The West dissected


Oil and gas companies -- despite the efforts of "obstructionist" environmentalists -- managed to drill at least 117,339 new wells in 12 Western states (including South Dakota) in the last eight years alone. That drilling rush often skirted regulations and caused significant air and water pollution.

That's according to the Environmental Working Group, which recently issued a voluminous report, complete with online maps plotting more than 200,000 wells (including some drilled as far back as 1980), and tables of data broken down to the county level.

Meanwhile, two other influential groups -- the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Audubon Society -- just released detailed online maps and recommendations for where they think renewable energy projects and new transmission lines should -- and should not be -- located in 12 Western states.

Those maps -- under the title Path to Green Energy -- show that the West's wide-open spaces are actually a jurisdictional clutter of national parks and monuments, conservation areas, wildlife refuges, designated and proposed wilderness areas, inventoried roadless areas, essential habitat for sage grouse, tortoises and other sensitive species, state parks, scenic rivers and historic trails that zigzag across thousands of miles, and so on.

The Path to Green Energy urges new grids for solar, wind and geothermal energy to avoid all those areas -- a task that seems almost impossible. It's "vital to find the best sites for new clean energy projects and transmission lines," the report says, "so that America can harness renewable power while doing the least damage to the Western environment."

Still more aspects of the West get dissected in Colorado College's new State of the Rockies Report Card. The Report Card devotes 124 pages to the eight Rocky Mountain states, with chapters on the affordable housing crisis, river-restoration economics, trends in wilderness protection, stress on wildlife, and so on.

Among the Report Card's findings: Immigrants born outside the U.S. now make up about 11 percent of the Rockies' population, and their numbers are increasing rapidly. A century ago, however, that number was 19 percent -- which shoots holes in the conventional wisdom that says immigrants today are overrunning the region.

The Report Card notes that immigrants in the Rockies are more likely to be "unauthorized" -- without legal status -- than immigrants in other regions. "The effects of unauthorized status are severe," the Report Card observes. "Unauthorized immigrants often live in the shadows of society, fearing deportation. An inability to speak English and cultural confusion contribute to ignorance regarding legal rights, access to services, and other critical information. In families ... the disadvantages of illegal status affect those who are legal. This effect is especially felt by children ..."

Those findings echo a groundbreaking, 14-part study by the Brookings Institution, a top think tank. Mountain Megas was released last July, and the Brookings Institution has been sponsoring conferences in Western venues to discuss its findings with local audiences.

Mountain Megas identifies "five emerging ‘megapolitan' areas" with spectacular growth and demographic changes -- the Phoenix-Tucson corridor, Colorado's Front Range, metro Salt Lake City, Las Vegas and Albuquerque. It describes them as "the new supersized reality of the Intermountain West," well on their way to becoming the "New American Heartland."

Mountain Megas recommends that those urban areas develop new relationships with the federal government to create rapid transit systems and other smart infrastructure, to "build a uniquely Western brand of prosperity that is at once more sustainable, productive, and inclusive than the past ... dynamic of boom and bust."

These are only a few of the studies being done on the West these days. Why so many? The West is an exciting and often contradictory place. As the studies note, it is experiencing the fastest pace of change in the nation, and there's a lot at stake, from scenery and wildlife to livability and economic fairness. All the studies share a certain psychological or philosophical bent: They search for cohesion, trying to identify what makes the West distinct and whole. And they all pose the question: What will the West become?

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