The return of the Lords of Yesterday
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.