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for people who care about the West

Something to chew on


Perhaps the only coherent message to come out of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge debacle in eastern Oregon has been this: Local people, rather than the federal government, should control the land around their own communities. Just “give back” the refuge and other public land in Harney County to those who believe they should rightfully control it and the place will thrive again, says sagebrush ringleader Ammon Bundy, who, incidentally, is not a local himself.

If this sounds familiar, it may be because you’ve heard it before from the West’s mining, timber and energy industries. Wrapped in the cloak of “local control,” they argue that, since the locals want the jobs and tax revenue their projects provide, environmentalists and government regulators should just get out of the way. In response, environmentalists, noting the money industry pours into local elections and groups that advocate for unfettered access to public lands, blast the local-control movement as a puppet of industry.

Which is why it is so interesting to watch this political dynamic turned on its head on Colorado’s Front Range. There, the energy development along the suburban fringe is facing a local-control movement of a different kind. In the name of democracy and environmental protection, fractivists in several communities have passed ordinances empowering local governments to ban or restrict drilling in their jurisdictions. Predictably, the industry has furiously demanded state and federal regulation, rather than local. And just as predictably, national environmental groups have embraced local control like a long-lost relative.

Executive director and publisher Paul Larmer

Perhaps no one is in a better position to observe the ironies in the struggle between communities and the oil and gas industry than historian Patty Limerick, head of the Center of the American West and author of this issue’s cover essay. Between 2013 and 2014, she attempted to hold civil discourse between various stakeholders in a series of events called FrackingSENSE. She discovered, to her delight, that it is possible — if you can get the people involved to honestly consider each other’s viewpoints and the complex history that binds us together.

We’re all hypocrites at some level, Limerick notes, from the CEOs who blithely ignore the messes their industry creates, to the car-driving suburbanites who wink at the fact that their comfortable lives literally float on a sea of hydrocarbons. So how do we find common ground? Limerick has a uniquely practical suggestion: Let’s sit down and eat. Will that solve everything? No, but as she writes, getting together over good food always delivers one “bedrock benefit”: Everyone has to stop talking long enough to chew — and thereby listen. That might not seem like much, but we have to start somewhere. Maybe over barbecue, both Sagebrush Rebels and fractivists can stop arguing long enough to re-discover their shared interests in controlling their own destinies and nourishing their passion for the West.