Sunday, February 05, 2012

Survey results show that Wyoming residents support a multitude of gas wells and scenic vistas

Foundation Coal's Eagle Butte Mine in Campbell County
Wyoming Public Radio had a news item this week about the results of a survey of Wyoming residents conducted by Colorado College. Here are the results, in a nutshell:
Most Wyoming voters view the state’s national parks, forests and wildlife areas as an essential part of the economy. That’s according to a bipartisan poll conducted at Colorado College. 
The survey found that Wyomingites support a broad range of environmental protections but also support energy development on public lands. 
Bob Budd with the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust says that’s not a contradiction.“Wyomingites really do believe that we can have it all,” Budd said. “I think our track record is pretty good that way. We’re bullish on development to some degree, and at the same time we’re very protective and bullish on our natural resource heritage.” 
Budd says surveys like this are important in helping policy makers plan for the future. “Wyomingites really do believe we can have it all.”
Beliefs are one thing, reality another. Air pollution in Sublette County, water pollution in Fremont County, fracking disruptions in Goshen and Laramie counties, oil-and-gas drilling on public lands all over the state, uranium and precious metals mining in northeast Wyoming, fights over the viewsheds for transmission lines, coal-fired power plants that are some of the worst polluters in the U.S., battles over locations of wind farms, gobbling up of Campbell County for more open-pit mining, millions of beetle-killed trees due to global warming caused by the burning of Wyoming’s carbon products, and so on.

We Wyomingites may believe that we can have it all. It’s not true.

When you’re an energy colony like Wyoming, there is no escaping the effects of energy extraction. And when you have an economy almost wholly dependent on severance taxes on oil, gas and coal, you can never escape those effects. This is a real quandary when the state’s second-largest economic generator is tourism. In 2010, tourists spent $2.6 billion in Wyoming and the industry generated $108 million in state and local taxes. A good chunk of that money was spent in Jackson and at Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, with its 3 million tourists annually. Jackson Hole is relatively free of commercial energy development. But there is a lot more to Wyoming than its very scenic Northwest corner.

But what are we to do with the state's Energy Sacrifice Zones? Those places with lots of coal/gas/oil but without tourist-pleasing scenic vistas? 

Campbell County, for instance.

No mountains in Campbell County. Plenty of buttes, mesas and wide-open spaces. The landscape features huge open-pit coal mines, some of the biggest in the country, and hundreds of coal-bed methane gas wells. The city of Gillette is perched out there in Powder River Country, located at the junction of I-90 and U.S. Hwy. 59. Summer tourists from Chicago and Milwaukee and Minneapolis have just visited the Black Hills and Devils Tower and now are wondering how far it is to the next scenic vista -- the beautiful Bighorn Mountains. That's just about the time they arrive in Gillette. Visually, Gillette offers nothing to write home about. If you were writing home about it on Facebook while holed up in the Holiday Inn Express during a March blizzard, you might say, "Help -- I'm stuck in Siberia." Or "Gillette is butt ugly."
Gillette still life (coal mine in background)
True, Gillette as seen from a Holiday Inn Express window during a March blizzard is a depressing site (been there!). Some ("some" meaning "me") have proposed erecting noise barriers along I-90 so that tourists don't have to actually see the city as they move westward, forever westward, toward Yellowstone. You've seen those barriers in every big city, erected to muffle the eternal racket of the interstate, an effort to spare the delicate hearing of suburbanites. Denver's I-25 noise barriers were made to resemble rock cliffs embedded with fossils of ancient flora and fauna. Very clever.

With Gillette, we're talking more "visual barrier" than noise barrier. I envision a 30-foot-high wall along both sides of I-90, from one end of the county to another. Local artists could limn scenic vistas on the wall. They'd be busy for years, generating millions for the local economy. We could also try to Denver approach and embed Powder River fossils (allosauruses, pterodactyls, state legislators, etc.) in the barriers. The idea is to spare motorists the sights and sounds of 21st century energy development.

Alas, what looks good on paper runs into the realities of real life. Gillette earns millions providing services for tourists. For that, they have to go into town and face the forest of motels and fast-food joints. And Gillette also is one of the most exciting arts towns in the state. It's home to the AVA Center, an old municipal building that's been turned into a place for arts classes and exhibits and gatherings. Its exterior now features a mural by local artist Christopher Amend. Chris is known more for his nudes and surrealist paintings.
Chris Amend's mural at the AVA Center
Gillette has an active public art program, "Avenue of Art," initiated by former Mayor Duane Evenson, who now sits on the Wyoming Arts Council board of directors. On the eastern fringes of town is the CAM-PLEX Center, known more for rodeos and monster truck rallies than art exhibits and concerts -- but it does all that. U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi was on the CAM-PLEX board and now sits on the U.S. Senate arts caucus. He buys books by Wyoming authors and actually reads them. Beneath Sen. Enzi's Gloomy Gus exterior beats the heart of a diehard arts supporter.

Gillette is home to the Powder River Symphony and the Donkey Creek Jazz Festival and a cool library and an active writers' organization and a slew of dedicated art teachers and....

See how complicated this is? An Energy Sacrifice Zone yearns to break free of stereotypes. Its residents don't want to be sacrificed. We want good jobs, many of which are in the energy industry, and we also want pretty mountains and pristine streams. For the most part, those two facets of Wyoming life don't exist in the same place.   

Forget the visual barrier idea. We'll have to figure out other ways to hide our Energy Sacrifice Zones while promoting our scenic vistas. Any ideas?


kcutler said...

Interesting article Michael - I am considering a move to Gillette to work in the conservation field... Have been wondering if it is just too daunting a prospect in an "energy sacrifice zone". Is the population is too transitory to get too involved in city conservation projects, or to get involved in making the city more liveable in terms of developing a community center and working to promote a healthy environment? Do you live in Gillette?

Michael Shay said...

I live in Cheyenne but have been to Gillette often. Conservative place, mainly, but with a surprisingly active arts scene and city leaders intent on developing infrastructure. I can provide links to interesting sites, if you're interested.