A Plundered Province Revisited

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Rancher Wallace McRae, one of the rugged riders in the Marlboro advertisements, spoke for many Westerners in an interview not long ago: “Custer was an implement of the policy of the United States government that dictated that the Indian, his buffalo, and his way of life was an impediment to progress. The Indian, being an obstacle to economic development, had to be eliminated or overcome. I have become, for all practical purposes, an Indian. Like the Indian, I am standing in the way of progress because I live and work above part of the world’s largest known reserves of fossil fuel.” There is irony in the comparison of Westerners to Indians. There is also tragedy, and truth.

A bill to impose federal controls on strip mining was twice vetoed by President Gerald Ford before being signed into law by Jimmy Carter on July 22, 1977. The new law bans mining from prime farm land. It gives landowners veto powers over mining under their land even if they only own surface rights. It requires reclamation of strip-mined land to a condition capable of supporting the land’s former use. It is alleviation, but not cure: much Western land is too arid to be successfully and permanently reclaimed. Nor is any land the same after reclamation. Its features have been erased, its underground aquifers disturbed far beyond the immediate area of activity. To many Westerners, reclamation is merely a bitter joke. They know the land too well. One notes, ominously, that the energy companies welcomed the new law. It meant added expense, but it also meant that they could get on with their work. “Beware of industrialists bringing gifts,” Arnold Miller, the president of the United Mine Workers, commented. “Fifty years ago they promised to develop Appalachia, and they left it in wreckage. Now they promise to develop the Northern Plains. They will leave it in ruins.” And oil-shale development, which waits only on the perfection of appropriate technology and which some observers believe is the more long-term reason for the rush of energy companies to the West, will be even more damaging to the land.

But it is more than a matter of aesthetics. It is a matter of values, of moral priorities. Because the issue is finally the same issue DeVoto confronted in 1934, one that the West learned but the East has not yet accepted: there are other limits than the sky; every crossroads can’t be Chicago. The Arab oil embargo forced the country to consider the eventual decline of world oil supplies. It might have instructed the nation in conservation, by which it could cut in half present energy demands. It didn’t; it gave the East excuse once again to plunder the West. The old cycle repeats, but with coal and then oil shale it may repeat for the last time. The exploitation of the West in former times created ghost towns; this time it could eventually create ghost states, their water gone, their sky befouled, their wide margins of landscape sifted over with a layer of sterile ash.