Extracting the West

 

As another year begins, extractive industries continue to mine the West for opportunity, even when the economic activity they promise has little to do with the American West. Now it's increasingly clear that battles that seem localized to the West have far-reaching impacts.

The West has long been treated as a transitional zone, as if it is some sort of connective tissue between the rest of the world. Frequently this connectivity has to do with extracting value from the region's resources. Lewis and Clark, after all, mapped much of the West in search of a Northwest Passage and the imagined opportunity of a navigable water route to the Pacific. The Golden Spike of the Transcontinental Railroad may have been driven into the soil of Promontory Point, Utah, but the Golden State's wealth drove its construction.

Of late, this extractive connectivity has meant worries about how proposed “megaloads” of mining equipment bound for Canada will impact the conditions on U.S. Highway 12 in Idaho and Western Montana. The building-sized pieces of equipment – constructed in South Korea and shipped to Vancouver, WA before taking their barge trip to Lewiston, ID and starting on the Highway 12 journey – will be used by ConocoPhillips in its efforts to squeeze petroleum from the hydrocarbon-rich soil of Alberta (other companies also propose to use the Lochsa corridor to ship tar sands equipment). The trip would carry the equipment along part of the route taken by Lewis and Clark, through the Lochsa River Valley, over  Lolo Pass and straight through the birthplace of the Nez Perce tribe (other U.S. tribes also worry about the shipments, and many indigenous groups in Canada have opposed the Tar Sands).

Now it appears ConocoPhillips may be one step closer to shipping the modules, which have been sitting for months in the Port of Lewiston while controversy over their shipment rages. New West reported Dec. 29 that a hearing officer ruled that the Idaho Transportation Department should issue permits to Conoco for the shipments. Opponents of the shipments have 14 days from the decision to petition for reconsideration of the hearing officer's decision. I'd be surprised if that petition isn't filed.

Route 12 along the Lochsa River in Idaho, where megaloads may soon travel.

On the other hand, another decision delayed the possibility that the West would soon become a conduit for increased coal exports. The New York Times' “Green Blog” reported Dec. 30 that Washington's Department of Ecology intervened in a dispute over a proposed coal export terminal at Washington's Port of Longview. Longview sits on the Columbia river about 66 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean. Interestingly, the department's concerns about the export terminal considered locales beyond the port, noting that Cowlitz County's environmental review of the proposal shouldn't have excluded greenhouse gas impacts away from the port but related to activity there. Though the decision isn't final, it reminds us that coal shipments may have implications not just in the Northwest – as Oregon Public Broadcasting's “Ecotrope” blog explored earlier this month – but also in places like Wyoming's Powder River Basin and other locations in the West now being considered for new coal mines.

Each case reminds me that the success of environmental advocacy in the West may depend on advocates' ability to build wide reaching alliances and identify common cause with people quite far from their communities. Those alliances might not just be geographic; they may need to be temporal. Moreover, new strategies by opponents to industrial development might require spanning timelines as well as regions.

Yesterday, for example, the Washington Post explored the latest developments in the battle over the proposed Oak Flats copper mine in Arizona, near the town of Superior, about 60 miles east of Phoenix. There, a town finds itself divided over the immediate economic potential from an industry like mining so woven into Superior's history and concerns about the lasting impact to the environment, tourism and other economic activity from that industry. Referring to the size of the deposit at the center of the controversy one Washington Post source said it was “like the Super Bowl.”

As the source described, mining companies have yet to find similar deposits, despite extensive searching. So what happens when the copper's gone and the mining industry moves on to its next frontier? What happens when the game is over and the party ends? What happens after the guests have gone home?

Bill Lascher is a Portland, Oregon-based freelancer. He focuses on the environment's intersection with science, business, culture and policy.

He got the name for his Web site, Lascher at Large, from the legal column his father penned for 20 years before his death. Lascher is currently working on a project with his grandmother to tell the story of her cousin, Melville Jacoby, a foreign correspondent who died in the early days of World War II.

Essays in the Just West blog are not written by the High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

High Country News Classifieds
  • FREE RANGE BISON AVAILABLE
    Hard grass raised bison available in east Montana. You harvest or possible deliver quartered carcass to your butcher or cut/wrapped pickup. Contact Crazy Woman Bison...
  • CONSERVATION ASSOCIATE - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST (NORTH CENTRAL WA)
    Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, and the chance to work with many different kinds of people and accomplish big conservation outcomes? Do you...
  • CARDIGAN WELSH CORGIS
    10 adorable, healthy puppies for sale. 4 males and 6 females. DM and PRA clear. Excellent pedigree from champion lineage. One Red Brindle male. The...
  • A CHILDREN'S BOOK FOR THE CLIMATE CRISIS!!
    "Goodnight Fossil Fuels!" is a an engaging, beautiful, factual and somewhat silly picture book by a climate scientist and a climate artist, both based in...
  • DIGITAL ADVOCACY & MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    The Digital Advocacy & Membership Manager will be responsible for creating and delivering compelling, engaging digital content to Guardians members, email activists, and social media...
  • DIGITAL OUTREACH COORDINATOR, ARIZONA
    Job Title: Digital Outreach Coordinator, Arizona Position Location: Phoenix or Tucson, AZ Status: Salaried Job ID Number: 52198 We are looking for you! We are...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks an experienced fundraiser to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator who is passionate about conservation and...
  • INDIAN COUNTRY FELLOWSHIP
    Western Leaders Network is accepting applications for its paid, part-time, 6-month fellowship. Mentorship, training, and engaging tribal leaders in advancing conservation initiatives and climate policy....
  • MULESHOE RANCH PRESERVE MANAGER
    The Muleshoe Ranch Preserve Manager develops, manages, and advances conservation programs, plans and methods for large-scale geographic areas. The Muleshoe Ranch Cooperative Management Area (MRCMA)...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 52 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • ASSISTANT OR ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF ENVIRONMENTAL HUMANITIES
    Assistant or Associate Professor of Environmental Humanities Whitman College The Environmental Humanities Program at Whitman College seeks candidates for a tenure-track position beginning August 2023...
  • ANNUAL FUND MANAGER
    Working closely with the Foundation's leadership, the Annual Fund Manager is responsible for the oversight and management of the Foundation's annual operating fund. This is...
  • DATABASE ADMINISTRATOR
    Looking for someone who loves public land and understands the value and importance of data in reaching shared goals as part of a high-functioning team....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) in Crested Butte, CO is seeking an enthusiastic Executive Director who is passionate about the public lands, natural waters and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF VOLUNTEER PROGRAMS
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with volunteer management experience to join...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The conservation non-profit Invasive Species Action Network seeks an executive director. We are focused on preventing the human-caused spread of invasive species by promoting voluntary...
  • NEW BOOK: A FEAST OF ECSTATIC VERSE AND IMAGERY
    Dynamic fine art photographer offers use of images to raise funds. Available for use by conservation groups. Contact at www.anecstaticgathering.com.
  • WANTED: TALENTED WRITER
    Write the introduction to A Feast of Ecstatic Verse and Imagery, a book concerning nature and spirituality. Contact at www.anecstaticgathering.com. Writer who works for conservation/nature...
  • MT STATE DIRECTOR- THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY
    The Montana State Director is a member of The Wilderness Society's (TWS) Conservation program team who plays a leading role in advancing the organization's mission...