I’ve flown this part of Colorado before, but the country here always boggles my mind. Bruce Gordon, the nomadic pilot of EcoFlight, banked the little single prop plane into a wide turn over the Roan Plateau, the breathtaking Roan Cliffs falling away to the muddy Colorado River and the old town of Rifle. The big plateau of the Roan itself, where I’ve been lucky enough to walk the giant aspen groves and fish the little shaded creeks for cutthroats, fell away below us, a public lands country of hidden waters, bugling bull elk and big muley bucks. And natural gas. Every year more roads are built along the ridges of the plateau, more big well pads appear, more pipelines, and more crew- and service-trucks are on the roads. There is an 80,000 acre “exclusion area” that can be seen from the plane, the only expanse left of the Roan that looks even remotely like it used to, and that is slated for development too. But this is not a blog about the Roan Plateau, or even energy development. It is a blog that asks a single question that I honestly hope that some reader will be bold and thoughtful enough to answer. What do you really believe in?
Let me explain. Several years ago, I reported for Field & Stream and other publications on energy leasing and the conflicts that the massive scale of energy extraction would have on big game herds across the West. Well, that conflict has been upon us for years now. Recent reports from the drilling area around Pinedale, Wyoming (Upper Green River) show the once grand mule deer herd is down, not just by the 46 percent reported last year, but by 60 percent. As former U.S. Bureau of Land Management biologist Steve Belinda, who now works on energy issues for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and others, said recently, “I try to imagine if we had presented the energy development plans for that area in, say, 2003, and just said, ‘here’s how we are going to do it, and we’ll be giving up at least 60 percent of the big game resource here to accomplish it.’ We’d have been run out of town on a rail. But it was perfectly clear, back then, that you could not develop the energy resource in the way it was planned and not lose the deer herd. Maybe some people did not want to admit it, or did not care, but it was perfectly clear.”
And those plans, as Belinda has said over and over for the past half a decade, to anybody who would listen, are the template for energy development on public lands across the West. Belinda is still deeply involved in trying to find a better way to develop the vast natural gas wealth that is found in some of our best big game country, but he’s added a new focus, too.
“It is time for all of us to have a frank discussion of what we value, and what we believe in,” he said. “Nobody wants to stop drilling for oil and gas. That is not an option, and it should not be. But we have made almost no effort to do it in a way that conserves the other resources. I have to wonder why that is, if we sportsman really care so deeply about hunting and big game and our heritage.”
I wonder, too. I look down at that incredible matrix of roads and gas wells, and I see the wealth, the jobs, the energy generated, and I know that is a big economic engine, roaring along in great health and providing good people with good jobs. We are in an airplane that runs on fossil fuels and we came to the airport in a car that runs on fossil fuels. But I know, too, that if all those roads are open this hunting season, there won’t be lots of bulls to kill next year. The herds that wintered on those lands down there on the flanks of the Roan are going to be sharing the range with hundreds of gas wells, truck traffic, fracking fluid and produced water ponds, and what looks to me like a tsunami of invasive weeds. There will have to be new regulations on hunting here, less opportunities, which means less revenue for an already budget-stressed Department of Wildlife. We are making a choice.
It’s the same choice I see made (and often make) every day: to not think about what is at stake, or to pretend that nothing is at stake. I read the Great Falls Tribune today and Ronna Alexander of the Montana Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association writes that the controversial Keystone pipeline to bring oil sands down from Canada is the “right direction,” because we’ll need “21 percent more energy in 2035” than we use today. A lot of people are pinning their hopes on domestic oil shale, not pondering what land, water, and wildlife would have to be sacrificed for that to happen.
I read in the Wall Street Journal where the U.S. has set a new record for legal immigration–1.4 million new citizens in 2010, double the number from the year before. All those good folks will want to keep their kids warm in the winter, and they’ll want to drive, just like I do. By 2050, as I have written here, our population will be 450 million. When I was born, it was 180 million. As the late Jim Range, the chairman of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, firebrand conservative, fanatic hunter, used to say, “We got to save this thing we love, boys, ’cause ain’t nobody gonna do it for us!”
While we have a wide range of hard-working wildlife and conservation groups, staffed with some of the best and brightest in the hunting and fishing world, fighting and bargaining daily to keep our heritage alive and vital, I just don’t see most hunters and fishermen rushing to join the battle to save this thing we say we love.
I read a review in the New York Times of Daniel Yergin’s new book The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World, (a follow-up to his 1991 Pulitzer Prize winning THE PRIZE The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, and Power), and find that this expert believes that due to new technologies, supplies of recoverable oil have increased a great deal. The “oil crash,” so beloved by doomsayers, is not around the corner. But Yergin explains that the “one energy source that has the potential to have the biggest impact of all” is efficiency. Using energy in a more efficient way. In my long-ago reporting on energy issues, I ran the figures: if you roaded and drilled the entire Rocky Mountain Front of Montana, the home of the biggest elk herds in the state, one of the most pristine landscapes in the nation, you’d have enough gas–$1 billion worth in that days’ dollars–to supply our country for 72 hours. 35%–more than one third of all of that gas, one third of all that disturbed land–would produce nothing, because the average U.S. gas-fired power plant achieves only 65% efficiency.
I’ve written about it here and elsewhere. I see no clamor from the public to address those inefficiencies with the most powerful brain trust on the planet, the American engineer.
We elected a Congress that wants to cut–for ideological reasons, not pragmatism–every fund for conservation that our forefathers and fathers and mothers fought for. The real hidebound ideologues will tell you that innovation has protected our environment more than government ever has, forgetting to mention that without regulations backed by the might of government, none of those innovations would have ever happened.
The current Clean Water Act is limited to the protection of navigable waterways, as if you and I can protect our hearts but inject lye or manure into the arteries in our arms and legs, and all will be well. We cannot get a new Clean Water Act passed because a few very powerful interests have spent millions to convince us that to do so will empower Big Brother to arrest us for dunking worms in grandpa’s farm pond, or filling a pothole in our driveway. I wrote, long ago, that exempting energy development from laws that protect clean water, air and wildlife would result in a firestorm of conflict and protest. It has not.
So it would seem to me, that for all our talk, we do not really value our lives spent outdoors, hunting and fishing and boating. We don’t really care if our children get the same opportunities to hunt and fish, to roam free in wild country, on wildlife-rich public lands, on rivers that are clean enough to swim in, to eat the fish that are caught there. Have we lost the stomach for conflict? Are we ready to surrender to the future shared by all crowded, polluted nations? It’s a global society now, maybe, where the outdated freedoms of hunting and fishing are tossed away because we don’t believe in them enough to shake clear of the rhetoric and the fear and fight for them. Certainly there is a vast legion of very liberal thinkers, anti-hunters, anti-gunners, who will celebrate this new shift.
What is it that YOU believe in?