It's the economy -- and growth and the environment -- stupid!

 

Just over a year ago, I traveled around Arizona's copper country, talking to folks about the new mining boom. I learned that, thanks to soaring copper prices, the gaping pit mines were bound to get even bigger and deeper, along with their attendant environmental costs. Not everyone was pleased, but most saw it as inevitable: Because global forces drive the copper market, they said, the boom would continue well into the future. And the same rhetoric resounded through the booming gas fields of Colorado and Wyoming.

Just about everyone, it turns out, was wrong. Today, metal prices have plummeted, and mining projects are being mothballed. Natural gas prices are in a slump, and the drill rig count has collapsed; companies like Halliburton have laid off dozens of workers.

One lesson is that the economic winds can shift directions quickly and without warning. The second? When it comes to curbing the environmental destruction caused by various industries, these economic forces are a lot more powerful than citizen protest or government regulations. Some landscapes, at least for now, been spared simply because of the economic collapse.

In recent years, nothing has devoured Western land like residential development, whether in Albuquerque, Southern California, Denver, Las Vegas or Salt Lake. That's especially true in the greater Phoenix area, where suburbia has swallowed desert and farmland at a rate of more than 20 square miles per year. But now, with Phoenix hard-hit by the economic collapse, the desert might be given a reprieve. "We finally shut down the growth machine in Arizona, and we only had to crash the global financial system to do it," jokes Luther Propst, executive director of the Tucson-based Sonoran Institute (and an HCN board member).

This issue of High Country News uses post-meltdown Phoenix as a lens through which to consider the intersection of economy, growth and environment in the West. It looks at the situation from two different angles. One story focuses on the situation in the exurbs in the wake of the collapse. What, for example,  will become of the miles of new, now empty houses? In the other, John Dougherty reports on a chunk of state land on the edge of Phoenix. During the housing boom, it was on the verge of disappearing underneath the same old sprawl. With that in mind, a group of conservationists and planners got together with folks from the real estate and business community to talk about the future of the land. It would be developed, yes, but in a way that was refreshingly different from the rest of Phoenix.

The plan isn't without controversy. Many environmentalists believe that the development of pristine desert is not inevitable -- especially with the economy in a shambles -- and that the land should just be left alone. But Propst and others believe the homebuilding industry will return with a vengeance, along with the state's chronic refusal to do anything to rein it in. That's why his organization believes smart planning on this piece of land may be the best opportunity to finally get growth right.  

Either way, one thing is certain: This economic pause, no matter how long it lasts and no matter how painful it is, provides big opportunities to rethink the way we live in the West. We must take advantage of them while we can.