The once and future West


It turns out that this new economy of ours may be as subject to boom and bust as the economy based on cattle, oil and lumber. September 11 emptied Las Vegas, caused hunters to cancel trips to Idaho and Montana, and silenced ski areas' reservation phone lines in Colorado.

The West's environmental movement was also thrown off balance. You can't push to protect an endangered species or attack an oil-seeking administration when lower Manhattan and the Pentagon are in ruins. From the other side of the public-land barricades, the demand for oil and gas and aluminum airplanes is likely to be way down, and so why spend money lobbying to "open" the Arctic when oil prices are so low you can't afford to drill there anyway?

There may also be less national attention to go around. Washington, D.C., is where much of the West's business has always been done. During the Clinton years, the West's federal lands were tightly managed out of the White House, not only roadless policy and national monuments, but also individual timber cuts and national forest plans.

The Congress has been even more involved with the West, earmarking funds for individual on-the-ground projects in ranger districts and wildlife refuges and national parks. The flow of money and attention to the ground in the West is so specific they shouldn't call it pork; that's too general. They should call it cutlet, or chop - or tenderloin for the big appropriations.

Congress and the president have always micromanaged the West. John Wesley Powell spent most of his time trying to get a few thousand dollars a year out of the Congress to buy tents and horses so that he could spend some of his time exploring the West. Whether you want to build a dam or take one down; open a mine or reclaim an abandoned one; or trade a piece of federal land near Phoenix for a private ranch near Sedona, you are going to shuttle back and forth between your home in the West and Washington, D.C. Now the Congress and the White House may no longer have quite as much time or money to manage the Baca Ranch in New Mexico or to argue over how long the comment period for Colorado's White River National Forest land-use plan should be.

A different environmental agenda may move front and center. Brent Blackwelder, who runs Friends of the Earth out of Washington, D.C., says environmentalists have long urged rail transportation, wind and solar energy, and spread-out (rather than central station) electric power generation. All these things would make us less vulnerable to sabotage, while being much easier on the land. In the pre-September 11 political climate, they didn't have a prayer. Now, that may change.

That's the potential new politics. But politics doesn't change in a vacuum. Political shocks lead to economic shocks, and the new Western economics are likely to be a 21st century version of the bust of the 1980s, when oil shale and pipeline and electric power plant projects died in the wake of falling energy prices. We exported unemployed workers hauling fully loaded U-Hauls for a while, and then the West went into a deep sleep until it was roused in the early 1990s by the rough kiss of recreation development and people moving here. The energy bust was brutal on individuals, but a lot of damage to land and wildlife and beauty was avoided.

In some ways, the bust was also good for towns. Those who stuck with their communities came together to clean up riverbanks and provide put-in places for rafting; helped move into the public domain key pieces of private land acquired from cash-strapped sellers; and built trails and recreation centers and libraries. Paradoxically, low cash flow and difficult times meant civic improvement, because citizens had time on their hands and were no longer intent on getting rich.

In the coming few years, with pressure to develop lessened and property values dropping in step with the stock market, we may again have the opportunity to strengthen communities and the public lands. Worker housing may no longer be an oxymoron in some of the West's resort towns, and a market may open for those who figure out how to convert trophy homes into bed-and-breakfasts.

The region may also become more cohesive, as the flood of newcomers slows, and as those who came to the West in the 1990s are forced to decide whether to move on or commit to whatever place they found themselves living when the economic music stopped.

Ed Marston is publisher of High Country News.

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