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A Plundered Province Revisited

July 2024
16min read

The Colonial Status—Past and Present—of the Great American West

The pelts of beaver, the dust of placer gold, the tongues and hides of buffalo, the proteinaceous feed of native grass, the smeltings of precious and commercial minerals, the viscous gush of oil: these have been the elementals of the American West shipped eastward to enrich the nation while the West historically went begging, went bankrupt, struggled to recover before being exploited anew. Bernard DeVoto defined the cycle of mercantilism and misuse in a celebrated essay in Harper’s in 1934. “The Plundered Province,” he titled it, coining a bitterly resented phrase. Today the cycle repeats again, at greater scale and perhaps for the last time, and now its justification is energy and the name of the plunder is coal.

Not all the West was colonized. The Far West eventually found its own resources and developed them, and the money stayed at home. Rather, it was the continental West, the West that lay between the Mississippi and the Sierra Nevada, the West of mountains and basins and mesas, and finally the West of too little water and too few trees, the Great American Desert of honest maps: the West of the Great Plains, and particularly today of the northern Great Plains—Montana, Wyoming, the Dakotas—where unitized two-hundred-car coal trains shuttle tirelessly from monstrous channels ripped into the earth, where mine-mouth power plants spread palls of ash and sulfur across the Big Sky. Where the profit, electrified, flashes eastward and westward on the wires.

DeVoto caught the drift of it, a dust of infuriation that would have been ground since childhood into his tough Utah hide—for the exploitation of Western resources was a fact of Western life from its earliest beginnings—but he thought the time was coming when the West would teach the East a lesson. “The Plundered Province” spoke its anger to America at the bottom of the Great Depression, and the lesson was to be humility. The Westerner had learned, DeVoto wrote, “that there are other limits than the sky” to what Americans might do. “The sublimate of our entire experience was just this,” he capsulized sarcastically: “here was a swamp and look! here is Chicago.” The Westerner knew otherwise. “He is a tough, tenacious, overworked, and cynical person, with no more romance to him than the greasewood and alkali in which he labors. He is the first American who has worked out a communal adaptation to his country, abandoning the hope that any crossroads might become Chicago. The long pull may show—history has precedents—that the dispossessed have the laugh on their conquerors.”

Prescient though he otherwise was, DeVoto didn’t reckon with the coal. The United States is the Middle East of coal, and the weight of its reserves, 72 per cent of its known and estimated reserves, lie in the West. Now the conquerors turn to those reserves and the dispossessed aren’t laughing. There are precedents in that history, too.

The West was passed over before it was settled, because it was the place where the rules of settlement changed. Emigrants used it as a convenient highway and crossed it hastily for the promising gardens of Oregon and California. Walter Prescott Webb summarized its distinguishing features at the beginning of his masterful analysis of its history, The Great Plains : “a comparatively level surface of great extent,” “a treeless land,” “a region where rainfall is insufficient.” Eastern and Midwestern Americans, accustomed to humid, forested land, saw little value in the prairie. “If it ain’t fit for trees, it ain’t fit for plowing.” But even that early, even before the emigration to the Far West began, men found resources to exploit: beaver, trapped out of the West’s mountain valleys to enrich not the trappers but the Astors of the early fur companies—beaver mined until the mine was exhausted. And after beaver, contemporary with the emigration itself, buffalo, perhaps as many as 16 million buffalo, 50,000 of them slaughtered for their tongues alone, the great herds finally trimmed near to extinction in the 1870’s when a Yankee technician contrived to tan the thick bullhides for belt leather to convert to useful motion the steam power of Eastern factories.


The West was settled late, Webb demonstrated, because technology was the key to its domination—technology and the capital its expense required. Barbed wire first, and with it the repeating rifle and the revolver, and then the technology of mining and smelting and of the railroad, and with the railroad the politics of government land. As the capital moved westward and was translated into investment, its rate of interest went up, from 2 or 3 per cent annually to 2 per cent a month, in boom times even 2 per cent a day . The West was always bankrupt. It stood in relation to the East precisely as colonies have stood in relation to the imperial nations that manipulate them: as debtors, as mines of raw material, as sinks for expensive manufactured goods. Always the balance of payments has been unequal, always the operating principle a rush to lucrative depletion.

Item: cattle—ÜIn just one year, 1883,” Webb noted, “twenty [cattle] companies with a capitalization of over twelve million dollars filed incorporation papers in Wyoming. The money came from New York, Boston, Chicago. But it also came from England, Germany, Scotland, and Holland.” The cattle grazed on public land. By 1900 they had grazed it to near destruction.

Item: land—of the nearly one billion acres of public domain between the Mississippi River and the Pacific slope, another historian says, “the government granted 91,239,389 acres to Western railroads, and of this total 88,296,745 acres were given to only four corporations—the Union Pacific, Southern Pacific …, Northern Pacific, and the Santa Fe.”

Item: minerals—in 1899, Anaconda Copper of Butte, Montana, became part of Amalgamated Copper, a wholly owned subsidiary of Standard Oil. Amalgamated was dissolved in 1915, but Anaconda continued in Eastern hands. Although few hard numbers of early mineral production have escaped from corporate records, those few available are stunning. In 1922, all Montana mines produced more than $20 million in minerals. They paid a “net proceeds” tax to the state of Montana of only $13,559. In 1919, coal mines in Montana on Northern Pacific Railroad lands produced 3 million tons of coal valued at $7,757,103. Taxes paid: $682. The net proceeds tax, which was written into Montana’s constitution and which mining corporations manipulated to such obvious advantage, was not repealed until 1973.

“From 1860 on,” concluded DeVoto, “the Western mountains have poured into the national wealth an unending stream of gold and silver and copper, a stream which was one of the basic forces in the national expansion. It has not made the West wealthy. It has made the East wealthy. Very early the West memorized a moral: the wealth of a country belongs to the owners, and the owners are not the residents or even the stockholders but the manipulators. Gold, silver, copper, all the minerals, oil—you need not look for their increase in the West.… The place to look for that increase is the trust companies, and the holding companies.”

Nowhere was the exploitation of Western resources more extreme than in Montana. At the turn of the century, moving to consolidate its control of Butte’s copper mines, Amalgamated Copper discovered that a brash young entrepreneur named F. Augustus Heinze was tunneling into its ore veins from his own smaller mines next door. Amalgamated sued Heinze in civil court in Silver Bow County, confidently expecting to restrain him, only to find that he knew Montana’s odd mining laws better than any corporate lawyer, that he had the court’s judges, Edward Harney and William Clancy, in his pocket, and that Montana statutes allowed no change of venue in civil suits. Heinze countered Amalgamated’s charges with a maze of lawsuits claiming ownership of the contested ore veins because they surfaced on his property, and while the lawyers fought in court, and Harney found consistently in Heinze’s favor, he continued appropriating Amalgamated’s valuable ore.

Frustrated at law, Amalgamated attempted to buy Harney off: if he swore that Heinze had bribed him, $250,000 would sweeten his confession. Harney refused the bait, and Amalgamated got tough. On October 22,1903, it shut down all its mines. They would stay shut down, it announced to the shocked miners, until the Montana legislature passed a fair trials bill authorizing changes of venue in civil suits if either party questioned the objectivity of the judge. In the meantime, twenty thousand men found themselves out of work at the beginning of the harsh Montana winter.

Heinze fought back, and the governor of Montana attempted to negotiate, but in early December the legislature duly met and passed the fair trials bill, and having forced an entire state to its knees, Amalgamated condescended to reopen the mines.

“It was,” writes Montana historian K. Ross Toole, “a lesson for all of Montana, brutally and cynically exercised with swift ruthlessness. Montanans learned the lesson well, and nothing attests to that fact quite as adequately as the conduct of the state’s legislature for years to come.” For years to come—for decades to come—the Montana legislature acted subserviently in behalf of what Montanans called “the Company.” The Company took $250 billion in copper out of Montana in the first half of the twentieth century. Its taxes on that immense wealth amounted to no more than $300,000 to $400,000 a year.

Or consider Anaconda’s control of the Montana press. Stung by criticism in Montana’s boisterous early newspapers, the Company began in 1906 to buy them out. How many of the state’s newspapers Anaconda subsequently controlled no one knows. Upton Sinclair once estimated it was all but two; John G’fcnther later estimated half. In 1959, in any case, when a more sophisticated Anaconda prepared to sell its newspaper interests to a Midwest chain, it owned eight major Montana dailies with 55 per cent of the state’s total circulation.

In their early days of corporate ownership, company newspapers inveighed vehemently against political candidates who weren’t Anaconda-approved, but after 1930 they took a different tack, becoming, in the phrase of historian Richard T. Ruetten, “monuments of indifference.” The London Economist studied the Montana press in 1957 and concluded: “Montana’s newspaper readers [are] worse informed about their own affairs than the inhabitants of almost any other state. As a local wit has put it, silence is copper-plated.” Anaconda’s newspapers claimed editorial independence, subject only to the “general policy consideration,” as the company’s legal counsel explained to the Federal Communications Commission in 1951, that they should avoid “yellow journalism”; but in the name of avoiding yellow journalism, they also contrived to avoid covering nearly all state and local news. Montanans who wanted to know what was going on in their legislature had to read the Denver Post .

Colonialist manipulation of Montana’s political and economic life was stultifying. The state knew depression long before the rest of the United States, the result of prolonged drought after overpromoted attempts at dry-land farming, of extensive bank failures and massive foreclosures of farm mortgages. For a time Montana’s bankruptcy rate was the highest in the nation. Montanans owned 33.5 per cent of their state’s total acreage in 1925. By 1943 they owned 28.2 per cent.

Where there is colonialism there is also a colonialist mentality. It manifests itself in extreme conservatism and in pervasive despair. During and after World War I, Montana conservatives bullied Wobblies, burned books, hounded citizens with German surnames, and framed a state sedition act on which the notorious Federal Sedition Law of 1918 was based. Liberals and Progressives fought back against these deprivations of civil rights and against the Company’s control of state affairs, but by the 1920’s Anaconda had consolidated its power, and reform movements had little effect. Against the power of the Company, even historians have thrown up their hands. Reviewing the 1930’s and 1940’s in Montana, Toole found the state’s governors and legislators “almost faceless, essentially voiceless.” “The New Deal came,” Toole concluded, “the New Deal went, the war came, the war went. … [W]hat it really was was twenty years of deep somnolence.”

Changes did come to the Great Plains during the years of the New Deal and the War—Montana as always lagging behind—changes that might have given the region what it had always needed for independence: a diversified economy, industrial capacity, a political voice of its own. DeVoto watched for those changes, and in 1946 he swung through the West and returned to Harper’s to take note of them. He found that the New Deal had slowed the West’s exploitation with programs that “operated to rehabilitate depleted resources, halt and repair erosion, rebuild soil, and restore areas of social decay.” It had eased credit, “opened small gaps in the master system,” and created much local prosperity.

World War II accelerated the change, DeVoto wrote, especially by giving the West contracts, factories, an industrial plant, and with those, an industrial labor force, which it had never had before. “In short, the West now has an industrial plant and the conditions for its use are favorable. … The West can at last develop a high-level economy with all that that implies: stability, prosperity, rising standard of living, successful competition with other sections, a full participating share in an expanding national economy.”

That was half of DeVoto’s assessment, the optimistic half. It was weighted by the emergence of industrial California and so applied less expansively to the rest of the West—for example, DeVoto noted parenthetically that Montana remained “the private fief of Anaconda Copper and Montana Power.” The other half discovered another impending attempt at plunder, an attempt by certain Western senators to donate what was left of the public domain, millions of acres with all their grazing and oil and gas and mineral rights, to the states within which lay the land.

If that sounds like a move toward Western independence, DeVoto thought otherwise: “Federal intervention … alone was powerful enough to save Western natural resources from total control and quick liquidation by the absentee Eastern ownership. For that preservation the West is grateful to the government. But there was and still is a fundamental defect: federal intervention has also preserved those resources from locally owned liquidation by the West itself. So, at the very moment when the West is blueprinting an economy which must be based on the sustained, permanent use of its natural resources, it is also conducting an assault on those resources with the simple objective of liquidating them. … It is the Western mind stripped to the basic split. The West as its own worst enemy. The West committing suicide.”

DeVoto attacked the giveaway; other voices joined his in outcry; the giveaway failed. The West emerged in the postwar years with at least a chance for future self-sufficiency. Even in Montana, still under Company domination, per capita income had increased to 8 per cent above the national average by 1950. Federal programs returned to the West a portion of the wealth it had shipped eastward in the past. Agriculture thrived, enlarged by irrigation and better methods of farming in an arid land. Tourism increased and promised to become a major source of income. But the nation was hungry for energy, pollution thickened in the cities, and the coal lay under the land.

In the mid-1960’s, before the Arab oil embargo, before official recognition of the energy crisis, coal and utility and oil companies quietly began major leasing of coal lands in the northern Great Plains. Most of the rands leased were public domain, and of those leases 70 per cent went to only fifteen bidders, including Peabody Coal, Pacific Power & Light, Kerr-McGee, and subsidiaries of Continental, Shell, Sun, Gulf, and Atlantic-Richfield.

Coal production in the United States had been in sharp decline since before World War II, and there had never been much demand for Western coal, which is lower in energy content than Eastern coal. But domestic oil discoveries were declining and imports dramatically increasing, implying the eventual necessity to reconvert stationary power systems to coal. Pollution was the subject of an intensifying national debate, and pound for pound, Western coal is generally lower in sulfur content than Eastern coal. The energy companies saw the future and wanted in on the ground floor. The Department of the Interior would speculate later that one important reason for the boom in Western coal was the “desire of applicants to obtain leases before Government policy changes are initiated.” A significant policy change, in the late 1960’s, was the passage into law of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in 1969. NEPA required an environmental impact statement for new leases; most of the Western coal leases beat NEPA to the wire.

The leases were cheap enough in any case. “An analysis of one Atlantic-Richfield lease in Wyoming,” says a report by two staff members of the National Resources Defense Council of PaIo Alto, “showed that this company paid about $.001 per ton for the coal it received.” Other leases went for as little as one dollar per acre plus seventeen and a half to twenty-five cents per ton royalty. As it had so often before, the government that DeVoto thought protected the West against itself was giving the public domain away.

Corporation negotiators, speculators, and lease brokers converged on the northern Great Plains. To assemble contiguous blocks of land they needed not only public domain leases but also the surface rights of farmers and ranchers (the United States had retained subsurface mineral rights on homesteaded land—“I guess if I stepped in a mudhole I’d be trespassing,” as one rancher quipped). They went after the necessary acquisitions with a vengeance. A standard tactic was to set neighbor against neighbor by lying about who had and had not sold his rights away. One rancher found a bullet hole in his truck. Another fired at the feet of a survey leader to drive him off his property. Thanks to Anaconda, Montana leasehounds had an ace in the hole. Anaconda had pushed a bill through the Montana legislature in 1961 authorizing eminent domain proceedings for mining for “public use.” Coal qualified under the law, and the threat of condemnation pushed many landowners to the wall. Some held out and kept their land, but many others signed.


The apparent purpose of this frenzy of leasing emerged in 1971, when the utilities industry and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation jointly published a grandiose plan for future power production on the Great Plains titled the North Central Power Study . The study was prepared without consulting state and local governments, ranchers, farmers, environmentalists, or even ordinary citizens; there was no announcement or public debate. Despite NEPA, the study hardly considered environmental and social impact. Yet it proposed a massive build-up of mine-mouth generating plants on the Great Plains—forty-two such plants, half of them in Montana—that would generate 50,000 megawatts of electricity per hour and transmit most of it to Midwestern and Far Western power grids over a network of 765-kilovolt long-distance lines. To understand the scale of the proposal, consider that the notorious Four Corners complex in New Mexico, whose plume of dirty smoke the astronauts returning from the moon saw on the earth long before they could distinguish any other sign of human habitation, generates only 2,075 megawatts of electricity per hour, yet in doing so, despite pollution controls, spews out 90 tons of particulates, 375 tons of sulfur oxides, and 214 tons of nitrogen oxides a day. Four Corners is the largest stationary source of pollution in the world. The North Central Power Study proposed to multiply its effects twenty-five times—by 1980. By the year 2000 it foresaw a quadrupling of 1980 levels, to 200,000 megawatts.

The study at least had the virtues of honesty about intentions and of some effort at coordination. But the coal and energy companies had rejected the plan even before it appeared, and were making their own plans. By 1973 it was known, for example, that Consolidation Coal Company planned an $11.5 million strip mine in the Bull Mountains of east-central Montana, under a lease promising reclamation protected by a thousand-dollar bond; Pacific Power and Light and Idaho Power planned a $300 million, 1,500-megawatt Jim Bridger power plant near Rock Springs, Wyoming; Pacific Power & Light a 750-megawatt plant at Glenrock on the North Platte River; Reynolds Metals a $2.5 billion uranium enrichment plant near Buffalo, Wyoming, that would have required millions of kilowatts of power, to be supplied by a strip mine at the site (the company later abandoned the idea). Even more enormous projects were discussed down the line, coal liquefaction and gasification plants far more demanding of coal and precious water than mine-mouth power plants would be.

The study galvanized public protest. Montana especially, fortuitously relieved of the burden of Company domination, responded to the threat of renewed exploitation with remarkable energy and to extraordinary effect.

Disaster struck Anaconda Copper at the end of the 1960’s: Chile nationalized the Company’s $350 million copper holdings there. Scrambling to avoid bankruptcy, Anaconda no longer had time to run its “personal fief.” Montanans called, by referendum, for a new constitutional convention, its delegates assembled only from among citizens who had never held state elective office, and the new constitution was installed in 1972. It abandoned the net proceeds tax and left taxation up to the legislature; and the legislature, after 1972, was largely elected from other than Company men. By 1975 a coalition of ranchers, activists, and concerned citizens managed to legislate a tax on coal amounting to 30 per cent of its dollar value, the highest such tax in the United States. Half the revenue would be reserved in a trust fund for the none-too-distant time when the coal will be gone. Unlike leasing or pollution-control regulations, the gross value tax is one the federal government can’t alter or void, and it has slowed the development of strip mines in Montana. Wyoming, however, has welcomed them.

Stripping the West of its coal has not been, nor will it soon be, the nation’s only alternative to energy shortages. The East has plenty of coal of its own: calculated by energy value rather than simply by weight, 55 per cent of the United States’ coal reserves lie east of the Mississippi. Western coal is relatively low-sulfur—though whether it is consistently as low-sulfur as the utilities claim is currently in dispute—but more must be burned to generate an equivalent amount of heat, because Western coal has a higher water and ash content, and it may thus pollute more than higher-sulfur Eastern coals.

The more likely reasons, in fact, for the rush to Western coal are reasons of convenience and of profit. It takes two hundred men to mine a million tons of coal a year in Eastern deep mines; it takes ten men to mine the same amount from a strip mine in the West. Safety costs less in surface mines; so does health protection. The coal itself is cheaper—it is effectively government subsidized by -the low cost of federal leases—and despite transportation costs, Western coal undercuts Eastern coal all the way to West Virginia. And in many states, utilities are allowed to pass on transportation costs directly to consumers as a “fuel-adjustment factor,” further reducing costs.

Mine-mouth power generation solves another problem. It sends clean electricity to urban centers and leaves the pollution behind for the West to deal with as best it can. But there is danger to the nation, and ultimately greater cost, in developing Western coal at the expense of Eastern. Deep mines can’t simply be shut down and left unworked and then reopened: they fill up with water. Restoring them to function thirty years hence, when strippable Western reserves are expected to be exhausted, will cost as much as it did to dig them in the first place. Nor are thousands of out-of-work Appalachian miners likely to wait thirty years for mining jobs. They will disappear to other jobs; when the mines are needed again, there won’t be any miners to man them.

The pollution Westerners see, and fear, is not only air pollution. They fear as well for their scarce water supplies, for the future productivity of their land, for the quality of their lives. Boom towns have always been squalid places; oil and coal and power-plant boom towns are no less so today. A recent study of one such town found a 400 per cent increase in crime, a divorce rate of more than 50 per cent, a dramatic increase in mental breakdowns and suicides. Annual job turnover stood at 150 per cent. Schools could not absorb the influx of workers’ children. Half the town lived in mobile homes crowded along muddy, unpaved streets. Montana’s new coal tax, once it filters down to counties and towns, should help to ease conditions, but Montana is an exception.

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.


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