Two weeks in the West

This is the way the world ends: Not with a bang, but a whimper

  • The main tunnel of the nuclear waste repository descends five miles into Yucca Mountain



“Perhaps folks have not taken notice of the fact that this is an administration that’s been keenly committed, both to environmentalism and conservationism, from the start.”

—Tony Snow, the White House press secretary, on President Bush's environmental record

Not long ago, nuclear holocaust was the biggest threat to existence, and the sparsely populated West seemed the best place to be when the button was pushed. Holed up in Utah with a stash of canned food, you could survive a nuclear winter — at least for a week or two.

Those days are gone. The end will come not with an atomic bang, but with a global warming whimper. And the West will no longer provide a refuge — in fact, it may suffer most.

That’s the pessimistic gist of a February report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Thanks to humans, the earth is warming up, sea levels will rise, and pestilence and severe weather events will follow. The West may be harder hit than anywhere else in the country, with increased drought, hotter temperatures in the Southwest and diminishing snow cover in the mountains. None of this comes as a surprise, but it carries a lot more weight emanating from this group, which walks a conservative line. In response, politicians are attacking the issue with a newfound sense of urgency.

Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire, D, along with legislators in her state, swiftly proposed laws that would cut the state’s greenhouse gas emissions by more than 50 percent by 2050. U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has expressed similar ambitions on a national scale. Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski, D, unveiled his own energy bill, which would require 25 percent of the state’s energy to come from renewable sources by 2025 and provide incentives for alternative energy. And 130 of the 402 members of the Mayors Climate Protection Agreement are in the West, albeit mostly along the coast.

Lurking on the fringes, though, is a potential nuclear renaissance. Pelosi, once a foe of nukes, indicated she could change her tune if it means solving the climate change/energy demand conundrum. The Department of Energy has asked for more than $1.8 billion for nuclear energy, including $495 million to get Yucca Mountain’s nuclear waste repository up and running. And Alternative Energy Holdings recently agreed to purchase 4,000 acres along Idaho’s Snake River for a new nuclear power plant.

As for the uranium to fuel the resurgence, a couple of New Mexico counties are eager to supply it. The McKinley and Cibola county commissions recently passed resolutions supporting uranium mining, even though both counties contain large swaths of the Navajo Nation, where uranium mining is banned.

Of course, the more uranium-fueled nuke plants we have, the more material will be available for nuclear weapons. Then we can all start worrying again about going out with a bang.


The Rockies Prosperity Act née Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act is being rolled out in Congress again. This time, the bill, which grants wilderness protection to more than 20 million roadless acres and adds two new units to the national parks system in Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming, has more sponsors than ever — 187 in the House of Representatives — and a Democratically controlled Congress to back it up. But the bill has been introduced repeatedly since 1993, to no avail, and still has no Senate sponsors and scant congressional support from the region it covers.

Citizens’ ability to create their own state laws by putting initiatives on the ballot could be curbed if Arizona lawmakers get their way. In 2006, the state’s ballot contained 19 initiatives, five of which passed. Current proposals in the Legislature would let lawmakers modify the laws resulting from ballot measures for four years after they pass, would require disclosure of whether signature gatherers were paid, and would prevent paid gatherers from being rewarded according to the number of signatures they collect. Supporters say the reforms will protect the public from bad laws and fraud, but critics say they would hurt grassroots efforts to change laws.

Bush’s Budget, 2008

$623 billion: Total proposed budget of the Department of Defense, a 17 percent increase above 2006 levels

$1.85 billion: Total budget of the Bureau of Land Management, $5 million less than in 2006

$8.56 million: Cuts to funding from 2006 levels for the BLM’s National Landscape Conservation System, consisting of national monuments, wild and scenic rivers, and other areas

$84 million: Reduction in the Forest Service budget from 2006 levels

$137 million: Increase in the National Park Service budget from 2006 levels

3,000: Number of added seasonal rangers in national parks under proposed budget

$1.28 billion: Total proposed budget for the Fish and Wildlife Service, $14 million less than in 2006

14: Percent of Alternative Energy Initiative budget going toward the Coal Research Initiative

$27 million: Reduction in Bureau of Indian Affairs budget from 2006 levels

SOURCE: BLM data and The Office of Management and Budget

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