The old West is going under

  • Michael Williams photo


Note: this front-page editor's note introduces this issue's three feature articles.

Think of this as a deathwatch issue, in which we hover around the bed of the extractive West, some of us administering CPR, some of us trying to yank the creature off life support so it can die a quicker death, and some of us worrying over what will come next.

Todd Wilkinson's lead article, which starts on page 8, is about the CPR that Forest Service Chief Michael Dombeck is attempting to administer to his death-wish-ridden agency. Internally, Dombeck is trying to quietly reform the agency and its policies. Externally, he has dramatized that reform for a national audience by challenging the road-building ethic that holds large chunks of the agency and its congressional supporters in thrall. Thus far, the road builders have been unable to stop Dombeck. It's a far cry from 1993, when a few Western congressmen, casually stopping by the White House, reversed a similarly ambitious public-lands initiative.

One reason Dombeck's initiative has survived is that congressional politics has shifted away from the timber industry. That Beltway shift is reinforced by a new reality on the federal land itself. Although you would never know it from reading the direct mail that environmental groups send out, Peter Chilson reports on page 12 that logging on national forest land is down from 12 billion board-feet a decade ago to less than 4 billion board-feet today. Livestock across the West is down from 20 million head a century ago to 2 million today. And, while in 1983, 8,500 oil and gas wells were drilled on public and private land; in 1996, 1,900 wells were drilled.

Reporter Dustin Solberg examines on page 10 a tiny town in Oregon's timber belt, and discovers one reason why timber has so few supporters left. The town Solberg looks at still identifies with the wood-products industry; it hasn't shifted yet to a service economy. Nevertheless, the town government opposes further logging on the national forest near the town in order to protect its water system.

The final article, by Jon Margolis on page 15, is about the recreation industry that is moving quickly to take over the forests, mountains and deserts that the loggers, ranchers and oil and gas guys are vacating. Indications are that this new extractive industry, which carries with it user fees and increased motorized activities, isn't going to be a huge improvement over the natural resource industries.

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