If High Country News were in the habit of dispatching reporters to the Los Angeles area, we could begin our cover story there, in the metro hive of 17 million people. We could open with the average guy or gal, cranking on the air conditioner against the summer heat. Then we could follow the aftershocks of that little switch-flipping all the way to the heart of the Rocky Mountain West and Wyoming’s Upper Green River Basin.
The Upper Green is a classic resource colony — a remote sagebrush basin, occupied by a handful of people and sitting atop a huge natural gas deposit. Thousands of wells already feed the maw of a double-barreled pipeline that siphons the gas to Southern California. There, power plants burn it to make electricity for people who have most likely never heard of the Upper Green.
On the ground in the Upper Green, the impacts are more noticeable every day, as the oil and gas industry — and its political arm, the Bush administration — invade the Rockies with drilling rigs to solve a gas crisis. When electrical customers throw the switch in California, it threatens the way of life of a unique wild animal, the pronghorn antelope, as well as sage grouse and other vulnerable wildlife.
But these impacts are out of sight to most Americans. The Upper Green is a quiet cousin of the celebrated Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, where a caribou herd and polar bears famously roam the tundra atop a sea of fossil fuel. The Arctic Refuge has been protected from drilling so far, thanks to a successful campaign by the national environmental movement, but it’s tougher to get the public fired up about Wyoming sagebrush.
Joel Berger, a leading biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, and environmentalists working in the Upper Green have come up with the idea of creating a new form of official protection for such places: a national migration corridor. It’s a fresh and worthwhile idea, building on the concept of the Yellowstone to Yukon project, the brainchild of a broad alliance of environmental groups which seeks to protect wildlife migrations around the Northern Rockies. It may be politically infeasible at the moment, but a national migration corridor could be the next step for large-scale habitat protection.
The bigger challenge may be to make the connections for that average guy or gal in L.A. We need to acknowledge all the costs of drilling as we set policy as a nation and as we act as customers. Because whenever we flip the switch, a lot more happens than meets the eye.