Imagine you're taking in the view from a national park overlook: The red cliffs, blue shadows, and cottonwood bottoms of Zion; the jagged upsweep of the Tetons from Jackson Hole; the weird snaking remains of ancient trees at Petrified Forest. True, there are also oodles of lollygagging tourons, a remuda of RVs, and some faux-woodsy park infrastructure, but what's this? Trophy mansions sprawling beside the entrance road? A private lodge abutting a hiking trail?
Such development might be closer than you think, according to a recent report by the National Parks Conservation Association. Nationwide, there are about 4.3 million acres of private inholdings within National Park Service boundaries, but the federal funds set aside to buy them have decreased by more than $100 million over the last decade. Of the 55 highlighted parks with the most pressing acquisition needs, 16 - including Petrified Forest, Zion, Grand Teton, Redwood, Mount Rainier and North Cascades - are in the West, according to the report, with more than 38,000 private acres vulnerable to development.
The specter of development also looms over private inholdings in the West's national forests. Plum Creek Timber Co. (now a real estate investment trust that owns more than a million acres in Montana alone), is making preliminary moves to subdivide some of its massive timber holdings near ritzy Whitefish. Company officials there are consulting with the state about residential road access and have jumpstarted discussions with Whitefish business leaders, though they're mum on definite plans.
Meanwhile, a handful of bills that would open some public lands to development and protect others are moving through Congress. A measure that would create a 167-square-mile wilderness north of Sultan, Wash., just passed the Senate (on its fourth trip) and is now headed for the House. Another that would create a 21-square-mile wilderness in Oregon is moving through the House. Two other bills - one that would create an 807-square-mile wilderness in Idaho's Owyhee Canyonlands, authorize land swaps and open some wilderness study areas to grazing and motorized access, and another that would create 200 square miles of wilderness and sell off 14 square miles of federal land in Utah's booming Washington County - are back in the Senate for their second go-round. After foundering amid controversy in 2006, the new versions of both are enjoying broader support (if still spotty, in the case of the Washington County bill). Supporters credit significant reductions in the amount of land to be sold off in Washington County and stricter management guidelines set up for lands to be opened to multiple use in Owyhee, among other measures.
A land rush of a different kind is proceeding apace in some of the West's other wide-open spaces. Thanks in part to skyrocketing prices, 25 times more oil than previously thought may be recoverable from a shale formation under eastern Montana and western North Dakota. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that 3 billion to 4.3 billion barrels of oil - about half of what the U.S. consumes in a year - could be pumped from the area with existing technology. And a recent report by the Environmental Working Group shows that active mining claims on Western public lands have jumped from 207,540 to 414,228 in just five years thanks to booming metal prices, with more than 16,000 filed within five miles of Western communities. Mining giant Kennecott, for example, is currently laying out plans to explore for minerals under Salt Lake County open space in Utah's Oquirrh Mountains, irking some county officials who spent $8.7 million to purchase the 1,700-acre parcel for recreation.
Even as companies push for new projects, victims of one of the West's most environmentally disastrous mines are finally getting some measure of justice. After weeks of negotiation and seven years of litigation, W.R. Grace & Co. set up a $3 billion trust to compensate the families of thousands of people who were sickened or killed by its Libby, Mont., vermiculite (essentially asbestos) mine and its products.
And some folks are gaining ground against new projects. Opponents of a molybdenum mine proposed for Mount Emmons (better known as the Red Lady) near Crested Butte, Colo., celebrated a small victory in early April, after Kobex Resources pulled out of the project and its partnership with U.S. Energy Corp. amid concerns about tightening state and federal mining laws. And a federal judge blocked the U.S. Forest Service from allowing a British mining company to explore for uranium near the Grand Canyon pending a more thorough environmental review.
Apparently, though, thorough environmental review is one thing that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security needn't bother with. In early April, Congress approved the department's request to waive more than 30 federal and state environmental and cultural laws to complete 670 miles of barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border.
In 2006, the same year former Vice President Al Gore unveiled An Inconvenient Truth, the National Energy Technology Laboratory released a report trumpeting the resurgence of CO2-spewing coal-fired power in the U.S. It listed 154 coal plants in the pipeline, 39 of them in the West, and predicted new coal-fired power additions equivalent to 309 500-megawatt plants by 2030. Now, however, amid an anti-coal enviro-litigation campaign and the dissolution of some federal and Wall Street loan programs, the lab's 2008 report lists 114 projects, with only 10 of 30 advancing in the West. Delays and cancellations have increased, it says, potentially due to "regulatory uncertainty (regarding climate change) or strained project economics due to escalating costs in the industry." (Click through images in the upper right corner for more information)