National Geographic : 1976 Jul
Dave's dad used to be a state senator; he tells me people are a little resentful of the Bureau of Land Management and their new fangled regulations. "They used to have two fellows and a secretary, now they have 35 people in the district office at Worland...." Later I ask the BLM district manager about it, and he says he could use more people than that. The idea once was to dispose of the pub lic land to private owners, but now the BLM holds on to it, to manage it for maximum public benefit. And the National Environ mental Policy Act of 1969 requires that federal decisions that may affect the environ ment must first be studied for their impact. "Important decisions may need detailed environmental impact statements, up to a thousand pages, so we've got experts." A geologist, a biologist, a recreation planner, an archeologist, two botanists.... How's it working? "Well, we make better decisions. Everything's documented, the pub lic can see what's being done and why...." As I leave, I note what's in the works. Wor land wants a rifle range. OK, leased at 25 cents an acre. Motorcyclists want a place to race. OK, fee based on gate receipts, and they must clean up afterward. Power company wants right-of-way. We'll see. At the Big Horn County Fair, ranchers' kids preen their 4-H steers and lambs with hair spray before the auction. Bankers and merchants pay big prices, to please kids and parents. A banker sitting next to me shakes his head. Beef was scarce, he tells me, then came a glut. "It costs $150 to $200 to produce a calf, and for a while they brought less than $100! If an outfit has no other income, that's bad. We see land going into investors' hands outside the state." Using the lay of the land, a farmer in Wyoming husbands his soil by con tour plowing. Parallel furrows across the slant of the land keep the rainfall and fertilizers in the dry and sloping earth and help prevent erosion-the cause of the scars on the hills behind. Now, in many parts of the country, GEORG farmers are going a step beyond con- 36 touring in an effort to save their top- What i: soil (right)--a practice that scientists tell the say could safeguard the soil for a touring hundred generations. into un This Land of Ours-How Are We Using It? Before I leave Wyoming, Dave shows me some new houses going up, where a neighbor subdivided some land. "People want houses in the country," he says, "schoolteachers, power-company people. They pay $1,500 or $5,000 for an acre, put a picture window on it, it's worth it to them. If I buy an acre and it's 'ten-acre land'-it takes ten acres of it to sustain a cow for a month-it's worth $25. Through this subdividing, society is telling me my days in this valley are numbered." There's a bigger threat It's coal, and it fuels a perplexing land-use war, ignited by the en ergy crunch. Coal men look to stepped-up production in Kentucky, West Vir ginia, and Illinois, but even more in the West. That's where more to his way of life. Nightmare choice: overnight wealth or well-loved land? than half of the country's known reserves lie -and of the 235 billion tons in the West, 75 percent is in North Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming, half within 150 feet of the surface! Orders are out for gigantic strip-mining machinery. What's coming, warns a federal state study, are population increases, social systems strained and altered. Imagine 6,000 newcomers pouring into a town of 400.... The Decker Mine in Montana (pages 48-9, 50-51) sends 100-car trains to Chicago and Detroit-170,000 tons weekly, to burn for electricity. What is planned is to burn more coal right here, in dozens of plants, and send the electricity out. And to build even bigger plants, to turn coal into gas and liquid fuels. Farmers, ranchers, and environmentalists are angry. The (Continued on page 49) SGERSTER(FACINGPAGE);PAINTINGSBY NATIONALGEOGRAPHICARTISTWILLIAMH. BOND years 104 years 2,224 years s the life of eight inches of topsoil? The years above time span allotted under straight-line plowing, con and terracing, and a new concept of drilling seeds tilled, mulched, and contoured terraces.