Teddy Roosevelt would have put his foot down

  When the young Theodore Roosevelt went West to become a cattle rancher in the late 1800s, he was impressed by the flint of the Western character. In his travels through South Dakota and the Rocky Mountains, he met mountain men and cowboys and Indians so independent and strong-willed that even the robuster-than-robust Roosevelt confessed he sometimes felt inadequate.

Today, watching some Westerners prostrate themselves to the Bush administration as it encourages energy companies to devastate the most delicate of our lands, I have to wonder what has happened to the Western character.

My guess is that if Theodore Roosevelt were alive today, he would have a fit over what they are doing to the Powder River Basin and the Red Desert in what can only be called the Great Orgy to drill for the gas we know as coalbed methane. And then he would have fought it with every fiber in his body.

The good news is that some Westerners still have that spirit and aren't about to see the glory of their mountains and deserts sacrificed at the altar of cheap energy. If you haven't heard of coalbed methane, you're missing one of the great struggles in the short history of the American West. The Rocky Mountains are loaded with natural gas trapped in underground coal beds, and President Bush has told the secretary of the Interior to let the energy companies get at it as fast as they can.

Once taken out of the ground, the methane is wonderful stuff. It's clean-burning and in high demand by heavy industry and power generating companies. It's also used for heating and cooling houses. But getting it out of the ground is hell on those public lands that are still wild and intact, it's a nightmare to private landowners, and catastrophic to ground and surface water.

First, a road has to be built. Then a hole up to 5,000 feet deep is sunk into the ground, and water by the tens of thousands of gallons is sucked out of the aquifer to free the gas. Each well takes about four acres; once it's in operation, you're left with the 24-hour noise of pumps and compressors and daily truck trips.

It's hard to say which part of the development is worse. The roads cut wildlife habitat to ribbons. Extracting salty water from the deep aquifers and bringing it to the surface ruins good soils and clean sources of surface water. An area that was once a wild meadow or prairie now looks like an industrial park.

The extensive plans to develop coalbed methane in the Rocky Mountain West should truly give you a scare if you care a whit about this land. Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico are all being drilled, and the Bush administration has plans to develop tens of thousands of wells in the next few years.

The Powder River Basin, in northern Wyoming and southern Montana, gives a preview. Energy companies have drilled over 10,000 wells there, and by 2010 that number may climb to 80,000 wells. Companies now are pumping close to two billion gallons of water per day to the surface.

Some Westerners have reached their tipping point. All around the Rocky Mountain West, the rush to drill the best ranchlands and prime wildlife habitat is creating new alliances. Not so long ago here in Colorado or Wyoming or Montana or New Mexico, you wouldn't have found ranchers working with backpackers on what to do about the despoiling of land and water. You wouldn't have found an ex-petroleum engineer and a liberal Boulder lawyer sharing their outrage at a spineless public-land manager.

Cultural barriers have broken down because of a shared conviction that what makes the West magnificent is worth fighting for -- and is far more important than the old differences.

If Westerners don't take a strong stand right now, energy companies will leave the finest parts of the Rocky Mountain states an unrecognizable mess of roads, settling ponds, contaminated water and splintered habitat.

I believe that Theodore Roosevelt would have been heartbroken to see what energy companies are already doing to his beloved West. And then he would have acted. He was above all a reformer who shaped his life around one of his own aphorisms: "The things that will destroy America are prosperity at any price...and the get-rich-quick theory of life."

Westerners fighting to keep coalbed methane from spoiling it all say the same thing: What can destroy the West is cheap energy at any price.

Mark Harvey is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives and writes in the Aspen area of Colorado.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.