The return of the Lords of Yesterday

by Paul Larmer

A couple of decades ago, the West's conservationists dreamed a lovely dream: The region's traditional extractive industry base, which had taken such a huge environmental toll, would soon make way for a kinder, gentler economy based on protecting the land for recreation and tourism.

And the dream seemed on the verge of coming true; during the 1980s and early 1990s, the Lords of Yesterday, to use a phrase coined by Western scholar Charles Wilkinson, hit hard times. Coal, oil and gas, and mining faltered, and the timber industry was pruned back to the stump. Many of the old high-paying jobs disappeared, to be replaced by service and construction jobs as an endless flood of newcomers poured in from the coastal cities. Life wasn't perfect; we had to contend with sprawl, recreation conflicts on the public lands and a lack of affordable housing for underpaid workers, but at least this new amenity economy was less visibly destructive to the wild places of the West.

But a rude awakening was in store, as former HCN editor and now contributing editor Jonathan Thompson explains in this issue's cover story. The amenity economy, battered by the recession, proved far more fragile than anyone imagined, and the Lords of Yesterday never really went away. In fact, spurred by the ever-increasing appetites of the rest of the globe, especially Asia, they have come roaring back with ambitious plans to drill and mine in the West for decades to come. The sobering truth is that our natural resources will always be sought after, as long as there is a growing population of consumers who want to use them. Today, those consumers are as likely to live in Beijing or Moscow as they are in New York or Los Angeles.

Does this mean that the West's environment is doomed to be pummeled again as the region returns to its longtime role as a resource colony for distant markets? Probably, especially with the anti-regulatory, jobs-at-all-cost mentality currently pervading the country. This is a tough time in which to impose or even hold onto environmental safeguards, but if we want to protect the landscape we love, it is essential that we try. At the least, we need to obtain a kind of quid pro quo from the extractors: Not a flake, fume or drop should leave our public lands without a tax payment that can be reinvested in our local communities.

Conservationists may not always be good prognosticators, but their dream of a vibrant economy that lives lightly on the land is still worth pursuing. My own prediction: The amenity economy will rebound over the next few years to run full-speed alongside the new extractive rush.  Then we'll face an even greater challenge: Protecting our landscapes and communities from the excesses of the both the Lords of Yesterday and Tomorrow.

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