Tourism sags, energy policy debate simmers




The West was a different place the day after Sept. 11. Armed guards with machine guns stood at Nevada's Hoover Dam. In Klamath Falls, Ore., throngs of farmers who have been holding hostage the headgate to a federal irrigation project dismantled their camp, saying they didn't want to cause more problems for the federal government.


Due to the lack of air traffic, hunting and fly-fishing guides in Idaho and Montana received enough cancellations in one week to worry tourism industries across the region. Many Colorado ski areas are hunkering down for a slow season, and Aspen Ski Company, which couldn't find enough workers last season, has already laid off 20 employees, says the resort's Auden Schendler.


"Virtually everyone in the tourism industry is deeply frightened," he says.


"There isn't one of us that hasn't changed our priorities since Sept. 11," says former Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo. "We're dealing with fear and we've never dealt with that in the (country's) interior; we have to be careful we don't overreact."

Energy in the aftermath

Overreacting wouldn't be unprecedented. Lander, Wyo., resident Tom Bell, founder of High Country News and a World War II veteran, says that in previous wars the government pushed for more oil and gas development and additional grazing on the public lands, while the Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service had their funding cut.


"During this sort of crisis, the gloves just come off," says Bell. "During wartime they just throw everything into it."


In the early 1940s, Congress passed several laws designed to increase the production and development of natural resources on the public lands. That will happen again, predicts Jay Walley of the Paragon Foundation Inc., an Alamogordo, N.M.-based private-property rights group. According to Walley, national security requires that we tap domestic reserves of oil and gas.


"Our dependence on foreign oil has always been our Achilles tendon," he says. "We're going to see a national movement to rush into more petroleum."


Simpson says that depends:


"As long as (Vice President Dick) Cheney and (Secretary of State Colin) Powell keep things stable with Saudi Arabia and other Arab OPEC nations, then we won't go into rip-and-ruin mode."


But even if these relationships fall apart and America pursues domestic drilling with a vengeance, the country will still not be able to meet its energy needs; help from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other sources is at least six years away.


"By that time, we certainly hope that this is just an old memory," says Mark Smith of the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States.


Smith, in fact, foresees falling demand. With so many airlines decreasing flights, he predicts the market will be glutted with oil. The same may be true for natural gas, most of which is used to fuel electric power plants. A slowing economy, combined with large layoffs at manufacturing companies like Boeing, will translate into less demand for gas, says Smith.


"This is bad news to the bone," he says. "It will put some of my companies out of business."


Where the petroleum industry sees woe, conservationists see opportunity, says Peter Asmus, author of Reinventing Electric Utilities: Competition, Citizen Action and Clean Power. Since a war effort is already in the works, Asmus says the more appropriate quick fix is for Congress to offer tax incentives for people who use less energy.


Such a policy would have an additional benefit, Asmus says. "The last thing we should be doing is building more nuclear reactors and gas pipelines that are subject to terrorist attacks."

Brief bipartisanism

During the days immediately after the attacks, Congress glowed with bipartisanism. Though the Senate had been gearing up for a huge fight over drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the debate's major players quickly backed away from the issue.


As the Senate rushed to approve the defense authorization bill, Republican Sen. Frank Murkowski of Alaska said he would not seek an amendment authorizing oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Such an amendment, he said, would be "inappropriate and in poor taste."


Many environmentalists agreed. "We will eventually return to ... ANWR, but there's not the appetite to do so right now," Bruce Hamilton of the Sierra Club said on Sept. 21.


But the appetite has returned quickly, at least in some quarters. Sen. James Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma, filed to attach the House energy bill - which authorizes ANWR drilling - and the National Energy Security Act to the defense authorization bill.


Inhofe has offered to drop his amendments in exchange for Senate action on the energy bill, but many senators would like to postpone the energy debate until early 2002. As of Sept. 27, Inhofe was still haggling with Senate leaders over the proposal.


"We're bringing it up to ensure (the energy issue) is dealt with by the end of the year," says Inhofe spokesman Gary Hoitsma. "We're not wedded to drilling in the Arctic. We can take that out if we don't want to deal with the controversy, but let's see what we can agree on."


The 11 Republican members of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources are also pushing their committee leadership to "streamline" consideration of the energy bill before Congress adjourns. On Sept. 28, Murkowski, the ranking Republican on the committee, said he'll try to stall "normal legislative business" until the Democrats agree to proceed with the bill.


Meanwhile, the White House has stayed relatively quiet on energy issues, and President George W. Bush has instructed senators and representatives to try to resume life as usual.


That means that, although it's not being reported in the media, Western representatives like Colorado Republican Scott McInnis continue to draft wilderness legislation and hold hearings on the Recreation Fee Demonstration Program.


This is to be expected, says Stewart Udall, former congressman and Interior secretary under John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.


"During Vietnam, Congress still dealt with natural-resource issues; environmental reforms were passed," he says. "We're in a whirlwind right now, but when the dust settles in a few weeks, things will essentially get back to normal."

Rebecca Clarren is associate editor for High Country News.