Into The West – part ii.

[except as noted, all photos ©2008 Hart and Jayne Williams]

[This is part ii. Part i is HERE. I'm breaking this down into 1,500 word bite-sized chunks.]

There is a fundamental contradiction in our view of the West. On the one hand, we see it, almost exclusively, as an extraction pit for raw materials: cattle, coal, timber, ores and metals, pumice and gypsum for blue jeans and drywall. We sent our trappers into the West to kill all the fur-bearing animals for hats and coats – and pretty well succeeded. We found the buffalo an annoyance that stopped our railroads and fed our aboriginal inhabitants, so we slaughtered them nearly to extinction. We found silver in the Comstock Lode, so we sucked the mountain dry and left Virginia City as a ghost town, until the second use of the West came into view: tourism.

i. extraction

mineral extraction on the Great Salt Lake

Increasingly, one finds mines — like the aforementioned Reno gouging — without signs, or with blanked signs. They used to trumpet their corporate identity at the mines. Now, they don’t want you to know who’s doing it. There’s something spooky about driving a ten-mile strip mine by the highway and finally locating a blank sign at the entrance.

And, when the ore has been sucked up, the mine is shut down (very often, just abandoned, as you see in the workings on the red-stained mountaintops between Silverton and Ouray, Colorado) and that’s that.  Or, if you’ve ever been to the tailings heaps of Butte, Montana, or Eureka, Nevada or Randsburg and Johannesburg, California, you see the result.

Ely, Nevada is now turning into a ghost town, following the closure of the Ruby mining district, after nearly 100 years. Oh, it’ll survive on the gas station/fast food joints newly-built at the South end of town, but the main, old portion, is dying on the vine. Not so lucky is Trona, California, whose cinder high school football field was legendary in desert climes. But the mine closed, and most of the buildings in town are boarded up. A brand, spanking new ghost town to be.

The motto for Western resources management is “Wham, bam, thank you ma’am!”

Wyoming strip mines from 40,000 feet

We see the West as a place to grab raw materials. The rail lines that slink everywhere, many abandoned, bear mute testimony to that cruel truth of the West: the infrastructure exists mainly as a way of sucking the West dry of raw materials. When the latest veins have been exhausted, more new ghost towns will appear. Increasingly, the West is centralized in large cross-shipping cities, with vast extraction fields serviced by commuters. The Oregon Trail ruts are paralleled by naked strips over oil and gas pipelines.

oil and gas field, central Wyoming

Each and every day, fantastic amounts of coal rides the rails East. The grasslands are eaten by free range cattle, who are then herded onto railcars, and sent East to be fattened in concentration-camp style feedlots, packed as tight as conditions allow. Oil and gas is piped East. Trees are razed, wholesale, milled and loaded onto flatcars to be sent East. The West is covered with the runes of progress, etched deeply in the fragile soil.

wells in central Wyoming

The locusts feed and move on, leaving only abandoned buildings in their wake. This is the West as seen since at least the time of the great competition between Astor’s trappers and the Hudson Bay Company’s. Today, Astor’s legacy is preserved in the name of Astoria, Oregon, and the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in Manhattan. Astor sold all his Western holdings and focused on New York real estate, becoming, in the Jacksonian Era, the richest man in America. Hudson Bay Company is now a department store chain, with outlets like the ones in Vancouver, Canada, like a May Company or a Macy’s department store. The beaver are long gone. The commercial enterprises remain — an apt metaphor for the fate of the West.

above and below: Bloomfield, New Mexico*

[* Wikipedia:

The median income for a household in the city was $32,905, and the median income for a family was $34,760. Males had a median income of $29,144 versus $19,203 for females. The per capita income for the city was $14,424. About 15.2% of families and 14.7% of the population were below the poverty line, including 18.5% of those under age 18 and 13.6% of those age 65 or over…. In April 2007, Bloomfield attracted attention and some controversy when the city council voted unanimously to erect a stone monument of the Ten Commandments at the city hall.[3]

Doesn’t sound like much of that oil and gas wealth is making it into the town that supports it, does it? But the Ten Commandments is the political issue? That’s symptomatic of the entire West, I fear.]

Virtually no one in the West that owns the surface rights — as the Yuppies who build their Xanadus on the tops of hills and mesas but don’t have the good sense to put up lightning rods ofttimes learn — own the mineral and/or subsurface rights. Ranchers in Wyoming and Montana have spent the Bush Years learning that oil and gas companies have the right to bulldoze roads wherever they need to get to their wellheads. If trucks carrying heavy machinery rumble by the ranchhouse at 6 AM, well, that’s just your tough luck. You rugged individualists, you. You NRA and “libertarian” rednecks with your gun racks in your pickup trucks, and your ridiculous idea that by voting “Republican” you’re preserving your “freedom.”

And ignoring the tailings piles of all the abandoned mines.

These tailings are from the Madrid, New Mexico coal mines,  worked
from the 1850s until the 1950s, when the mines were abandoned.
Nearly 60 years later, they still sit undisturbed in all their toxic glory.

and that’s just one ridge on one side of the road

Has any bunch of self-important idiots been so effectively conned to vote against their self-interests since the non-slaveholding Southerners of the Confederacy were lied into “States Rights” so that they would lay down their lives in defense of an institution in which they had no stake? The Western “red” states vote again and again to continue their thralldom to giant Eastern companies and feiflords. But they think they’re being John Wayne — who, himself, had to fight for years for some degree of freedom from the Studio System of assembly-line schmaltz creativity. And that phoniest cowboy of all, sportscaster Dutch Reagan, came to prominence by utterly selling his soul to corporate overlords.

And the life continues to be sucked out of the West, as industrial infrastructure exists only to pre-process ore and get the raw materials on the trains back to the East. That’s the root of Western economics. The advent of the Twenty-First Century has only shifted the extraction from East-bound trains to Far-East bound container ships. Oregon lumber is now prized by the Japanese, who buy the logs raw, ship them back to Japan and store them under water, awaiting the proper time for milling and finishing. Even our mills are no longer needed: just the trees. Just the raw materials.

For the West, nothing. South Africa or Rhodesia is no less exploited as a third-world territory, fueling and underpinning a prosperity and technical luxury that it will never share in.

The second pillar of the Western economic scheme lies in enticing Easterners to come out West and fill our Grand Canyon with the blue, heavy hydrocarbon components of our smog. To step out of their rented “TourAmerica” Recreational Vehicles, exposing phosphorescent white knees below their freshly-purchased bermuda shorts and unhitch their “driving around” car from the tow-rack behind, or, perhaps their bicycles, or their motorcycles or ATVs. The West is for tourism, and for driving over anything not marked as “fragile” and “off road vehicles prohibited,” if anybody’s looking, and over those if nobody seems to be around.

ii. exploitation

The great illusion of the West is that there’s lots and lots of land: wide open spaces everywhere.

But that’s just a fata morgana. There is comparatively little land in the West that you can live on, and even less that it’s lawful for you to occupy.

With that kind of federal control of Western lands, can anyone be surprised by the recent Interior Department scandal, wherein Denver government employees were literally in bed with the oil industry they were supposed to be regulating, screwing and doing drugs with them? And are we surprised that the Justice Department decided not to pursue prosecution in most cases?

another giant Indian casino/resort

The Harding Administration, it is generally admitted, was put together by recruiting Sen. Harding, who was mostly interested in partying, to act as a figurehead for a systematic looting of Western resources, mostly oil and gas, as in the infamous Teapot Dome scandal. Odd that Dick Cheney would have played at the eponymous formation outside of Casper, Wyoming as a kid.

Well, maybe not so odd.

The fundamental greed issues that propelled the Harding Administration’s excesses haven’t yet been fully addressed. When you consider the Bush Administration’s push to drill ANWAR, to drill offshore, to drill on National Park lands, you can quickly conclude that as long as the resources of the West are locked up as Federal Lands, federal corruption will be the inevitable result of that temptation.

As has been given short shrift in the press. Just imagine, if THAT was going on in Denver, what is probably going on all over the West with resource “regulating” government agencies. By leaving this much control in Federal/Washington D.C. hands, the continuing mismanagement of the West is virtually guaranteed.

We have an odd schizophrenia about the West: On the one hand, we expect, INSIST, that its raw materials fuel our consumptive lifestyle. On the OTHER hand, we demand that huge chunks must be preserved, CONSERVED and remain untouched.

This fundamental contradiction has fueled Western development for a century, or, rather, has STYMIED said development. You can’t exploit AND conserve at the same time. But that’s what we’ve been trying to do.

[the conclusion tomorrow in part iii.]


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2 responses to “Into The West – part ii.

  1. Oh yeah, and as the Fed sucks the West dry they call PILT “Western Welfare.” It surely wouldn’t do to return any of their plunder to the plundered.

  2. Pingback: Once a Dick, Always a Dick « his vorpal sword