Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch
But the Blancetts, like many Western ranchers, are not taking the Bush Administration's policies lying down. Earlier this year, after the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) issued a Resource Management Plan authorizing the creation of nearly 10,000 new oil and gas wells on public land in the San Juan Basin--where an estimated 19,000 producing wells already exist--Tweeti filed suit against Gale Norton and the Interior Department, accusing the government of failing to balance resource extraction with conservation, recreation and other uses of federal land. Among the other plaintiffs in the suit are the Natural Resources Defense Council, several Navajo Indian chapters--who say they were never consulted about the drilling plans--and the San Juan Citizens Alliance, a watchdog group based in nearby Durango, Colorado.
None of the plaintiffs claim that extracting coal-bed methane gas, which is used to heat millions of American homes each year, is an inappropriate use of public land. But under federal law, they note, the BLM is supposed to balance this objective with the interests of other users (hunters, ranchers) and insure that drilling is done in a way that does not wreak havoc on a precious public resource of value to all. "The federal lands that we have in the West are all of our heritage, all of our legacy," says Tweeti Blancett, a feisty woman who has turned this issue into a personal crusade, and who is convinced the entire Rocky Mountain West will soon look like her ranch if landowners don't fight back. "What's happened here will happen throughout the American West if we don't get the public to understand the issues."
Coming from, say, a member of the Sierra Club, such a statement might not be terribly surprising--and would likely be ignored by Republicans, who long ago conceded the vote of avid environmentalists to Democrats. But Tweeti is no card-carrying Green. Four years ago, she not only voted for George W. Bush but served as the co-chair of his campaign in San Juan County, an area of New Mexico that is heavily Republican and crucial to the President's hopes of winning this hotly contested swing state in November.
One week after my visit, Bush showed up in the town of Farmington for a campaign rally and called on his supporters to make sure turnout among New Mexican Republicans is high. This time around, Tweeti won't be helping out, having seen how little her voice counted next to that of the Bush Administration's corporate friends. "I was naïve enough to think if I took the pictures to Washington, showed them the problems on our land and we all sat down, we could work on it," she says. In fact, Tweeti did meet directly both with Kathleen Clarke, head of the BLM, and Rebecca Watson, Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Land and Minerals Management, as well as with the White House's Council on Environmental Quality. She showed them the pictures and explained the devastating impact of unfettered drilling. "They were very polite, they were very attentive," she says, "and when I walked out the door they probably said, 'What a waste of time.'"
These days, she says, members of the Bush Administration don't even return her calls. "What I didn't factor in is the dollar sign, the billions," she concludes. "They were not going to listen to me over the largest industry on the face of the earth and the billions of dollars they generate."
It's a feeling ranchers in other parts of the West are beginning to share. In south-central New Mexico, along the border with Texas, a coalition of hunters, ranchers and conservationists has formed to oppose drilling in the Otero Mesa, a spectacular stretch of desert grassland that, with its pronghorn antelope, mule deer and array of migratory songbirds, is popular with hunters and environmentalists alike. The BLM would like to open 90 percent of the federal land in this pristine habitat to energy development, a plan opposed by groups ranging from the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance to the Paragon Foundation, a conservative property-rights organization. "We'd like it kept as it is," says Bob Jones, the foundation's president and a rancher.
Like the Blancetts, Jones finds it odd to be allied with environmentalists but sees the oil and gas industry as a common threat. "They trash the country terribly," he says of industry, "and if you're a rancher, it destroys a lot of your grass and turf and makes it awful hard to live in the middle of it." Also like the Blancetts, Jones believes the Bush Administration's policies risk alienating many of its allies in the West. "The rural areas are what elected George W. Bush," he says. "He needs to pay some attention to some of them or he will lose their votes. They may not vote for John Kerry, but they also may not vote at all."
Just how politically sensitive this issue is in the West became evident two years ago in Wyoming, where Democrat Dave Freudenthal defeated Republican Eli Bebout, an oil and gas developer, in part by vowing to balance energy interests with the rights of landowners. Wyoming is a conservative state, but it is also home to the Powder River Basin, an 8-million-acre expanse of rugged prairie that stretches into Montana, and that the BLM would like to turn into the largest coal-bed methane production site in the country. In April of 2002, after the BLM authorized drilling 51,000 new wells in the Wyoming part of the basin, the EPA reviewed the draft environmental study for the plan and deemed it "environmentally unsatisfactory." In response, J. Steven Griles, the Deputy Secretary of the Interior Department, wrote a memo pressuring the EPA to change its analysis. A former lobbyist for more than forty oil, gas and electric companies, Griles has met repeatedly with past clients while in office, despite having signed a recusal agreement requiring him to avoid "any particular matter involving specific parties in which any of my former clients is or represents a party." (Friends of the Earth and other groups have called for Griles to step down, to no avail.)