I recently drove to nearby Anchorage, Alaska, to join a crowd of 200 Occupy protesters. Many held signs denouncing economic disparity, which is a good reason to take to the streets. But my sign was about environmental disparity, the result of wealthy corporations despoiling our shared forests, our air and even the world's climate to profit better the few.
I'd become frustrated that anger at environmental profiteering was not a more prominent message. So that day in Anchorage, I tried to occupy the movement itself, to ensure that it also protested corporate ties to our deepening ecological woes.
Those ties pervade the West. Just consider the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana, where coal giants like Peabody and Arch Coal have dug a deep, black hole in the landscape. The nation's biggest coalfield, it's a monument to the poor energy choices currently holding average Americans hostage. Meanwhile, King Coal sits atop a pile of mountainous profits, singing "clean coal" lullabies while quietly paying lobbyists to attack the Environmental Protection Agency and fight protections for clean air.
Maybe we'd stomach it for energy independence. "Energy independence," however, is just another corporate fairytale. And increasingly, Wyoming coal feeds Chinese power plants. The Asian coal rush, sparked by soaring economies, lures mile-long coal trains across the West to Canadian shipping terminals. Now the companies want similar industrial facilities near Bellingham, Wash., and alongside the Columbia River. The permit request for the latter, by an Arch Coal affiliate, was recently delayed when leaked memos revealed that the company planned to export 10 times the amount of coal claimed in the application. In dozens of towns along rail lines, residents wondered: Does that mean 10 times the noise, coal dust and traffic congestion, too?
And what of our profit share when powerful corporations sell the West to China? Coal burned in China returns to our coast as mercury, sulfur dioxide and other pollutants, carried by wind into our forests and rivers, parks and wilderness areas.
And it's not just coal. In recent years, oil and gas companies drilled tens of thousands of wells in the Rockies, fracking trapped seams in deep deposits. The technology requires injecting a secret formula underground. Companies have thwarted regulation and left average people defenseless after their wells were poisoned. Just ask the residents of Pavillion, Wyo., where the tap water smells like gasoline.
Or consider ExxonMobil's spill in the Yellowstone River last July. Although the company first claimed the spill was small, it later admitted 42,000 gallons had fouled the West's longest free-running river. Floodwaters carried the poison across Montana's agricultural lands.
As an Alaskan, I know about oil spills. This summer in Prince William Sound, I watched a researcher shovel into gravel spread along a seemingly pristine wilderness beach. Just 12 inches down, he reached toxic crude from the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill. That tragedy broke thousands of hearts. Exxon fought restitution and penalties for 20 years, pursuing the case all the way to the Supreme Court before paying victims. Today, oil remains among the clams and mussels.
I could go on—any of us could. There's the Pebble Mine proposal that would compromise Alaska's Bristol Bay salmon fishery, the richest on the continent, for the benefit of large mining companies. There are the clear-cuts that ravage the Northwest's temperate rain forest, from Oregon to Alaska's Tongass, where the magnificent trees protected by Gifford Pinchot and President Theodore Roosevelt were ultimately given away to Big Timber. There's the psychological warfare of the fossil fuel industry, whose profits support a campaign of denial about the climate crisis unfolding around us.
Of course, an inconvenient truth is that jobs and tax revenues from large corporations support community schools and add other economic benefits to cash-starved states. And most of us protesters depend on cars, cell phones and the rest of it, linking our consumerism to the entities we criticize. Nevertheless, the 99 percent bears an unsustainable cost for these benefits, including degraded air, habitat loss and the droughts, bark beetles and other local calamities associated with climate change in the West.
So I'm grateful to the Occupy movement in New York and across the nation for raising a fuss. I've still got my sign, and I promise I'll be out again protesting what we're doing to all the wild places that keep us sane.
Tim Lydon is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes in southeastern Alaska.