I recently flew from southern Oregon to Denver, giving me the opportunity to reflect on the fate of western landscapes. As we took off from the Medford airport, it was easy to see how the neat pear orchards and vineyards of my compact valley are increasingly hemmed in by subdivisions. But we quickly left that view behind, as we passed over the large-scale patchwork of industrial forestry in the Cascades. A few minutes more, and we were above the Klamath Basin, one of the most thoroughly engineered drainages in the west, the vast rectangular impoundments filled here with water, there with potatoes, there with grazing cattle.
Onward we flew, ever eastward, and soon we were over…nothing. Southeastern Oregon is about as much nothing as you can find in the lower 48 these days. From 30,000 feet it was an unlovely dun-colored expanse, sparsely smudged with vegetation and dissected by unremarkable canyons, its main feature a series of alkali lakes that not even a panoramic aerial view could render inviting. Every so often a dirt road made a long pale scratch, and I could be sure that there are cows down there somewhere, but the hand of man was remarkably just about absent. The reason was obvious: this place is worthless.
There used to be lots of worthless places in the west, left high and dry as the rivers of money rushed past, headed for California. Here are a few of them: the Sonoran desert of Arizona, the frozen alpine peaks of Colorado, the sun-baked valleys of Nevada, the cold, dry basins of Wyoming. Or, as they are now more familiarly known: Phoenix and Tucson, Aspen and Vail, Las Vegas, and the coalfields of the Powder River Basin. Worthlessness can be a remarkably temporary condition.
It is an oft-repeated truism among conservationists that people will protect only what they value. Well, yes, that’s true. But this maxim, in its unqualified simplicity, fails to acknowledge two enormous considerations. First, “value” is relative. As residents of Wyoming will tell you, the traditional values of ranching and hunting are deeply and truly held in that state, but have been powerless to prevent the destruction of both by energy development, an even higher value in the eyes (and bank accounts) of many.
Second, the truism ignores the protective power of worthlessness. I have come to the sad conclusion that worthlessness provides the only lasting protection that most wild country can hope for in the 21st century. Worthless land may be neglected, it may be casually abused, but it will not be utterly destroyed. Utter destruction takes money, and who wastes money on worthless land?
Now, some will probably object to this paradoxical glorification of worthlessness. Surely America’s most valued wild places are permanently protected by law; for example, our beloved national parks. It is inconceivable that Yosemite or Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon could be destroyed by development…isn’t it?
Perhaps. These treasured landscapes have firm legal standing and legions of passionate defenders, and are secure today. And yet, what about 20 years from now? That is merely an eye-blink in the timeframe of protection these places need and deserve. Twenty years further toward the end of oil, how will society value the uranium around the Grand Canyon, the geothermal riches of Yellowstone, the solar resources of Death Valley? Value is relative, and the value of energy will become almost unlimited as it grows ever more scarce.
Consider the orgy of destruction already being accepted in the name of energy extraction: hydrologic fracturing that threatens water supplies, tar sand development that is destroying huge areas of Canada’s boreal forest, mountaintop removal that is reducing Appalachia to rubble. Can anyone believe that the oil endgame will not involve the pursuit of every last barrel, no matter what the consequences? It is not a metaphor to call this an addiction. In their desperation for a fix, junkies destroy what they once most valued: their homes, their families, their health. Will energy-addicted America behave any differently?
Flyovers aren’t my only experience of southeastern Oregon. I have stood in that landscape in spring, in that great solitude, breathing in the perfume of the sagebrush, resting my eyes on the wildflowers that cover the ground, listening to the warbles and trills of a Sage Thrasher pouring out his heart in the morning light. I have no deeper wish than that this land remains forever what it is today: empty, and worthless, and wild.