Storing fat from the feeding frenzy

  Every fall, black bears enter a ravenous state in which they will do almost anything for food. Biologists call it hyperphagia — the time of super eating.

Bears in hyperphagia can get into trouble if the search for calories leads them astray — to the greasy garbage cans behind the local diner, or to a hunting camp where deer are strung from trees, like so many enticing fresh venison kabobs.

We humans have also been known to let our appetites get ahead of our brains, especially here in the West. Witness the beaver rush, the buffalo rush, the gold rush, and the land rush, which continues to this day. In each case, the sudden success of a fortunate few spawned an immense popular rampage that soon outstripped the resource. Boomtowns that were built overnight collapsed the next day when the bust overtook them, and everybody bolted off in search of the next great thing.

Today, the hunger is for oil and gas. There is a mind-boggling amount of exploration and drilling in the West, and, with high prices seemingly here to stay, this boom looks to go on forever. But, as HCN Northern Rockies Editor Ray Ring points out in this issue — the first of a two-part special report — that doesn’t mean that it will. When the bust finally comes, will the West be ready? Will we have been smart enough to save some money to build a future for our region?

By all indications, the Western states, with the exception of Wyoming, are doing a poor job of figuring out how to use the tax revenues coming in from the gas fields. And many are starting to think they’re not getting nearly as much as they should.

As Ring notes, there is room for negotiation. Many countries tax oil and gas revenues at a much higher rate than the United States does; even some industry leaders say they expect to be asked for more than they are currently giving. In this historic energy market, there is plenty of money to go around.

With many Western states facing budget shortfalls and crumbling social and physical infrastructures, now is not the time to be meek about insisting that industry pay its way. Economist Juan Carlos Boue of London points out that California could solve its budget crisis "with the stroke of a pen" if it had the will to implement a severance tax on the oil and gas industry. Other states in the Interior West could solve a lot of problems by increasing their tax rates.

Prosperous states are much more likely — and much better able — to protect the environment than are poor ones. Our land, our air and our water are taking a huge hit from the oil and gas hyperphagia. We need to act now to ensure that the West will have the resources to restore the landscape when the boom is over. And we need to plan for a future economy beyond the petroleum age.

Bears don’t instantly burn all the calories they gorge on in the fall. Instead, they store them for future use, to get through winter’s hibernation. Contrary to what all the magazines say, fat isn’t always a bad thing.