Cowboy up to the energy boom

  • Paul Larmer

 

I knew it was going to be an interesting evening when the folks in the audience began bending my ear before the event got started. On May 15, High Country News convened a panel discussion on western Colorado's red-hot energy economy. Shirley Adams told me point-blank that she had come because she had "something to say."

Indeed she did. During the question-and-answer session, Shirley, who hails from Battlement Mesa, Colo., stood up and said that the gas boom has ruined her "lovely community of retirees." Since the drill rigs and trucks arrived in 2003, she said, many of her neighbors have fled, selling their homes to the roughnecks. The result is a diminished community: The volunteer-driven activities that once held Battlement Mesa together -- from picking up trash along 1-70 to driving ambulances -- have come unraveled because the new residents "don't have the time or energy to do these things," she said.

Civic-mindedness isn't the first quality one associates with us Westerners. Individualistic or unsettled, more likely. For centuries, Westerners have been blown from place to place by fickle economic, environmental and social winds. And yet, despite our nomadic ways, social cooperation has been essential to our survival in this land of physical extremes. Every spring I am reminded of this, when the local irrigation ditches are opened and the waters again fill the veins of the landscape. Most of these ditches were dug by hand by teams of men and women and horses, working to make western Colorado's sagebrush country bloom with food and fodder.

In this issue's cover story, Wyoming writer Jeffrey Lockwood suggests that we might do a better job of coping with the gas boom -- and the other issues facing us -- if we brought back some of those old-time frontier ethics. Many people believe the Cowboy Myth is at the root of our problems, but Lockwood concludes that the modern West, with its intense battles over growth, recreation and energy, could use more cowboy philosophy, not less.

He writes: "As candidates aspire to public office, we must ask if they ride ‚'for the brand' -- for the people. Leaders must be autonomous and possess a sense of duty to craft programs, laws, and policies on behalf of the public rather than leaving mineral companies or real estate developers to define and (maybe) solve the problems."

Sometimes, however, it's difficult to know what brand to get behind. In California, the Austro-cowboy governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, is trying to wean his state from fossil fuels. But in order to bring geothermal and solar power from the desert to the coastal masses, he says, new transmission lines will have to be stretched across some of the state's most fragile wildlands. In this issue's other feature story, Judith Lewis explores the ramifications. Some environmentalists are balking at the price the desert is being asked to pay for green power. For his part, the governor is flummoxed: "If you can't put solar panels in the Mojave Desert, then where the hell can you put them?"

Back at the HCN panel discussion, former Colorado Wildlife Commission member Rebecca Frank might almost have been responding to Schwarzenegger. "Before you get on that feel-good green bandwagon," Frank warned, "remember that those solar panels take up acres and acres ... of someone's habitat, and that wind energy ... is a Cuisinart for migratory birds."

What's a governor -- or any Westerner -- to do? As Louis L'Amour's cowboy hero, Conagher, muses, "It sounded easy, but it was not that easy ..." The West is facing tough problems today, and none of the solutions are likely to be simple.

Still, it's worth the struggle. As Conagher also reminds us, "This here's a hard country. But it's a good country."