Tom Ross: Will the real American West please stand up? | SteamboatToday.com
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Tom Ross: Will the real American West please stand up?

Water, energy, recreation bind diverse region

When the clock struck midnight on Nov. 2, the state of Colorado was colored bright red. However, by dawn, it was apparent that there was much more to this election in Colorado than primary colors.

President Bush won a decisive victory here. Yet, voters sent a moderate Democrat who legitimately can wear a cowboy hat to the U.S. Senate. Voters also sent a clear message that they want to make investments in mass transit on the Front Range, and they are willing to pay a little more for electricity to develop a greater capacity to generate wind power.

Reconciling all of these votes left the news staff at the Pilot and Today furrowing its collective brow during a staff meeting last week. What does it all mean?

We even had a lively, if brief, discussion about whether Colorado is actually a separate place from the rest of the American West. My first reaction was to dismiss the notion that Colorado isn’t part of the West.

After a day or so, I decided to give the matter some serious thought. Where does the West begin anyway? At the Mississippi River? I think not. I spent all of my childhood summers riding shotgun in a station wagon headed west, and I like to think I earned my spurs and can recognize the West coming up in the windshield when I see it in places like Glendive, Mont., the Black Hills of South Dakota and the Nebraska Sand Hills. I was always certain we had arrived in the West when we rolled into Cheyenne, Wyo.

Post-election reports from newspapers across the West last week reflected just how diverse the region is. The Arizona Republic this week predicted that the President soon will feel intense pressure from Hispanic and political leaders in that state who want comprehensive immigration reform. The president has outlined a program toward that end, but no new laws have been signed to make it a reality.

The Casper Star Tribune quoted a petroleum industry advocate who thought John Kerry’s energy policy would not have differed much from the president’s. She noted that the Bush administration has shown a willingness to back off new energy exploration in some sensitive areas of Wyoming. The oil industry advocate said administration policy that has allowed the pace of natural gas drilling to accelerate is less about ignoring laws to protect the environment as it is about consolidating policy among various federal agencies.

The same article quotes a wilderness advocate who characterized the past four years as an unprecedented attack on Wyoming’s remaining wild country.

The Durango Herald reported last week that a federal judge had upheld a U.S. Forest ban on snowmobiles in a 200-acre area surrounding Andrew Lake on Molas Pass in the San Juan Mountains. The Forest Service already had designated thousands of nearby acres for snowmobile use, but “wanted to separate incompatible winter recreation buffs.” Sound familiar?

My efforts to verify that Colorado is indeed part of the West finally were rewarded when I was reminded that the campus of the University of Colorado in Boulder is home to a colloquium of academicians and leaders from various fields known as the “Center of the American West.”

The center works to bring together people from every Western cultural tradition in an effort to understand the history of the West and what implications today’s issues hold for its future. It will take the next step Nov. 23 when it hosts Interior Secretary Gale Norton for a discussion about the role of the Interior Department in the West.

She will take part in a discussion at 7:30 p.m. at the Glenn Miller Ballroom on the CU campus. It should provide a preview of the issues that will be hashed out in the coming four years.

One of the qualities that I think identifies the West is that people here are independent in their thinking, and they weigh every ballot question on its own merits.

What matters most is not what color we ascribe to our state on an Electoral College map, but how we come together to protect the human and natural landscapes that define life in the West and what it is to be a Westerner.


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