establishment is too close to the Obama Administration and too enamored of large-scale energy solutions to take such action. That leaves the field open to smaller, regional and local environmental groups. Not just in Wyoming but all over the West grassroots green groups are linking up with former adversaries to fight against large power development and the transmission lines they require. Whether and how this will change western environmental politics over the longer term remains to be seen.