I was once a skeptic when it came to politics. Sure, I voted, but I never thought that it made much difference. Once politicians got to Washington, they were all dragged into the middle anyway and ended up virtually indistinguishable from one another. So why bother?
The first months of the Bush administration had a bungling but relatively benign quality and seemed destined to prove my point. Then came 9/11, and everything changed: The president greatly increased his own power, and the nation went along with it. There was a new rationale -- and enthusiasm -- for war. And energy independence, including drilling public lands, became a rallying point. I soon realized that one politician actually could accomplish quite a bit. Bush and Cheney and their friends have done more to change the landscape -- political and physical -- than anyone else in recent memory.
High Country News was there to cover all those changes as they happened. Now, in this special end-of-an-era issue, we try to take stock of it all. It's not a pretty picture, and it's still getting darker, as news pours in of a flood of "midnight deregulations" from the White House.
But it's also not all doom and gloom. The West has seen some major positive breakthroughs, too. The battles that pitted greens against ranchers, hunters and workers eased off and were replaced by an unprecedented alliance of all of these groups as they worked together to protect the land and wildlife. Activists and media alike became more vigilant than ever in their government watchdog efforts. As a result, the public has become more informed about the West's issues, from the impacts of energy development to endangered species law.
As we prepare for a new administration, we need to remember that the last eight years were not a complete anomaly when it comes to a president's impacts on the environment. Jimmy Carter's energy policy hit the West hard, with new strip mines and oil shale development. Bill Clinton's team leased huge amounts of land to energy companies, and when he tried to thrust environmental ideals on Western lands without local consensus, he created a lasting rift between greens and many rural communities.
Barack Obama has a much friendlier approach toward the environment than Bush. Still, the push for energy independence and the need to slow climate change could collide in the West. Natural gas will serve as a "bridge" between the dirtier fossil fuels, such as oil and coal, and carbon-free energy, such as wind and solar. That will mean more drilling on public lands, not less, at least for a while. And Obama has been a fan of so-called clean coal, an idea that's nice in theory but yet to be proven on any meaningful scale. Even when -- and if -- their smokestacks are cleaned up, the millions of tons of solid waste the coal plants create will have to go somewhere.
The watchdogs for the West's lands need to remain as vigilant as ever.
That's where High Country News comes in: No matter who's in power in Washington, we're committed to watching, investigating and analyzing what's happening to the West's air, land, water and inhabitants. If you're thinking about what luxuries to cut out during these tough economic times, please keep that in mind. Healthy salmon swimming up a stream, wolves roaming through the woods, an unfettered view from a mountaintop -- these are not luxuries. They are necessities, and because we sincerely believe that, we believe that HCN is necessary, too. We hope you agree. See page 16 for how you can help.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at firstname.lastname@example.org.