Déjà vu in the West
November 17, 2006
It’s hard to say when it first hit me, having grown up here, but there was a slow, deliberate, realization something was terribly wrong with the management of the West, something that could most likely never be fixed, but even in its crippling state of permanent purgatory, things would move along and continue to get done as they have for the last couple of hundred years. Unfortunately, things are even worse than I could have ever imagined.History is a strange thing – it sometimes makes good reading, as in Catherine the Great, and of course, we all know the adage “History sometimes repeats itself.” That truism has gotten us into some terrible jams, and unbelievably, we’re in a devastating wreck here in the West right now. Shortly after the Louisiana Purchase, myopic thinkers like Thomas Jefferson and those of his ilk in the Congress, overseers of a cash-strapped government, thought the best thing to do with all our land west of the Mississippi was to sell it and raise a little money for the treasury. Doesn’t that sound a lot like George W. Bush and his wry-smiled hump, Dick Cheney?The Homestead Act of 1862, allowed by Abraham Lincoln, furthered this idea of somehow making the West “useful” and the land rush was on, creating the “frontier” mentality that was just about the destruction of the then-existing west. One-hundred-sixty-acre homesteads might have worked well in Illinois, but splitting up the Great Plains into such small plots and encouraging farming was a travesty of the largest kind in American government. I guess we could say no one knew any better – that might be the polite way to deal with such a debacle – neither the government nor the people, hastily plowing up the short prairie grass of the plains and setting up the history-changing dilemma known as the Dust Bowl. This was a disdainful and insulting way to manage the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountain West, and the few dissenting voices, such as John Wesley Powell, were ignored. If the plains were suited to the grazing of millions of buffalo, wouldn’t it have made sense to open the same area up to cattle grazing in large tracts and thus preserve the integrity of the land? A veritable similitude. No amount of common sense would have saved the bison, anyway. Indian eradication as a priority and 160-acre plots (later 640s) took care of them. Today, the same type of thinking that created the earlier problems in the West is allowing the onslaught of gas-drilling rigs covering the Western Slope of Colorado. Of course, just as before, it is politicians and people ignorant of the region doing the thinking, and like before, those of the frontier, those with an understanding of the land, are not being listened to. As Mark Harvey, producer of “A Land Out of Time” (a film documentary of immense proportions that everyone who cares about the future of the West should see), says about the federal government: “They [feds] hold the public hearings mandated by law, take tens of thousands of public comments favoring conservation, and then proceed with energy development as if the hearing never took place.”Bush and his administration have mandated that “cheap” energy be developed at all costs. That’s oxymoronic thinking, if not outright ridiculous BS. It can’t be cheap if it’s developed at all costs. Land irretrievably destroyed by the actions of a few large corporations (in concert with our government, under the guise of providing for us) is a loss too great for this nation to bear, no matter the need. If we look at history, it is an understatement that those in Washington, D.C., are not good land managers. We (you and I) must stand in front of the bulldozers and be counted, at all costs. Tony Vagneur realizes the West is a lonely voice, but it must be heard. He writes here every Saturday and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.orgThe Aspen Times, Aspen, Colo.
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