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Drilling the West
JULY 2005
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In some cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.
Photograph by Brian Strauss



Sights and Sounds
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Drilling the West






    To be afield in the Northern Rockies in September is to be in the presence of our ebullient friend, Populus tremuloides, alias the quaking aspen. Not that the Rockies hold a monopoly on this splendid poplar, for the quaking aspen happens to be the most widespread tree in North America. But here in the cool, dry, crystalline air of the mountains' mid-elevations, the quaker puts on its most glorious autumnal show, dense groves of them streaming down draws and gullies in bright cascades of shimmering gold. Or, as Donald Culross Peattie reminds us in his A Natural History of Western Trees, the aspen may be seen to its best advantage "chattering and displaying its vivacity, its white limbs and…golden mane of foliage" against a dark backdrop of spruce and fir and pine.
    But, why the trembling leaves? Because, Peattie informs us, aspen leaves are "hinged upon leafstalks longer than the blade and flattened contrary to the plane of the blade, with the result that the leafstalk acts as a pivot and the foliage cannot but go into a panic whispering every time the slightest breeze flows down the canyon." Can anyone imagine preferring the lugubrious roar of a gas compressor to the tintinnabulations of these happy trees?
    I have always had trouble supplying our long-suffering Web editor with the "Worst." Maybe it's the luck of the Irish, or a thick skin, or a short memory, but I cannot honestly regale you here with a harrowing misadventure, a tense confrontation, or even the sorry details of a bad meal taken in a rainstorm under a leaking tarp. I say that the Web editor is long suffering because not too long ago I was known to her as the Quirkiest of the Quirky. Now I'm going to be the Worst of the Worst. As you can see, I'm working backward.  Someday, if the Irish luck holds out, who knows?  I just might become the Best of the Best (but don't bet on it).     We all know that old saw about politics making strange bedfellows. Well, I daresay the most curious quirk in the politics of energy development on western lands has been the marriage of a couple of long-time foes: the grazing-allotment cattleman and the grass-hugging environmentalist. To be sure, this is not a universally acceptable arrangement for either party. There are still many ranchers who view enviros as effete Eastern know-nothings determined to lock up the West's public lands as de facto national parks. And many a greenie remains convinced that free-ranging cattle and sheep are destroying the ecological integrity of federal grasslands. But what happens when some ranchers discover that the greater threat to their livelihood is not the enviro rattling his cage, but rather the oil-and-gas tycoon with permits to extract fossil fuel from the geological sub-cellar of his home on the range? Bingo! Bedfellows!
    In New Mexico I met a rancher's wife who had served as county campaign chairman for candidate George W. Bush in 2000. By 2005 she had joined with a national environmental organization and other plaintiffs in a lawsuit to halt the administration from expanding gas production in that same county she helped deliver to the President. "We all make mistakes," she told me.
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