The return of the Lords of Yesterday

  • 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 University of Colorado historian 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; Westerners 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 region.

But a rude awakening was in store. The amenity economy, battered by the recession, proved far more fragile than anyone imagined; the housing boom, and the hundreds of thousands of jobs that went with it, has burst with few signs of returning any time soon. Meanwhile, 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.

The surge in foreign demand has bumped the prices of commodities such as copper, gold, oil and gas to historic highs, spurring development throughout the West. It has also, in combination with the prolonged U.S. recession, opened the door for new direct investment from foreign companies. Near the seemingly all-American rural town of Douglas, Wyo., for instance, a Chinese energy company, the Chinese National Offshore Oil Company, has bought one-third of Chesapeake Energy's (an American company) 800,000-acre share in the fossil fuel-rich Niobrara Formation; a Russian company controls nearby uranium mines.

Similar scenarios are playing out in Utah, where Eesti Energia, based in the former Soviet-bloc country of Estonia, has bought an oil shale exploration company and a federal lease; and in Idaho, where an Indian company and a Belgian company each own soda ash mines; and in Nevada, where a Chinese bank is financing a proposed molybdenum mine, in which a Korean company has a 20 percent interest.

Predictably, some people worry about foreign control of our natural resources, and what will likely be an ever-increasing stream of exports to rapidly growing countries. But most politicians and economists -- eager to bring money and jobs to their states and communities -- have no such qualms.

"This is a win-win," says Mark Northam, director of the University of Wyoming's School of energy Resources. "Billions of dollars are coming into the U.S. to pay for U.S. rigs and employ U.S. workers."

The latest global boom in extraction, however, may be a lose-lose for the West's heritage of public lands and precious air and water resources, as the region returns to its longtime role as a resource colony for distant markets. The anti-regulatory, jobs-at-all-cost mentality currently pervading the country will make it difficult for citizens to impose or even hold onto environmental safeguards.

But if we want to protect the place 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 lands without a tax payment that can be reinvested in environmental restoration and our local communities. It is long past time, for instance, to revise the 1872 Mining Law, which allows companies -- foreign or otherwise -- to extract minerals on public lands without paying a dime in royalties.

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.

Paul Larmer, executive director of High Country News (hcn.org), is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of HCN in Paonia, Colorado.

Tim Sowecke
Tim Sowecke
Aug 05, 2011 10:41 AM
In response to, "Not a flake, fume or drop should leave our lands without a tax payment that can be reinvested in environmental restoration and our local communities. It is long past time, for instance, to revise the 1872 Mining Law, which allows companies -- foreign or otherwise -- to extract minerals on public lands without paying a dime in royalties." The Federal Land Policy Management Act of 1976, 43 CFR 3809 (http://www.blm.gov/[…]/43_cfr_3809.html), does in fact amend much of the shortfalls of the 1872 Mining Act -calling for financial guarantees to reclamation, and a much more holistic (multiple use) agenda for public land management. And while "surface disturbances" may be a lacking term for all disturbances associated with exploration and production, FLPMA represented (and continues to) a prudent change in the agenda of federal lands management with respect to extractive enterprises. Additionally, I'm unsure where you came up with the idea that minerals are being extracted on public lands without royalties being paid. There is the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 which establishes AML funds for reclamation purposes. Furthermore, states and the federal government do in fact receive substantial royalties (true, some states could ask for a higher percentages) for minerals development. These royalties are deposited in a number of funds helping infrastructure, schools, conservation, and reclamation efforts. I would expect a little better research conducted before making such misguiding statements in the future. Do keep up the good work though!
Jeff Chapman
Jeff Chapman
Aug 11, 2011 01:46 AM
Having grown up in the so called "exploitive" society that has led us boomers into the retirement years, my own feeling is the last twenty years have allowed an ideological coasting on the proceeds of those times, but it was a bubble that would burst. An economy can never sustain itself on recreation any more than the 600,000 starving kids in Somalia can eat white middle class ideology and live. Recreation is disposable income that if traced to its source, there are consumption industries, from crops to water processing to sewer treatment to cattle to mining to logging to energy production. Amenity based economies are like Disneyland or Las Vegas where money earned elsewhere is spent on leisure. If we are going to have a stable economy and protect our environment as best we can, it is really going to have to take more than idealism and white environmental whimsy by well off information peddling. We need to deal with the facts that bikes come from metal that come from mines. We need to face up to what it takes to feed, shelter, and provide utilities to 9 billion people. We need to quit blaming that which gave us the quality of life we have today, and save a quality of life for future generations. You can call it "excesses" if you will, but that, in my opinion, is a cop out. There is a price that must be paid if we as a society of consuming animals are to survive, like it or not.
Barbara Ullian
Barbara Ullian Subscriber
Aug 16, 2011 03:33 PM
In the essay Paul writes that "It is long past time, for instance, to revise the 1872 Mining Law, which allows companies -- foreign or otherwise -- to extract minerals on public lands without paying a dime in royalties"

Tim responded "I'm unsure where you came up with the idea that minerals are being extracted on public lands without royalties being paid."

Paul is correct though. There are no royalties paid to the federal government for the hardrock minerals extracted from on public lands under the 1872 Mining Law. See - http://www.earthworksaction.org/Royalties.cfm In other words, under the 1872 Mining Law, the public is giving away the gold found on its land for free. Gold has been as high as $1800/ounce recently.

In Oregon, the public is being asked to subsidize this give away on world-class salmon rivers like the Wild and Scenic Chetco or critical coho salmon habitat like Sucker Creek. No royalty is paid to the State of Oregon either for the mining of hardrock minerals on public lands and unpatented mining claims are not subject to property taxes in the State. In neighboring California, the State has a ban on instream suction dredge mining, in part, because of the cost of administering the permits. The public also subsidizes the clean-up of abandoned mine sites, many of which are toxic superfund sites.
Timothy M Sowecke
Timothy M Sowecke
Sep 01, 2011 10:03 AM
I agree, however, oil and gas are not hardrock minerals. Agains, journalistic specificity is good form rather than abstract activism.