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The natural world. Looking pretty for 3.5b years.

Coal in the Ground, People on the Land

Coal in the Ground, People on the Land

Author: Reilly Capps/Monday, January 13, 2014/Categories: sustainability

By Reilly Capps 

There are few places in the world more beautiful and varied than the Rocky Mountain West. The vertical terrain draws the eye upward and downward. The world is starkly three-dimensional here. 

That has drawn all kinds, displacing the original inhabitants, the Native Americans. First came miners, after the gold inside the hills. Then ranchers came, seeking the open range on top of them. 

Over the last four decades, there has been a struggle for the future of the West, even its soul. Skiers, mountain bikers and hikers have come to those same mountains, and fomented with each turn and step a conflict between those who want what's inside the hills and those who want to play on top of them. 

The mountain west states are transitioning from mining and ranching to tourism and what might be called lifestyle-living, as more people who can work from anywhere decide that they want to live near natural beauty. The old residents are not always happy about the new residents, who tend to bring more liberal politics and worldviews than the west has traditionally held. 

Washington Monthly recounts the story of the Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument, which President Clinton protected from coal extraction. The residents of the area weren't happy. They wanted those coal jobs. But they are slowly figuring out how to capitalize on the tourists who are coming to see the unspoiled natural beauty. They are aiming to be another Moab. 

The American west, like so many other parts of this country and this world, is dividing into two distinct parts -- haves and have-nots, red and blue, powerful and not. Out here, the line is between the Old West and the New West. The Old West embraces extraction -- it's embodied now by North Dakota, where an oil boom rages. The New West embraces a lighter touch, a sense that the natural world is something to be marveled at, not used -- it's embodied by places like Aspen and Santa Fe, made rich because so many are willing to spend money to see pretty things. Of course, they exploit the land in their own way, dotting the hills with mega-mansions instead of mine shafts. 

There will probably always be tension, out here in the west, between the fossil fuel industry and the tourism industry. But, eventually, whether ten years from now or 200 years from now, the fossil fuels are going to run out. The miners and drillers -- their time is limited.  The west, just like all the rest of the world, is destined to have to rely on its other assets. (A carbon tax would help us get there faster.) Thankfully, the beauty of the west is virtually unlimited, and, unless we wreck it, it will never run out. 
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