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for people who care about the West

A letter to a rancher named George Bush

  Dear Mr. President:

We’re back in an energy boom in parts of the West, and this made me wonder how a rancher like yourself might feel if geologists discovered an enormous pocket of natural gas beneath your spread in Texas. What if the story got out, and the press corps suddenly appeared at your Western White House, creating the kind of spectacle you abhor?

Reporters will ask: "Will you open your land to exploration and drilling?" I have no doubt you’ll say ‘no.’

For one thing, your ranch is private property. Everybody knows you love those 1,600 acres of Texas real estate. Every chance you get you escape to your own private Walden, lessening the stress of your stressful job by chopping wood and carrying water.

You stand gazing dreamily at your 200 head of cattle grazing peacefully in hard scrabble pastureland. You hike along the nearly six miles of trails that crisscross the property, a veritable cowboy Thoreau, proud as punch of your personal paradise.

You show the place off to everybody, from heads of state (Blair, Putin, Berlusconi), to members of the press corps who dutifully tag along behind you. Just look at those live oak trees growing in those limestone canyons, you say. "That river over yonder is the Middle Bosque. ‘Bosque’ is the Spanish word for ‘woods.’ See those cedars in the distance? Got to get rid of those pesky, overly-thirsty species."

Mr. President, we know you are not an environmentalist in name only. You’re helping to install a passive solar system in the ranch house. You’re watering the lawn from the cistern that captures precious rainwater so not a single drop goes to waste. You are a man who knows how to utilize natural resources -- a compassionate conservationist, so to speak.

It is this compassionate conservationism that confounds many of us here in the West. We cherish our publicly owned forests and deserts with the same passion you have for your private property.

It greatly distresses us to see you pushing federal officials to speed up the permitting process for producing oil and gas in the West. You’ve directed the Bureau of Land Management to remove any obstacles preventing gas and oil development in the five Rocky Mountain states of Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. You believe -- as does your vice president, Dick Cheney -- that environmentally-friendly technology can be employed to exploit this form of natural gas, and that there will be minimal impact on the land.

One such parcel of land exists here in southern New Mexico. It’s called Otero Mesa, and its 520,000 acres of wildnerness grassland in a pristine section of Chihuahuan Desert is a prime candidate for gas development.

Despite its other natural resources including pronghorn antelope, mule deer, golden eagles, forests of yucca and vast vistas where mountains meet sky, you have determined that the pocket of natural gas below the surface is the most important feature of this environment. Gas, after all, is a commodity. Everything else is priceless.

Unfortunately, no matter how minimally-invasive the new technology, a price will be paid. Wells will have to be drilled, compressors will make noise and dirt roads must be constructed leading to those wells. Heavy trucks will travel those dusty roads every day. Trenches for pipelines will be dug, and poles erected for powerlines to span the desert grassland. Ponds of worthless wastewater will spring up.

Another unspoiled portion of the West will be blemished forever.

Some people, Mr. President, think we are long past the time when our country should have become fully committed to the development of environmentally-friendly energy sources. When Mr. Cheney met with energy executives not long after you and he took power, couldn’t he have pursued alternative solutions along with the same old push for non-renewable sources? Shouldn’t policy planners have approached the problem with the same mindset you had in developing an energy plan for your property?

Which brings us back to the hypothetical reservoir of natural gas discovered beneath your Prairie Chapel Ranch. I bet you would fret about your place no matter how careful those geologists promised to be in extracting that gas. Even if the construction crews put those wells on the Back 40, you’d know they were there, wouldn’t you? No matter how carefully you practiced conservation on the rest of your ranch, there’d always be a chance that something could go awry. Would you be able to live with yourself if your patch of paradise was ruined forever?

That’s why many of us are determined to protect our public lands here in the West.

Robert Rowley is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado. He writes in Las Cruces, New Mexico.