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Know the West

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.