Ann Hedreen is a program director with Environmental Media Services Northwest in Seattle, a nonprofit communications clearinghouse dedicated to expanding and improving the quality of environmental coverage by the news media. She is also a writer, filmmaker, and co-owner with her husband of White Noise Productions, specializing in documentary and nonprofit films.

Monday, 22 Oct 2001

SEATTLE, Wash.

Earlier this month, I traveled to Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana to meet with grassroots environmental groups that are working to stop or at least slow the oil and gas development boom along the east slope of the Rockies — a boom that could get a huge boost if the Republican energy plan becomes law. The trips were planned long before Sept. 11 but took on new meaning in the wake of the disaster.

Flying from the siege-like, post-Sept. 11 chaos of Sea-Tac Airport into Billings on Oct. 2 felt like arriving in Toy Town: this was an airport on a dollhouse scale. Urbanite that I am, it took me a moment to realize that all those long cases coming down the luggage carousel were not skinny golf clubs, they were rifles. Not to worry: just hunting season in the eastern Rockies.

I rented my car and headed north out of Billings. “Welcome Hunters,” proclaimed all the tavern and motel marquees on Highway 87. Several had added underneath, “Go get ’em George W.,” or “God Bless America.” Flags flew from mailboxes, barns, pickup trucks, and tractors.

I was in Billings to begin the longest leg of a series of fall trips for Environmental Media Services Northwest. In the next week, I would visit Great Falls, Billings, and Sheridan, Wyo. I’d already been to Glenwood Springs, in western Colorado, and Trinidad, in the Raton Basin of southeastern Colorado. I was meeting with people for whom oil and gas development is a front-yard affair, not a faraway concept. Pressure was building in Washington, D.C., to pass a sweeping, dig-and-drill energy bill, and I was visiting the places that would be dramatically affected by such legislation — as well as some places where energy development is already so far along that anything Congress passes will simply add fuel to the fire.

Seattle, that cozy, liberal dream-world, felt very far away from this part of the West.

On the other hand, so did the Seattle of concrete and congestion. For a visitor from Seattle, driving in Montana is a surreal experience. The sky is big; no, it’s huge, compared to what you can see of it every day at home, where more than twice the population of this whole state lives crammed into one county.

In Montana, things were different. Huge sky, wide plains, distant mountains, one road, a handful of cars. This is what I would look at for the next four hours. My eyes were grateful.

I popped in the “Great Speeches of the 20th Century” tape I rented from the library and picked up where I’d left off the previous week in Colorado. Jesse Jackson, in his great 1988 concession speech, was exhorting his followers to, “Let this make us better, not bitter.” Could we apply this now? I wondered. To life after Sept. 11? To fighting the energy bill?

My first of these fall trips was on Sept. 21. The trauma of traveling 10 days after the terrorist attack — while trying to act upbeat and unflustered in front of my children — had drained me. Two weeks later, I was calmer, but it was a still-sore, bruised kind of calm, and I’m sure I was not alone in feeling that way.

On that first plane trip to Denver, I had tried hard to turn my thoughts to work. This is what I wrote on Sept. 21, which already seemed like a long time ago:

Two weeks ago, we were ready to do battle — to fight for our wild places, protect them from the oil men in the White House. Now all those war words don’t ring right. Our feelings about the importance of wild places has not changed. Our belief that drilling them is anything but patriotic has not changed. But more than ever before, we are called upon to show tenderness, tact, grace — qualities our opponents don’t often see in us. We are called upon to turn the patriotism we feel to action. Conservation, renewable energy, reducing demand — all are patriotic, and we are called upon to show it and prove it to a skeptical world.

Tenderness and tact? What on earth was I thinking? Two weeks had passed, Sens. Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska) and James Inhofe (R-Okla.) were angling shamelessly to get a rider opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling attached to anything and everything, and I was feeling bitter, not better.