• U.S.

This Land Is Whose Land?

4 minute read
Lance Morrow

Woody Guthrie sang about Lewis and Clark country. Instead of his usual hobo’s plainsong, Guthrie broke into an anthem that might have been written by the National Association of Manufacturers: “Roll on, Columbia, roll on/Roll on, Columbia, roll on/Your power is turning our darkness to dawn/So roll on, Columbia, roll on.” Guthrie ardently wired up the dawn of Manifest Destiny to hydroelectric power: “Tom Jefferson’s vision would not let him rest/An empire he saw in the Pacific Northwest/Sent Lewis and Clark and they did the rest/So roll on, Columbia, roll on.” The beautiful, wild river made Guthrie see factories and dams and mines that would put people to work to feed and clothe hungry children in Grapes of Wrath time. He heard the music of jackhammers.

Times and priorities change. It’s disconcerting to the environmentalist to hear the author of This Land Is Your Land sounding like a booster from Houston with a pump jack for a metronome. But the Depression was then. This is now. Political correctness is addicted to committing the sin of anachronism–imposing the current sense of racial and environmental decorum upon earlier times. Consider Thomas Jefferson’s descent from Enlightenment philosopher and naturalist to slave master and debaucher of Sally Hemings–a fair enough revisionist correction, if kept in disciplined perspective. Of course, one age’s evil is another’s routine. Meriwether Lewis, as specimen-collecting naturalist, blasted away at a condor–a barbarous breach of ecological etiquette today. (He missed.) Audubon slaughtered a thousand birds for every one he painted.

Three generations ago, Guthrie’s Columbia River song turned into the Marseillaise of the “public-power Democrats.” After F.D.R.’s re-election in 1936, the massive Bonneville Dam became the first neo-pharaonic project on the Columbia. This land is your land, and it’s my land, but for what, exactly? The Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) enticed power-needy businesses to the Northwest–pulp mills, aluminum foundries, even vineyards in the high deserts. Guthrie got his wish.

Now the BPA, and the dams and the varied industries, are at the center of a great battle: whose land indeed? In Washington State, two geographic consciousnesses have emerged–development vs. environment. West of the Cascades, a largely urban population evaluates industry by its environmental impact. East of the Cascades, a mostly rural population judges environmental initiatives by their impact on jobs. Guthrie’s public-power Democrats–liberals of long ago–created a status quo of irrigation and hydropower that today’s conservative east-of-the-Cascades is desperately trying to maintain. Deference to salmon or spotted owl, says the east, takes opportunity away from the grandchildren of the kids Guthrie worried about.

But demographics have shifted the balance of power. The deciding votes are now in the west–in Tacoma, Seattle, Bellevue–while the bulk of public lands affected by the west’s environmental enthusiasms lie east of the mountains, which are the Northwest’s cultural wall, its Mason-Dixon line. To apple farmers six hours east of Seattle, it was the “damned environmentalists” of the Clinton Administration who brought down on their heads something that felt to the locals like an economic Waco. Orchards had prospered because of irrigation made possible by Columbia’s dams. After several species of salmon were put on the Endangered Species List, the irrigation evaporated; farmers burned their crops and cursed the nation’s capital.

Urgencies vary with the times. In Lewis and Clark country, if there is any visionary thought of Jeffersonian scope going on, it is directed toward reconciling development with environmental protection. Ward Parkinson, the co-founder of Micron Technology, Idaho’s largest private employer, thinks long term about educated work forces and quality of life and says that when the state’s politicians “decide to protect the salmon on the Snake River, that’s when we will know they are serious about developing industry.” There may be a convergence of environment and industry coming, but it is still somewhere downstream. –With reporting by Nathan Thornburgh/Seattle

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