And we ran stories that were skeptical — sometimes critical — of the environmental movement. I wrote a cover story about the visionary Wildlands Project, which was inspiring a new generation of conservationists — and sparking fear, loathing and downright hatred from many rural residents. HCN Northern Rockies Editor Ray Ring wrote about Montana enviros who had become separated from the diverse allies that once made them a powerful, progressive force.
We lost readers for telling these stories, but we were determined to ask the tough questions.
The winds in Washington did change, of course — though it took us a while to realize just how dramatically. The wholesale rollbacks of environmental rules and the large-scale leasing of the landscape for energy development made the Clinton days seem like a romantic dream. By 2003, HCN was running regular stories about the Bush administration’s meddling with science and natural resource policy.
Our readers reacted strongly to our early coverage of the administration, some complaining that we’d become too "lefty" and biased. A brief mention of this reaction in the "Dear Friends" column elicited a blizzard of letters — some supportive, some biting. The message came through loud and clear: Our readers wanted solid, accurate reporting above all else, and they didn’t want us to lose track of the grassroots efforts that had inspired so many hopes.
We continued to watch Washington, but we tried to do it in a smarter and sharper way. Freelance writer Kathie Durbin’s cover story about the Biscuit Fire salvage project in Oregon showed that the Forest Service had tried to act responsibly, but that field staffers had been steamrolled by vengeful higher-ups. Her story about Bush’s Healthy Forests Initiative again called into question the sincerity of officials in Washington, pointing out that they were crediting their new "streamlined" rules with progress that had been made under the old ones.
With conservationists once more on the defensive, we refused to give up our role as their fiercest friend. We celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, not with a dewy-eyed remembrance of the brave wilderness warriors of the past, but with a hard-nosed essay by Associate Editor Matt Jenkins laying out the real political compromises needed to protect wilderness.
At times, it must seem like our sole purpose is to make our readers uncomfortable. But we do it for a reason: We want to understand the path the West is on, and do our part to help the region find its way to a better future. We want to help the West thrive in the long term, less vulnerable to economic booms and busts and changing political winds. And we believe that this will only happen if we continue to think hard, ask difficult questions, and foster energetic and honest discussion with people we don’t necessarily agree with.
Lynn Scarlett did agree to talk with me "on the record" a few weeks after our surprise encounter. And while she wasn’t half as candid as she’d been that morning on the plane, there were a few things that we could agree on publicly. One of those things is the importance of local solutions: She’s pushed hard in the past few years to force federal employees to work more productively with local people.
I told her that I had a hard time taking the talk of cooperation seriously when the administration had so clearly put energy development ahead of all else, including public opinion. We’d flown over the physical manifestation of this policy in western Wyoming, which is riddled with roads and well pads.
She gave me the party line about balancing development with conservation, and "ensuring that we can warm our homes, drive our cars to go see our grandmothers and grandfathers …" I wanted to gag. But then she let her guard down, for just a moment.
Much of the energy development now under way is the result of leases sold under previous administrations, she said; the real implications of the Bush administration’s leasing spree have yet to be realized. "We’re concerned," she said. And I believe she meant it.
No, the Old West isn’t dead. Energy markets have given it a new lease on life, and the Bush administration has accelerated and extended it, ensuring that the boom will continue for decades to come. But I found a little consolation in the fact that even some within the administration realize that their "winner takes all" attitude hasn’t been the best thing for the region. Perhaps there’s some hope that we will be able to cushion the impact of the growing energy boom, and that, some day, we’ll be able to set our differences aside and work together for a saner, more sustainable West.