Western Colorado Congressman Scott McInnis occupies a congressional seat that until 1972 was the most powerful one in the West. It was owned by the late Wayne Aspinall, a Democrat who chaired the House Interior Committee in the 1960s and early 1970s, when the federal government was continuing the development of the Interior West. Federal agencies built dams and interstate highways, and operated huge nuclear weapons complexes like Los Alamos, Hanford and Rocky Flats.
Aspinall ruled the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, as well as the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, which oversaw most of the 500,000 square miles of federal lands that occupy almost half of the region. Aspinall decided almost single-handedly that the Central Arizona Project, Glen Canyon Dam, Flaming Gorge Dam and other water projects should be built.
I was eager to hear his successor, McInnis, talk about water and other natural resources just as several billion dollars’ worth of Western reservoirs built at Aspinall’s direction are showing their dry bottoms. It was March in Grand Junction, and McInnis had the perfect audience: Club 20, a regional chamber of commerce for western Colorado that is generally pro-mining and logging.
Instead of talking about natural resources in his Grand Junction talk, McInnis, a Republican, spent his half hour promoting the Bush administration’s Iraq policy. The crowd was receptive, but not enthusiastic. These people had given up their Saturday to talk about the West, rather than about America’s second military reach for empire since the end of World War II.
The last military attempt to bend the world to our will began in the 1960s. Had Aspinall spoken to Club 20 when Vietnam was raging, he would have promoted the war, but he would also have had a lot to say about the West. That’s because the Congress and the White House under President Lyndon B. Johnson were determined to provide guns and butter. That is, they were determined to provide for both the military abroad, and the people back home.
Western “butter” in the 1960s came as expanded defense facilities, logging, mining and dam building; it also came as the newly created Canyonlands National Park in Utah, the Wilderness Act and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. When Richard M. Nixon became president in 1969, he further expanded our national park and wilderness systems, and signed the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act and others.
Those 15 years laid the foundation for the boom the Interior West experienced during the 1990s. A new balance had been struck between development and protection. Environmental laws, an active judiciary, and a growing environmental movement reined in logging, mining and dam building, giving a sense that the region had a bright, pristine future: writer Wallace Stegner’s “geography of hope.”
People responded by moving here. Hydropower and water from Glen Canyon and other dams and water from the Central Arizona Project allowed the Southwest and parts of the Mountain West to grow at 30 to 40 percent per decade.
Nothing is perfect, but development and protection were more or less in sync, and the economy boomed, culminating in the 1990s.
That boom is petering out, and there is no sign that we are building a new foundation on which to base the next economic advance. Today, there is no butter; there is no vision; there is no passion. The White House budgeteers have gutted the Forest Service’s permanent firefighting force as we go into the fire season. If we have fires this summer, the money to fight them will again come out of campgrounds, trails, fisheries, logging and habitat protection. The White House has also ordered the Forest Service and Park Service to replace many of their permanent employees with corporate contractors, inevitably weakening the agencies.
On the ground, BLM and Forest Service lands are being hammered by gas drilling; in addition to bombing Iraq, we are bombing San Juan County, N.M., the Powder River Basin of Wyoming, Garfield County, Colo., and Bozeman, Mont.
Unlike the Vietnam era, environmental laws are being weakened and protected lands like national monuments are being squeezed. This drought could be a warning that a calamity like the 1930s Dust Bowl is coming, but judging by McInnis’s silence, neither Congress nor the White House has plans to help.
It is not that we need to build more dams, or to clear-cut forests to keep them from burning. But we need the kind of balance that the tension between environmentalism and development produced in the 1960s. And we need empowered land managers to implement that balance. Instead, the Forest Service and BLM are being starved, and the land they’re supposed to manage is being destroyed. Congressman Scott McInnis’ decision to talk about guns rather than natural resources in Grand Junction shows he knows it, too.
Ed Marston is senior journalist at High Country News.