Trashing the earth, and the truth

by Hal Herring

This is the last time I will ever tell this story. For an environmental reporter, the past eight years have produced a jungle of topics to explore at will, but the lessons learned there could not have been more unpleasant. This is the story of one of those lessons. 

In April of 2004, Field and Stream published a story of mine called "Don't Eat that Fish," which described a situation rich in irony: Even as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration were issuing dire warnings about the consumption of wild-caught, mercury-contaminated fish, the EPA was drafting new rules that would ensure that mercury pollution from coal-fired power plants would not be controlled in any meaningful way until the year 2018. 

Then-EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt (who had declined to comment for my story) responded with a letter to Field and Stream that said, in part, "Your article echoed many of the inaccuracies that have been used to criticize this proposal. The EPA is charged with writing a regulation that works for an entire industry. Technology is not capable of getting a 90% reduction of mercury for every type of boiler burning every type of coal."

I replied: "The technology exists, right now, to achieve tremendous reductions in mercury from power plants. ... So, what are we waiting for?"

It seemed like a civil exchange of ideas. At the time, I still believed that the administration's policies, whether I agreed with them or not, were legitimate attempts to solve problems. I was wrong. Like so much of what came afterward, I believe that the mercury policy was never intended to address pollution; it was simply a non-policy, a smokescreen written by industry to allow it to do whatever it wanted.  Such smokescreens cannot bear much scrutiny. So anyone who questions them must be addressed immediately, with more smoke. I was about to find that out. 

Later that year, I went on assignment for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation's Bugle magazine, for a story about the natural gas drilling boom and its effect on big game habitat. I called to arrange an interview with the Department of Interior's Rebecca Watson, who was then charged with "guiding" energy development on public lands (Ms. Watson later told me that big game animals "went somewhere else" while their habitat was being drilled). The same day I set up the interview, my editor at Bugle called me to say that Peter J. Dart, the Elk Foundation's CEO had called him, and asked why the magazine was doing a story on energy development, and why they were having me write it.

The answers to those questions seemed straightforward. Elk Foundation members, many of whom are outfitters and hunting guides, were concerned about the pace of energy development on public lands, especially on big game winter range, and were appalled that places like Colorado's Roan Plateau and Wyoming's Red Desert were being leased to energy companies with no apparent concern for the land, the watersheds or the wildlife. I had been writing for Bugle for five years and had also covered energy issues for the Economist and the Christian Science Monitor. But Dart, according to my editor, said that I was a "noted critic of the Bush administration" who had "taken many potshots at them in the past." This was untrue.

During my reporting, I was seeing something I had never seen before -- public-land managers who seemed to be working full-time for the energy industry, granting exemptions to almost all of the stipulations on drilling that were meant to protect wildlife or guarantee multiple-use of the lands. But I had not yet published any of my findings. Dart's concern was clearly inspired by his recent trip with other conservation leaders to President Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas. Upon his return from Crawford, Dart wrote a column in Bugle encouraging sportsmen to support Bush and his policies, a controversial stance for the leader of a nonprofit conservation group. Dart told my editor that my energy article must not criticize the Bush administration's energy policies, and stipulated that it could not run until after the elections.

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?

© High Country News