The Interior West has long regarded California as the sort of rich eccentric uncle whose peculiar behavior is an embarrassment to the rest of the family. I have some firsthand knowledge of this attitude, because I am a fourth-generation Californian, who moved to rural western Colorado back in 1992. The sidelong glances I received from a few locals during my first weeks in Colorado, and the long pauses that ensued when I revealed that I’d lived in that den of iniquity called the Bay Area, led me to urgently inquire exactly how soon I could change my license plates.
It’s not that I couldn’t sympathize
with the locals’ viewpoint: The Californians pouring into the
Interior West were driving up real estate prices, clogging the
roads and changing the small-town culture. But the knee-jerk
reaction against all things Californian seemed misguided, a
convenient way to avoid looking at the whole picture. After all,
the Golden State has also had positive impacts on the Rocky
Take water, for instance. Over the
years, California, like other Western states, has ruthlessly
pursued fresh water supplies, even when doing so dried up valleys,
destroyed lakes and bulldozed the water rights of rural
communities. But today, California is showing the rest of the West
how to use water more efficiently through conservation; L.A.
residents use far less water than the people of Phoenix, for
example. And the state has pioneered the transfer of water rights
from rural areas to rapidly growing urban centers.
California has also long been a leader in air-quality protection
and the development of alternative energy sources, including wind
and solar power. The state’s decision in the 1970s to
implement tough air-quality standards forced car manufacturers to
make cleaner vehicles. The brown clouds of pollution that shroud
Denver and Salt Lake, especially in the winter, would be much
browner — and much more dangerous — without
California’s work in this area.
And as Ray Ring
notes in a sidebar to his cover story, California has become a
valuable ally to citizens fighting dozens of proposed coal-fired
power plants in Idaho and elsewhere in the West. Gov. Arnold
Schwarzenegger’s recent announcement that California will no
longer purchase electricity from power plants that contribute to
global warming has taken away a huge market for speculative
coal-fired power plants, such as the one proposed by Sempra in
Idaho’s Magic Valley. It’s likely no coincidence that,
just as Idaho’s Legislature put a moratorium on the
construction of new coal-fired plants, Sempra announced that it was
getting out of the coal-fired power business altogether and
focusing on cleaner-burning gas projects. Strong-willed citizens
backed by an unfriendly marketplace make a formidable opponent.
Ring’s story shows that California’s efforts
to protect the environment are more than just West Coast idealism.
In actuality, they are quite pragmatic. The state — and the
West as a whole — simply must innovate if it is going to
accommodate a growing population without destroying its natural
wealth. The uprising in Idaho shows that the West is shedding the
old notion that hands-off government and unfettered industry are
more important than the health of our land, air, water and
Sound like the kind of thing a Californian
might say? Maybe so. But maybe that’s not such a bad thing
after all. Maybe the Rocky Mountain West has more in common with
the Golden State than we like to admit.