Western Colorado Congressman Scott McInnis occupies a congressional seat that until 1972 was the most powerful in the West. It was owned by the late Wayne Aspinall, a Democrat, who chaired the House Interior Committee in the 1960s and early 1970s, when the federal government was pouring billions into the the Interior West. Federal agencies built dams and interstate highways, and operated nuclear weapons complexes like Los Alamos, Hanford and Rocky Flats.
Aspinall ruled the U.S. Bureau of
Reclamation, as well as the Forest Service and Bureau of Land
Management. He decided, sometimes single-handedly, which dams
should be built, which forests cut, which ore bodies mined. His
power was such that he could, and did, hold up the Central Arizona
Project for years, letting it go only late in the 1960s. He saw to
it that his western Colorado district had $1 billion in dams
crammed into it.
Today, throughout the West, several
billion dollars' worth of reservoirs built at Aspinall's direction
are showing their bottoms. Drought and forest fires threaten the
region. So I was eager to hear how his successor, McInnis, would
respond to the changing times. McInnis had the perfect forum: Club
20, a regional chamber of commerce for western Colorado that is for
But instead of talking about
natural resources, McInnis, a Republican, promoted the Bush
administration's Iraq policy. The crowd was receptive, but not
enthusiastic. They had given up their Saturday to learn about the
West, rather than about America's second military reach for empire
since the end of World War II
Had Aspinall spoken to Club
20 during the first reach for empire, Vietnam, he would have
promoted that war, but he would also have had a lot to say about
the West. That's because the Congress and the White House under
President Lyndon B. Johnson were determined to provide guns and
butter - to provide for both the military abroad and the civilians
Western "butter" in the 1960s came in two
forms: first, as expanded defense facilities and logging, mining
and dam building; and then as the newly created Canyonlands
National Park in Utah, the Wilderness Act and the Wild and Scenic
Rivers Act. When Richard M. Nixon became president in 1969, there
was more butter for the West: he further expanded our national park
and wilderness systems, and signed the National Environmental
Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act.
That 15-year dance between dam building and land and
water protection laid the foundation for the economic and
population boom the West experienced in the 1990s. Environmental
laws and activism reined in but didn't stop logging, mining and dam
building. People across the nation saw that the West could have
both economic development and a bright, pristine future that writer
Wallace Stegner called the "geography of hope."
responded by visiting, by moving here, by investing here.
Hydropower and water from Glen Canyon and other dams and water from
the Central Arizona Project allowed the Southwest and parts of the
Mountain West to grow 30 to 40 percent per decade.
population boom is now petering out, fortunately. Unfortunately,
there is no sign that we are building a new foundation on which to
base the region's next advance. Today, there is no butter, no
vision, no passion coming from the federal government. All we get
is penny pinching. The White House budgeteers have gutted the
Forest Service's permanent firefighting force. When this summer's
fires come, the money to fight them will again come from
campgrounds, trails, fisheries, and habitat protection: the
underpinnings of our new economy. The White House has also ordered
the Forest Service and Park Service to replace many of their
permanent employees with corporate contractors - aka rent-a-ranger
firms - inevitably weakening the agencies and the federal land.
On the ground, BLM land especially is being hammered by
gas drilling; in addition to bombing Iraq, we are bombing San Juan
County, N.M., the Powder River Basin of Wyoming, Garfield County,
Colo., and Bozeman, Mont.
Unlike the Vietnam era,
environmental laws are being weakened and protected lands like the
new monuments are being squeezed. A calamity like the 1930s Dust
Bowl may be coming, but judging by McInnis's silence at Club 20,
neither Congress nor the White House has plans to help.
We don't need more dams or clear-cuts. But we do need the balance
between environmentalism and development we created in the 1960s.
And we need empowered land managers to implement that balance.
Instead, the Forest Service and BLM are being starved and
the land they're supposed to manage is being destroyed. No wonder
McInnis wanted to talk Iraq rather than the West.