Tom Bell: outraged by the outrageous

 

If I were a consultant to the West's energy and mineral companies and ranchers, and to their politicians and bureaucrats, I would give them one piece of advice:

"Don't get crosswise with Tom Bell. Early on in your 'process' tell Tom your plans. If he reacts with a strong no, change them. It will save you lots of time, money and head-scratching."

Tenneco is the latest to have not learned this lesson. So far, Tom has delayed its $600 million Altamont natural gas pipeline at least a year, and perhaps permanently. He says the fight to save South Pass from becoming a utility corridor will be his last. He says he is discouraged and tired, as he was in 1974, when he left this newspaper after founding and running it for four years. And he is not a rich man. The fight against the South Pass route has cost him several hundred dollars in postage; that hurts.

Tom has been fighting the West's many Altamonts for four decades. In these pages, he exposed the rancher who had hundreds of eagles shot out of the sky, and then had to report that the man only had his wrist slapped by a judge. He wrote about then Gov. Stan Hathaway's efforts to peddle Wyoming's ass to every energy and mineral company, and saw him rewarded with the post of Secretary of Interior. So by this time, Tom should know how the West works. Yet he is so outraged over Altamont you would think it was the first atrocity he has seen up close. It is what makes him great.

Bell also seems mystified by the behavior of his fellow humans. Biologists say much of what we are is in our genes. If true, Tom Bell was born without two important Western genes: the "wink and nod" gene and the "go along to get along" gene. He does not seem to understand that most people - especially individualistic, plain-speaking Westerners - just want to know which way the wind is blowing so they can be blown with it. Bell, not understanding this, assumes that money must change hands, or jobs must be threatened, to get bureaucrats or Wyoming politicos to support the destruction of South Pass.

The ease with which people can be turned against their interests, let alone against fairness and due process, is evident on Bell's home turf, in Fremont County. Tom and his allies initially got support from Fremont County commissioners. It was the only opposition along the route and Tenneco, fearing that this revolt might spread along the 620-mile, two-state route, immediately brought in its medium-sized guns. The firm spent a substantial amount of money on public relations in Fremont County, flying people to see the site, placing ads in the paper, contributing to community groups. When the firm's flacks were done showing local people their backyard and throwing them a few coins with promises of more, the county commissioners were strongly behind the South Pass route.

The commissioners spoke of jobs, although they must have known the pipeline construction crews would come from elsewhere. (They always do.) And they spoke of the business - many six-packs of beer - that would come to the area during the three-month construction time.

The economic reasons are smoke. The commissioners gave in because Tenneco put on a show of force with its meals and helicopter rides and the rest. The message in these PR blitzes always is: "See how moneyed and suited and slick we are. See how poor and coveralled and crude you are. So do what we tell you."

Altamont is the rural West in microcosm. The Fremont County experience illustrates why the militia and Wise Use folks talk about black helicopters. They know they are controlled, so they assume the U.N. or the U.S. is flying helicopters around, controlling them. They conjure up bogeymen so they won't have to face the truth.

At least Fremont County had real helicopters to point to. Even so, the county could have dictated where the pipeline should go. The county could have preserved its heritage, and still gotten the few jobs and the property taxes. But it would have meant standing up to the private sector - something that is much harder in the West than screaming at federal employees or blaming environmentalists for everything.

The militias and wild-talking Wise Users are in the same box. If they want a say in their economic futures and the future of the West, they have to trade in big talk and meaningless county ordinances and guns for an honest look at the reality of the West.

The reality is that the West is ecologically exhausted and can no longer support ranchers or loggers or fishermen. Today, after a century of "settlement," after a century of corporate development, after a century of "custom and culture," much of the land is good only for subdivisions and ranchettes and hobby ranches.

Is there any sign that the truth is to be confronted? A little. This latest chapter of High Country News contains a hopeful sign that the West's politics is coming into step with its reality. On page 3, writer Paul Larmer reports that Sen. Pete Domenici is backing away from his very radical grazing bill. He received so much heat from New Mexico that he decided there are too many misunderstandings concerning the bill. The "misunderstandings' he refers to are facts that have gotten through to the public: The bill would hand the public lands over to ranchers to use as they please and no one - the public or the BLM - would have the power to tell them what to do with the public's land.

The political strength of the West's commodity users - loggers, miners, ranchers, dam builders - is that the region's senators and representatives are usually given a free ride on natural resource issues. Although the West is mainly urban, its voters tended to ignore the outrages men like former Idaho Sen. James McClure and present Colorado Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell visited and visit upon the public lands. The West was saved, to the extent it was saved, time and again by representatives from the Midwest and the coasts.

Thanks to the 1994 congressional elections, non-Westerners are no longer going to save the West. In what seemed like graveyard whistling, Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt recently predicted (HCN, 5/1/95) that the West would save itself. This time, Babbitt said, Westerners would rise up and tell their congressional delegations that the West must no longer be plundered.

Perhaps, just perhaps, the uprising in New Mexico that caused Domenici to at least blink is Babbitt's prediction starting to cometrue. If so, it is a welcome note on which to start HCN's second quarter century.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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