Are we headed toward suburbia?
Ed Marston isn’t an apologist for the pillars of the Old West – ranching and the extractive industries of logging, mining and gas drilling. He knows they have committed their share of sins.
But the alternatives presented by the New West don’t exactly leave him jumping for joy. The West needs something more than tourism and second-home construction.
“Big-lot suburbia is what we’re heading for,” he lamented.
Marston, publisher of the High Country News, the highly respected journal in Paonia that covers issues of importance to the West, believes there needs to be a melding of the Old and New Wests if the region is to thrive in a sustainable way.
Marston will be one of the showcased speakers at the third annual “State of the World Conference” in Aspen Friday through Sunday. The conference is designed to challenge traditional thinking about the world’s environmental problems.
It is presented by the Aspen-based Sopris Foundation and the Worldwatch Institute of Washington.
Local, regional and national speakers will discuss topics ranging from international water issues to consumer consumption.
Marston will discuss in his speech Sunday whether the Old West can survive. The industries that rely on extraction of natural resources, particularly oil and gas production, may be making a temporary comeback thanks to the Bush administration, but they didn’t adapt well to changing times, he said.
“They dug themselves into a deep hole,” said Marston.
Many Westerners now regard forests, mountains and range lands as amenities for their lifestyles rather than resources to capitalize on. As a result, the extractive industries suffered declines throughout the 1980s and ’90s.
Marston helped edit a recently released book called, “Ranching West of the 100th Meridian.” It contains a diverse set of essays that look at the problems facing ranching as a Western lifestyle and the possible solutions.
Marston concludes in the book’s epilogue that placing management of federal lands into local hands isn’t going to happen, for good or bad. “Thanks to the environmental movement, the American people have become incredibly attached to the public lands,” he wrote.
Sustainable management of public lands will also be next to impossible because of the Ping-Pong effect created by new presidential administrations – such as Clinton’s and Bush’s.
Those “twin realities,” Marston wrote, force the proponents of the Old and New Wests to work together.
“The burden is on everybody,” he said. “Communities need to be stressed. They just don’t need to be overstressed.”
He is optimistic about the direction many components of the Old West have turned, and the interest in the New West in preserving them. Ranching, he said, has made tremendous strides in adapting to new economic and ecological times.
In some parts of the West, ranching will remain viable because ranchers are willing to adapt, Marston predicted. In other places, “it’s a goner,” he said. “It’s a visual treat for people.”
Logging is now being widely looked at and accepted as a way to avoid or at least ease the threat of catastrophic fires, such as the ones that swept Colorado, Arizona and other states this year. But the industry also faces responsibilities like it has never faced before.
So, too, does mining. Marston noted that the mining industry has a big, costly job to clean up the sins of its past. But one way to achieve that is to allow continued mineral extraction.
There are also signs that the New West is rallying to rein in the oil and gas industry – the most unregulated of the lot. Delta County residents have signed up in the hundreds in just a few weeks to form the Grand Mesa Citizens Alliance to try to control coal-bed methane gas exploration and production.
“We live happily in this valley with the coal mining,” said Marston, who noted that it is underground and heavily regulated. “But the gas industry is a totally unregulated industry.”
He likened gas companies to “night riders” who come in and terrorize a town. Delta County has become only the third county in the nation to try to apply local review and conditions to exploration and production.
The effort coalesced “a group of strange bedfellows” that ranges from environmentalists to private-property rights advocates.
“This little county that everybody thought of as podunk squared is taking on one of the biggest industries,” said Marston.
Marston’s observations on the Old and New Wests will be included in Sunday’s presentations.
The three-day conference will be held at the Aspen Institute’s Paepcke Auditorium. The cost is $90, which includes three books. Registration and check-in begins at 1 p.m. Friday.
For more information, visit http://www.soprisfoundation.org or call 925-7320.
[Scott Condon’s e-mail address is email@example.com.]
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