The Interior West has long regarded California as a sort of rich eccentric uncle whose behavior is an embarrassment to the rest of the family. I have some firsthand knowledge of this attitude, because I am a fourth-generation Californian, who moved to rural western Colorado in 1992. The sidelong glances I received from a few locals during my first weeks in Colorado, and the long pauses that ensued when I revealed that I'd lived in that den of iniquity called the Bay Area, led me to urgently inquire: Exactly how soon could I change my license plates?
I could sympathize with the locals' viewpoint. Californians pouring into the Interior West were driving up real estate prices, clogging the roads and changing the small-town culture. But the knee-jerk reaction against all things Californian seemed a convenient way to avoid looking at the whole picture: The Golden State has also had positive impacts on the Rocky Mountain region.
Take water, for instance. Over the years, California, like other Western states, has ruthlessly pursued fresh water supplies, even when doing so dried up valleys, destroyed lakes and bulldozed the water rights of rural communities. But today, California is showing the rest of the West how to use water more efficiently through conservation; L.A. residents use far less water than the people of Phoenix, for example. And the state pioneered the controversial transfer of water rights from rural areas to rapidly growing urban centers.
California has also long been a leader in air-quality protection and the development of alternative energy sources, including wind and solar power. The state's decision in the 1970s to implement tough air-quality standards forced car manufacturers to make cleaner vehicles. The brown clouds of pollution that shroud Denver and Salt Lake, especially in the winter, would be much browner — and much more dangerous — without California's work in this area.
In recent weeks, California has become a valuable ally to citizens fighting dozens of proposed coal-fired power plants in Idaho and elsewhere in the West. The partnership began last summer when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced that California would no longer purchase electricity from power plants that contribute to global warming. This took away a huge market for coal-fired power plants, such as the one proposed by Sempra Energy in Idaho's Magic Valley.
It's likely no coincidence that, just as Idaho?s Legislature put a moratorium on the construction of new coal-fired plants in the state, Sempra announced that it was getting out of the coal-fired power business altogether. A hostile marketplace, combined with strong-willed citizens who care about their quality of life, makes a formidable opponent.
California's efforts to protect the environment are more than just wacky West Coast idealism. They are a pragmatic acknowledgment that regulatory innovation is essential for the state to accommodate millions of people without destroying its natural wealth and, ultimately, its economy.
The rest of the West, which is also enduring an historic growth spurt, is moving in California's direction, and that even includes Idaho, perhaps the nation?s most conservative state. Sempra Energy wanted to build its speculative coal-fired plant in Idaho because of the state's lack of regulations and because, as Idaho legislator Laird Noh said, it may have perceived that "folks here have fallen off the turnip truck."
Idahoans proved much more savvy and concerned about the environment than anyone could imagine. The coalition formed this year of realtors, farmers, retired scientists and conservationists led a grassroots campaign against the power plant and the pollution it would generate that could have been the envy of Greenpeace. In late March, the Republican-dominated Idaho Senate voted 30-5 in favor of a two-year moratorium on new coal-fired power plants.
The citizens' uprising in Idaho and California's environmental pragmatism show that you can't pigeonhole Westerners into ideological camps, no matter how Red the map looks during presidential elections. The tired notion that the role of government is to clear the playing field is being replaced with the belief that nothing is more important than the health of our land, air, water and communities.
Sound like the kind of thing a Californian might say? Maybe so, though maybe that's not such a bad thing after all. Maybe the Rocky Mountain West has more in common with the Golden State than we like to admit.
Paul Larmer is a contributor to Writers on the Range and the publisher of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in Paonia, Colorado, and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 email@example.com.