THE NEW WEST: Conservation Under Siege

By on March 1, 2017

Lawmakers’ attacks on environmental laws don’t serve states’ best interests.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Whether it’s Yellowstone, Grand Teton, our national forests, wildlife refuges or even private ranches, never in the history of America has preserving land, by keeping its conservation values intact, resulted in huge economic hardship over mid to long-term horizons.

In fact, the most thriving, consistent, and sustainable economic sector in the great state of Wyoming is tourism, fueled by the powerful engine of protected public lands in the northwest quadrant of the state.

As Gov. Matt Mead and the legislature struggle to deal with budget shortfalls to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars—the vast majority related to the state’s misguided gamble on coal—you still hear elected officials spreading the unsubstantiated rumor that environmental protection is costing the state.

Recently, U.S. Sen. John Barrasso and Congresswoman Liz Cheney once again claimed the Endangered Species Act, public review requirements as part of the National Environmental Policy Act, and laws enforced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have hobbled the Wyoming economy.

While such anti-federal rhetoric certainly resonates with Wyoming voters, there is scant evidence to back it up.

Barrasso and Cheney would have their constituents believe that the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, implemented by EPA to control pollution and carbon emissions, was decimating Wyoming’s low sulfur coal industry. But the Clean Power Plan actually didn’t come on line until late last year.

Many months before, four of the major coal companies doing business in the state declared bankruptcy not because of any environmental regulation, but instead owed to a glut of cheap natural gas and oil that became the fuel of choice for power generators. In fact, competition from these other fossil fuels so undercut the commodity value of coal that companies could barely give it away, much less profitably operate coal export terminals to Asia.

Now using Obama as a convenient foil and President Trump vowing to unlock $66 trillion of oil shale, Barrasso and Cheney are hard-pressed to explain how that strategy, which includes gutting environmental regulations, will advance their cause of reviving Wyoming’s coal future.

They can defiantly shake their fists all they want, railing against EPA, but the coal industry’s greatest nemesis is the Gordian knot known as the energy market. And here’s the undeniable irony: opening up more public land to expanded oil and gas drilling is going to make the prospects for coal worse, not better.

Moreover, moving to eviscerate EPA’s ability to enforce environmental laws and denying the science of climate change will provide no tangible benefit for struggling coal workers in Gillette; they’re being affected far more by politicians who are espousing 19th century answers to 21st century problems.

With regard to the Endangered Species Act, Wyoming’s senior politicians continue to again look foolish, emboldening the state’s self-inflicted victims’ mentality, claiming that recovering grizzlies and wolves has caused huge economic hardship.

In fact, the Endangered Species Act, far from being a broken law, has actually worked quite well, and Wyoming has actually reaped huge dividends.  Today, both grizzlies and wolves are main attractions in a Greater Yellowstone nature-tourism economy worth at least $1 billion annually.  Millions of people, including parents with young children, come from around the world to Wyoming, Montana and Idaho to see these animals in the wild. Why? Because it’s rare and growing ever so in a very crowded world.

Finally, Barrasso and Cheney also continue to rhetorically support the radical push by federal lawmakers in Utah to transfer ownership of public lands to states. Because states could not afford to manage them, this would likely result in those tracts being sold off to industry and wealthy private individuals.

By a huge majority, most Americans, including most people in the West, are opposed to such schemes. Just this week, Bozeman-based Headwaters Economics released findings of a new study showing that rural western counties with more federal public lands inside their borders have economically outperformed counties without such lands. You can read the study at headwaterseconomics.org.

From the early 1970s until recently, Headwaters found, “population, employment, and personal income on average all grew significantly faster—two times faster or more—in Western rural counties with the highest share of federal lands compared to counties with the lowest share of federal lands. Per capita income growth was slightly higher in counties with more federal land.”

Both Barrasso and Cheney have prominent positions on key environmental committees. Will they invite experts from Headwaters Economics to testify at their Capitol Hill hearings about the future of the West?

Probably not. Why? Because both have demonstrated a stubborn aversion to listening to any evidence or individual that does not confirm their false narratives of reality.

Doing so might make them popular and get them re-elected in Wyoming, but it does nothing to help the state navigate to a better future. PJH

Todd Wilkinson is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about the West for more than 30 years. His column, The New West, has been widely read in Greater Yellowstone for nearly as long. You can read it here every week.   

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