The people of the American West are reeling under an acute sense of future shock. Many Westerners, liberal and conservative alike, see the future as a Faustian bargain: the life style they love in exchange for a promise of economic prosperity. The latter has long been lacking amid the splendid vistas, the rugged mountains and canyons, and the semiarid plains of the Intermountain West.
The cumulative effect of mining and energy development in this area is fast bringing the trade-offs into focus," explains John Roush. "From the point of view of wealth, the region's future should look pretty good. Between $100 and $ 150 billion should pour into the area for resource development in the next 20 years. The problems which this massive development brings, however, are political, psychological, ecological, and spiritual." Mr. Roush is a Montana rancher with a PhD in English from the University of California, Berkeley, and author of the paper "Getting Ready for the Future in the Northern Rockies."
The Rocky Mountain states currently produce 26 percent of the nation's coal, and this output is expected to climb to 40 percent or more by 1990. Thirty-six of the nation's synthetic-fuel plants are projected for this region. In the Overthrust Belt -- a complex geological structure that runs through Montana, Wyoming, Utah, and Nevada -- there are an estimated 15 billion barrels of oil and 100 trillion cubic feet of natural gas which oil companies are developing rapidly. The region also contains much of the nation's reserves of strategic metals like molybdenum, many of which are themselves the subject of ambitious development plans. Add to this the Pentagon's plans for the MX missile system -- the biggest construction project in the history of man -- and the almost inconceivable possible impact on a region that contains less than 5 percent of the total US population becomes apparent.
Conservatives, including Idaho Sen. James McClure, a Republican, consider the bargain necessary, or at least unavoidable. Still, they lament the way of life that is passing. As Senator McClure put it recently:
"There is a dichotomy: jobs for our children versus a way of life." Then he added plaintively, "I liked Idaho better the way it was."
The region's liberals, on the other hand, tend to reject the bargain as almost a pact with the devil.
"Industrial America is out there to distract us, to get their hands on our resources, and repeat some of the worst atrocities of the past," argues John Peavey, a Democratic state senator also from Idaho.
Despite some reports to the contrary, people in this region are not lined up shoulder to shoulder against the federal government and the Eastern establishment in a "Sagebrush Rebellion." There is, however, a diffuse and ill-focused feeling of uneasiness, powerlessness, and anger that cuts through political and socioeconomic boundaries.
And this underlying anxiety does not appear to have been markedly assuaged by the election of Ronald Reagan, a Californian, as president, and the appointment of Westerners such as James Watt (secretary of the Interior). Anne Gorsuch (administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency) and Bob Burford (director of the Bureau of Land Management) to key positions in the new administration.
Perhaps this is because this concern comes from changes that cut across the somewhat superficial boundaries of Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative. According to Vice Deloria -- a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and author of the book "Custer Died for Your Sins," the same thing is happening to Westerners that happened to American Indians a century ago: They are losing their way of life.
"Cowboys and Indians will be on the same side in the next fight because neither want to be busboys in Ramada Inns," Mr. Deloria quips.
His comment, though flippant, illustrates an important aspect of the Westerners' dilemma. Westerners are beginning to perceive an unparalleled threat to their personal freedom in the already realized and anticipated onslaught of coal-strip draglines 16 stories high that consume as much electricity as small city; in a molybdenum mines that level entire mountains; in power plants that pour 10 tons of fly ash into the pristine air daily and gulp the equivalent of a small river's worth of water in parched lands where water has always been essential.
This freedom is intimately bound to the land. "Nowhere else has a legacy of such a large area of public lands. This gives us a tremendous freedom," proclaims Kenneth Robison, co-founder of Save Our Public Lands Inc.
Yet the Westerners' sense of freedom is mental as well as physical. It is the heart of the myth of the frontier. From James Fenimore Cooper's Natty Bumppo and Daniel Boone to Huck Finn and the Lone Ranger, Americans have consistently favored heroes who embody the freedom of the individual. No one has imbibed this spirit more throughly than the Westerner who has exalted "rugged individualism" to a high art.
This concept of individual freedom is firmly rooted as well in the ideas of the 18th-century economist Adam Smith, who argued that everyone who pursues his own self-interest will be "led by an invisible hand" to promote the public interest.
"The American frontier was a commons in which we could test Adam Smith's thesis, and it seemed to work," Dr. Roush observes. But now, in the face of resource scarcity, the laissez faire approach increasingly appears seriously flawed. Instead, the erudite rancher suggests, we must substitute the more pessimistic concept of the "Tragedy of the Commons," written by Garrett Hardin, an ecologist. In this theory the economic self-interest of those utilizing a common resource leads inexorably to ecological catastrophe.
There are those who consider the "rugged individual" a total misreading of the history of the West.
"The Sagebrush Rebellion has sold you a bill of goods," Mr. Deloria points out."The rugged individualist who tamed the West never happened.If you'd come one at a time, we could've shot you one at a time. But you came in bunches." He maintains that the history of the West is a communal one, of people helping each other.
One of the things which most Easterners simply do not understand about the West is the land's harshness and, paradoxically, its fragility. Well before the turn of the century John Wesley Powell pointed out that the WEst lacked a number of critical resources, especially water. As the first regular director of the newly formed US Geological Survey, he succeeded in keeping all settlers out until 1890. But the "proto-sagebrush rebels" of the day felt he had gone too far. They were unwilling to wait the 50 years it would take to map and classify the West and so they got Powell fired, recounts William H. Goetzman, professor of American studies and history at the university of Texas at Austin.
If conceived of by Powell and early explorers like John C. Fremont as the "Great American Desert," the West was also envisioned by many early Anglo-American settlers as a Garden of Eden, a land of abundance where there was plenty for all. This image was strengthened by artists like Fanny Farmer of Currier and Ives, who had never been West but composed romantic etchings of Western landscapes, and early painters like Albert Bierstadt, who did go West and sent back paintings of its glowing vistas.
Patricia Nelson, assistant professor of history at Harvard, has studied the desert experience of the 1870s. "To the American of the 19th century it was Manifest Destiny that America become great," she says. "The land was the creator's first down payment on that promise. Thus, the deserts presented not only a physical, but also a conceptual, problem: Why should America have wastelands? As a result, the desert made Anglo-Americans angry."
This anger has reverberations today. "Westerners don't go along with a lot of this 'living in harmony with the elements,'" Utah Gov. Scott Matheson told Joel Garreau, author of the book "The Nine Nations of North America." "That was a notion that the Indians had. Beautiful poetry. There's a notion here that the resources were made to be developed. That's part of our optimism. . . . People are agressive about the land." While Governor Matheson appears to speak for the majority of those in the predominantly Republican region, there is a significant minority who side with the Indians. They have an urgent sense of the importance of and the threats to Western lands. Some of this sense comes from the lessons of history.
The results of the disregard of Powell's warnings was "the barbecue of the West," Professor Goetzman says. Overgrazing turned lush grass prairies into sagebrush wastes. Ill-advised agricultural practices created the dust bowls of the 1890s and 1930s. The struggle over the limited resources was so fierce "that it would have made Darwin blush," the historian says. Yet this history has been glamorized and romanticized beyond recognition, he complains.
In frontier myth "the hog-leg on the hip has been characterized, not as the ultimate breakdown in interpersonal communications, but as the ultimate measure of manhood. Also, those who failed did so not because of limited opportunity but because 'it was their own fault,'" Dr. Goetzman observes.
Looking at the multitude of resource development plans that the US government and corporate America have for the Rocky Mountains, combined with growing agricultural pressures, environmentally conscious Westerners fear another "barbecue" that could make the previous one pale in comparison. John Roush has summarized this viewpoint:
Already one-third of the nation's topsoil has been lost.Today more soil is being lost by wind erosion than during the dust-bowl days. World population growth will increase demand for US crops, leading to planting of more marginal land, increasing soil erosion further.
Much of this marginal land requires irrigation. Yet water is a real problem. Much of the Great Plains is living on borrowed time, because of it is mining underground water which will largely be depleted in 50 years. In addition, farmers must increasingly compete with energy and industrial water users who can afford to pay as much as 50 times more for the water they need.
In a land where the ruts of the Oregon Trail are still clearly visible, there is considerable doubt about the extent to which massive strip and pit mines can be restored to a relatively natural condition.
Dr. Roush and others of similar ilk are following the dictate of the environmental philosopher Rene Dubos to "think globally and act locally." They are organizing political networks throughout the West. And, as always, politics is creating strange bedfellows. In Wyoming, for instance, liberal environmentalists and conservative farming interests have joined forces a number of times to oppose the construction of coal slurry pipelines that would transport large amounts of coal to the Midwest but also suck large amounts of water out of the state.
Annick Smith, writer and producer of the award-winning film "Heartland," lives in a small Montana valley near Missoula where both the Northern Tier Pipeline and a high-tension power line have been routed. She reports that these outside threats are pulling the valley's inhabitants together regardless of political persuasion. "What we have been calling a revolt of the West . . . is an assertion of individual right," she maintains.
In fact, it almost appears that a new political philosophy is struggling to be born which could unite the right and the left in the West. This was evident from the deliberations at a conference held here at Sun Valley by the Institute of the American West, entitled "Colonies in Revolt." On the second day of the meeting an ultraconservative Mormon businessman, David L. Tomlinson, commented: "I've been kept continually off balance. I keep hearing some of the finest redneck rhetoric and such socialistic talk as raises the hackles on the back of my neck . . . often from the same person."
The key to this common philosophy is an opposition to "bigness," either in government or in business. The general perception that political power is secondary to economic power leads to a primary focus on big business, particularly the continuing trend of consolidation of economic power. On the part of the environmentalists it is a dedication to E. F. Schumacher's "Small Is Beautiful" concept. On the part of small-business men and farmers, it is a matter of economic survival. In both cases, there seems a genuine desire to revitalize local communities.
Many Westerners are asking, along with Wyoming state legislator Jack Pugh. "Is there an overall corporate agenda for the West that will have its interest served regardless of the social and environmental effects?"
Last summer Exxon, the world's largest corporation, publicized its private estimations about energy development in the West. The scenario it painted appalled many who live here. Exxon foresees the industry's spending $800 billion for a synthetic-fuels industry that will produce 15 million barrels of oil per day for 175 years. It would entail piping water hundreds of miles from the Missouri River, across the Rockies, to western Colorado, where the richest oil shale deposits lie. By the year 2010, this effort would involve some 480, 000 people in mining. 390,000 in processing plants, 250,000 in construction during the peak years, and 8,400 in engineering design. When families and support services are included, this means a new population of over 8 million, almost double the number of people now living in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and Montana combined.
Pronouncements of this sort have increased Westerners' concern and sense of powerlessness. The catch phrase one hears with increasing frequency is "colonization." Westerners feel they are economic colonies of a distant Washington, D.C., and of anonymous corporate interests.
Montana's coal tax of 30 percent -- just upheld by the US Supreme Court -- is the highest in the nation. For this some partly blame a popular book about turn-of-the-century Montana, when it was almost totally and ruthlessly dominated by the Anaconda Corporation. This angered many Montanans and led to a determination never again to be "colonized" by outside interest. This converted to substantial popular support for increasing the state's coal severance tax.
"Big is not beautiful. Big is bureaucratic. Big is inefficient," rhapsodizes Mr. Tomlinson, chairman of the Small Business National Unity Council. He argues that the United States got the idea that big is beautiful from World War II. As a result, Congress has given big business a total of 155 tax breaks and the effective tax rate of large corporations is 11.5 percent, as opposed to 30 percent for small businesses. Thus, "it is no surprise that economic power is being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. In 8 or 10 years you are going to have a totally corporate society unless you do something about it," Tomlinson warns. The answer to the problem, he argues, is to simply "remove the artificial life-support system and watch the giants die a natural death."
Lawrence Goodwyn, a professor of history at Duke University, takes a longer view but comes to much the same conclusion: "Despite the antitrust movement, through the Progressive and New Deal eras, up to the present, the curve of business consolidation has been steadily rising. According to the US Chamber of Commerce, by the year 2000, a total of 54 percent of the world's resources will be in the hands of 200 multinationals."
Because of the ascendency of corporate industrial society Americans have become deferential, rather than democratic, the historian holds. Furthermore, "our political structure is the product of pre-industrial structure. What has happened is that new instruments of power have been forged which diminish the democratic component of government. The ability to buy an entire legislature was beyond the imagination of the Founding Fathers except Thomas Jefferson, who worried about it," he says.
Few of the 360 attendants at the Sun Valley conference were convinced when Robert O. Anderson, chief executive officer of Atlantic Richfield Oil Corporation, and generally considered the most humanitarian of the oil industry leaders, suggests: "Corporate power is at the lowest level I can recall. Big companies do not have the political clout that most people believe."
Mr. Anderson also observes that corporate "excesses" are largely a thing of the past and that it is not appropriate for companies to exercise the amount of power that Anaconda, for instance, once had.
One of the most penetrating critics of the current situation is Mr. Deloria: "You whites keep telling us Indians what great things you have done; how, if we hadn't been in the way you would have done it even faster. Well, what have you done that's so great? You will have ruined an entire continent in 250 years.If we hadn't been here, you would have done it in 175."
His prescription is to begin talking and thinking in terms of "we" rather than "I" -- to look at public lands in the WEst as community property, to be distributed "according to need rather than greed." To give people more responsibility for their lives as well as rights by having 35 people on the city council rather than 5, and to deliberately adopt customs that will make people feel that they belong to places.
John Roush says much of the same thing in different words. He borrows the language of cybernetics to argue that "the more decentralized the decisionmaking , the faster and the more valid decisions will be made." We need new institutions, Roush says, more ways that citizens can participate in government.
For management of the public lands "we should try a stewardship policy, let the users manage the land under certain guidelines and be responsible for the result," adds Guy Martin, a Seattle lawyer and former assistant secretary of the Interior for land and water resources.
Professor Goodwyn believes the West is ripe for a "mass democratic movement" similar to what is now going on in Poland, and similar as well to the Populist movement in the same area in the 1890s. For a politician to be called a populist these days is vaguely insulting. But Goodwyn considers it an honorable and rational political movement which lost out to other forces:
"Populism appeared at the moment the emerging industrial culture was consolidating its grip on the economic and political underpinnings of America society," he says. "Populism represented an alternative political statement, grounded in a different vision of the social possibilities of the 20th century than the one held by the corporate managers who were to win the struggle and who were to prevail unchallenged into our own time.
"The words of modern politics do not help much to describe the Populist vision. It was communitarian, but not socialist. It asserted local democracy, popularly controlled, but it also asserted an expanded and popularly responsive central government. The Populists were democrats and, in certain carefully defined and limited ways, they were centralizers, but they emphatically did not believe in the Leninist conception of 'democratic centralism.' They believed in the idea of progress at least to some degree, but they did not believe in business oligopoly, centralized monopoly, or the transcendent corporate ethos that so dominates the social, political, and economic institutions of our own time."
Could such a grass-roots political movement once again spread through the prairies and the mountains of the West? The answer to that question is recruitment, Goodwyn says. Leaders must arise who can hit on a successfull way to capitalize on the people's current hopes, angers, and anxieties to recruit and organize a large number of people. "Mass movements occur only when they are organized," he says.
The times are changing, maintains Roush. "In the future, economic power will no longer be enough to guarantee political power," he vows.