The West's negligent landlord

  Western Colorado Congressman Scott McInnis occupies a congressional seat that until 1972 was the most powerful in the West. It was owned by the late Wayne Aspinall, a Democrat, who chaired the House Interior Committee in the 1960s and early 1970s, when the federal government was pouring billions into the the Interior West. Federal agencies built dams and interstate highways, and operated nuclear weapons complexes like Los Alamos, Hanford and Rocky Flats.

Aspinall ruled the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, as well as the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. He decided, sometimes single-handedly, which dams should be built, which forests cut, which ore bodies mined. His power was such that he could, and did, hold up the Central Arizona Project for years, letting it go only late in the 1960s. He saw to it that his western Colorado district had $1 billion in dams crammed into it.

Today, throughout the West, several billion dollars' worth of reservoirs built at Aspinall's direction are showing their bottoms. Drought and forest fires threaten the region. So I was eager to hear how his successor, McInnis, would respond to the changing times. McInnis had the perfect forum: Club 20, a regional chamber of commerce for western Colorado that is for resource development.

But instead of talking about natural resources, McInnis, a Republican, promoted the Bush administration's Iraq policy. The crowd was receptive, but not enthusiastic. They had given up their Saturday to learn about the West, rather than about America's second military reach for empire since the end of World War II

Had Aspinall spoken to Club 20 during the first reach for empire, Vietnam, he would have promoted that war, but he would also have had a lot to say about the West. That's because the Congress and the White House under President Lyndon B. Johnson were determined to provide guns and butter - to provide for both the military abroad and the civilians back home.

Western "butter" in the 1960s came in two forms: first, as expanded defense facilities and logging, mining and dam building; and then as the newly created Canyonlands National Park in Utah, the Wilderness Act and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. When Richard M. Nixon became president in 1969, there was more butter for the West: he further expanded our national park and wilderness systems, and signed the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act.

That 15-year dance between dam building and land and water protection laid the foundation for the economic and population boom the West experienced in the 1990s. Environmental laws and activism reined in but didn't stop logging, mining and dam building. People across the nation saw that the West could have both economic development and a bright, pristine future that writer Wallace Stegner called the "geography of hope."

Americans responded by visiting, by moving here, by investing here. Hydropower and water from Glen Canyon and other dams and water from the Central Arizona Project allowed the Southwest and parts of the Mountain West to grow 30 to 40 percent per decade.

That population boom is now petering out, fortunately. Unfortunately, there is no sign that we are building a new foundation on which to base the region's next advance. Today, there is no butter, no vision, no passion coming from the federal government. All we get is penny pinching. The White House budgeteers have gutted the Forest Service's permanent firefighting force. When this summer's fires come, the money to fight them will again come from campgrounds, trails, fisheries, and habitat protection: the underpinnings of our new economy. The White House has also ordered the Forest Service and Park Service to replace many of their permanent employees with corporate contractors - aka rent-a-ranger firms - inevitably weakening the agencies and the federal land.

On the ground, BLM land especially is being hammered by gas drilling; in addition to bombing Iraq, we are bombing San Juan County, N.M., the Powder River Basin of Wyoming, Garfield County, Colo., and Bozeman, Mont.

Unlike the Vietnam era, environmental laws are being weakened and protected lands like the new monuments are being squeezed. A calamity like the 1930s Dust Bowl may be coming, but judging by McInnis's silence at Club 20, neither Congress nor the White House has plans to help.

We don't need more dams or clear-cuts. But we do need the balance between environmentalism and development we created in the 1960s. And we need empowered land managers to implement that balance.

Instead, the Forest Service and BLM are being starved and the land they're supposed to manage is being destroyed. No wonder McInnis wanted to talk Iraq rather than the West.

Ed Marston is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado ([email protected]). He is the newspaper's senior journalist.

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].

High Country News Classifieds