Two days later, my editor called me again. This time, Dana Perino, then on the President's Council on Environmental Quality and now the White House press secretary, had called Bugle. Perino said she was concerned about my article, because I had previously published "inaccuracies" regarding Bush's environmental policies. Clearly, she intended to cast doubt on my abilities -- and my integrity -- as a journalist. That word "inaccuracies" rang a bell -- it was the same word Leavitt had used to criticize my Field and Stream article. I asked Perino to please contact my editor and clarify what she meant. Eventually, she called him and admitted that she was not familiar with my work and had not meant to attack my reputation. But the message was clear, and had my editor not been a trusted friend, the outcome may have been different. The calls were meant to protect the mission -- in this case, unchecked public-lands energy development on a massive scale. No dissent was tolerated, not even from a self-employed writer typing away in a tiny town in Montana.
"Elk Country and the Price of Energy" eventually ran in Bugle, but not until Dart had sent the manuscript to the White House to make sure it contained nothing offensive. The story lost a section on appliance-efficiency standards that, had they been enacted, would have made drilling some pristine places unnecessary. It was an ugly ending to what had begun as a dream assignment. And it was an ugly time. The leasing of public lands was exploding, the traffic was roaring on the winter range of the Pinedale Anticline, the studies were coming in about the losses of mule deer, pronghorn, sage grouse, solitude. Coalbed methane water, laden with salt, was being dumped into the Tongue and Powder rivers and a hundred lesser streams and coulees. Bulldozers ripped and piled the big sage in the Red Desert, seismic trucks and drilling rigs poured into the strange, lost and iconic places of the West.
The people I interviewed said it better than I ever could. Len Carpenter, a retired wildlife biologist from Colorado, said, "We all tried to play within the system, and at some point we discovered that they were not playing by any rules, they were just throwing our comments and concerns into the waste basket. There is a new power, with no land ethic, who sees what is being done here as normal." New Mexico cattleman Alan Lackey, fighting to preserve his beloved Valle Vidal from leasing, summed it up, "This is a giveaway of public resources at the cost of every other value we hold … the whole plan is like burning down your house to keep warm for one night."
After I wrote about my experience with the energy story in a column for New West, I was out of Bugle for a while. Dart has since left the Elk Foundation, and I am proud to be writing for Bugle again. But we -- America -- will never get back what we have lost in these eight years. Beyond the environmental and economic sacrifices, we have seen our country and ourselves in a disturbing new light. We discovered that there are people in public service who have no trouble rationalizing the destruction of the lands and the wildlife that we trust them to protect. We saw citizens willing, even eager, to toss away the planet's most visionary environmental laws for an ideology, or the promise of a dollar.
Perhaps most depressing of all, we saw that industry was willing to take advantage of the gifts of an extremist administration, that people we thought we knew rushed to sacrifice resources that belong to all of us, simply to ensure greater profits for themselves. Where once, real conservatives (I count myself among them) could pride themselves on the belief that small government and free enterprise could both produce and protect resources, we found that, in reality, that was not the case. To be free of regulation, there must be some shared ethics, some expectation of reasonable behavior and honesty. You cannot expect that someone will choose to plaster the land with a gas well every five acres, as on the Jonah Gas Field, or that they will build tens of thousands of miles of road in irreplaceable wildlife habitat, while arguing publicly that it must be drought that is reducing the numbers of animals on the land. You cannot expect that they will blow up entire mountains and fill creeks with poisonous rocks. A conservative dream died, because it became too perverted to survive.
I am proud that America was strong enough to try to right the mistakes of the Bush administration at the ballot box. But I remain uneasy that we ever made those mistakes in the first place. A government that despises the environment despises all truths. Why was that so very hard for so many to see?