Backfire. Like what happens when you tightly plug the barrel of a gun and pull the trigger. Like what is going to happen to the current Republican administration after it tries to cripple the Environmental Protection Agency, eviscerate the Endangered Species Act (it is now legal to shoot wolf pups and bear cubs in their den), and eliminate or fracture existing national monuments. Most of us Americans are against these shenanigans. A big backfire in favor of conservation is imminent.
I keep telling myself to spend more time reading the stack of print magazines I subscribe to and to spend less time online. So on a trip this week to Seattle (destination Whidby Island) I grabbed an Economist, Harper’s and The Atlantic Magazine for the plane. I like Harper’s in particular because of the longevity of the “Easy Chair” column. The West’s Bernard DeVoto first wrote in the “Easy Chair” in 1935 about many of the same issues that remain today, like ranchers and other businesses trying to take and use up public land. In the August issue writer Richard Manning has an optimistic essay (here) that the political fortunes of environmentalists are already on the rise. In this seemingly dark hour of losses on many conservation fronts, I recommend reading it.
One would be excused if while traveling across the vast open spaces of the West, crisscrossed with barbed wire and with cows everywhere, one concluded that ranching and farming were a big part of the economy. They are not. In Utah they make up less than one percent of the state’s GDP. Instead, as Manning notes in his report, “Political Climbers – Environmentalist momentum in the West,” most people live in cities. In the largest cities, like along Colorado’s Front Range, Washington’s Puget Sound, and California’s Silicon Valley, the jobs are often in high paying, prestigious industry segments like design, finance, and marketing. Manning points out that since 1970 employment and personal income in the West has grown 176 percent, twice as fast as the rest of the country. Most of this growth is in the service sectors. Non-service, like mining, ranching, agriculture, and manufacturing, has seen almost no growth. But old economy extraction industry is generally less that five percent of Western economies. Keep that in mind as we get to the obsequious Ryan Zinke later.
To find out more about where economic growth is coming from in the interior West, Manning called on Ray Rasker, the executive director of Headwaters Economics in Bozeman, Montana. Rasker specializes in studying the economies outside of the three big city areas I just mentioned. What Rasker finds is that economic vitality is greatest in that cities and counties with a lot of public lands in their backyards. Personal income in counties with the most public lands in Montana are growing 2.5 times faster than the counties with the least (Headwaters Economics study here). “In the Montana,” Rasker says, “counties with public lands attract people and jobs.”
In the U.S., Manning reports, “twice as many Americans work in solar as in coal, and the former is creating jobs at about twelve times the rate of the rest of the economy.”
Political momentum in the West is following the economic momentum. We are not all they way there yet, but the momentum is growing. Conservationists supported Colorado’s Mark Udall in his recently failed run for U.S. Senate. In retrospect Udall says that, ” . . . he was talked into a slick, data-driven, off-the-shelf Democratic Party campaign and tried to broaden his base by ignoring conservation and speaking to identity politics. ‘There’s compelling arguments by some–and that includes me–that I didn’t remind voters enough of the importance of our public lands and my deep connection to those public lands.'”
“twice as many Americans work in solar as in coal, and the former is creating jobs at about twelve times the rate of the rest of the economy.”
Manning spoke with Neera Tanden, the president of the Center for American Progress who had previously been part of Hillary Clinton’s inner circle. Tanden says, “The most important question for the future of the Democratic Party is not how to bring the Midwest back. The most important question is how to keep the gains we have made in the West and elsewhere, and also do better in the Midwest. You cannot forfeit the future in order to reclaim the past.” (emphasis mine)
Demographics are also on the side of conservation. Manning says, “According to the Colorado College survey, 75 percent of Latinos in the West favor increased access to public lands and the protection of clean air, clean water, and wildlife habitats compared with 67 percent of other demographics. This played heavily into campaigns last year in Nevada, where the League of Conservation Voters spent $5 million in partnership with several other environmental organizations to help elect Catherine Cortez Masto, the first Latina to become a U.S. Senator.”
Here we are, then, with the Trump administration jamming the barrel of the gun with anti-environment, anti public lands tripe. Ryan Zinke, the new interior secretary from Montana is proving “himself to be a craven opportunist and grand-standing self-promoter . . .” Zinke recently went on a politically rigged tour to see where he could serve the special interest extractive industry (remember, well less than 5 percent of the economy) at the expense of the rest of us by seeing what cuts could be made to national monuments. Zinke is particularly looking to cut back monuments proclaimed by presidents Clinton and Obama. The idea of cutting the monuments is wildly unpopular. More than 99% of public comments gathered back the protection of Bears Ears and other national monuments.
In the West, public lands are why people live here. We covet the beautiful, natural landscapes to escape to on the weekends and to nurture us through the week just knowing the lands is there for us. We want air and water protected. Trump is acting solely on behalf of the Citizen United non-person non-public. His regressive policies regarding public land and the environment are some of the few places he is getting anything done. They will not work. They will not last. Nobody besides a very narrow special interest wants them. Prepare for the backfire.