How outsiders shape the West

 

Note: This is the editor's note for a package of stories about Oklahoma vs. the West (links at the end).

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The biggest story happening now -- the Nov. 2 elections and their results -- is impossible to cover in this edition of High Country News. We go to press a few days before the votes are counted, and you won't receive this issue until a few days after everyone knows what happened. We can predict that we're likely to see some dramatic changes, including shakeups in Western congressional delegations. But at this point the details are still a mystery.

So we've decided to give you a different kind of political story. Rather than reporting the elections directly, we're breaking new ground with a cover story that examines two politicians who wield significant power over the West, even though they're not based in our region.

Oklahoma's Republican senators -- Tom Coburn, who will almost certainly be re-elected by the time you read this, and James Inhofe -- frequently weigh in on Western issues involving federal lands, oil and gas drilling, fossil-fuel pollution, climate change, gun rights, immigration and so on. And they're part of a pattern.

Outsiders have had an outsized influence on the West since at least the 1800s, when beaver-pelt and bison-hide traders wiped out wildlife to serve customers in New York City, Philadelphia and Europe.

Corporations with distant headquarters run much of the West's mining, logging, drilling and tourism, as well as many of the wind-power and solar developments, some of the largest farms and ranches and various other enterprises.

Many of the politicians from outside our region who serve in Congress and in Washington, D.C., agencies set policy for the West's federal lands -- from national parks to military bases -- as well as our wildlife, water and minerals. Influential environmental groups, industry groups and think tanks also try to wrangle Western issues from their D.C. bases.

Even Eastern journalists get in on the action. Media outfits ranging from The New York Times to Fox News communicate the West's needs and disputes to the rest of the nation through their D.C.-New York City perspectives, exerting a subtler kind of power over our region.

There is nothing subtle about Oklahoma's senators. They vociferously represent their constituents -- mainly the oil and gas industry and the Christian right, which together have a lock on Oklahoma politics -- when they take stands on issues that affect the West. Of course, some Westerners agree with those stands, including the denial of climate-change science and the movement to insert religion in politics. But it's important for everyone who cares about the West to understand where the Oklahoma senators are coming from and how they influence the West -- especially since their party will likely rack up gains in Congress on Nov. 2, effectively giving them increased power. We haven't seen the last of the gentlemen from Oklahoma.

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Related stories in this Oklahoma package:

Dr. No: How Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn -- and his colleague, Sen. Jim Inhofe -- run roughshod over the West

Oklahoma vs. the West: This dispute includes drilling, wilderness, guns and climate change