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How environmentalists have failed Steens Mountain

If Oregon loses Steens Mountain to a wind farm, environmentalists should start by blaming themselves. To be sure, unless Earth’s defenders get back to basics, such losses will only mount.

Emerging in the 1960s, the environmental movement taught limits, especially the limits of technology. There is no such thing as a technological fix. And suddenly, environmentalists are the ones looking for the fix. Nationwide, most have embraced green energy as if limits on those technologies do not (as in, should not) apply.

This is to explain why Steens Mountain has already set a crippling precedent. Every American landscape is now in jeopardy. Development – the denial of limits – still poses the gravest threat to planet Earth. Led by population, the underlying cause of climate change, numbers matter, and they are piling up.

And so we deny the numbers exist. How? By finding another panacea, another Wizard of Oz, that will tell us what we want to hear. In the 1960s, environmentalists were the first to speak up when a technology failed to deliver without destroying natural beauty. Remember the Interior Department’s proposal to build dams in the Grand Canyon? Now everything called “renewable” gets a pass.

Consider this statement by the Oregon Natural Desert Association’s executive director, Brent Fenty, in a 2011 fundraising letter: “ONDA does not intend to be the ‘Party of No’ on the renewable-energy front. We recognize that renewable energy is part of the solution to address climate change. In fact, we have been working with a number of developers to ensure responsible development, mitigation and permitting of projects. We have only opposed development on Steens Mountain.”

Unfortunately, the moment environmentalists equated climate change with pending doom, they put every American landscape back in play. If admittedly climate change is so serious, why should wind farms not be placed anywhere there is wind? As for the Endangered Species Act (yes, wind turbines kill endangered birds), wildlife, like wilderness, may have to go.

No wonder environmentalists have started sounding ridiculous. Suddenly, they are “working with developers” to ensure us – what? Not open space, not a healthy planet everywhere, but just a patch of wilderness they claim is dear.

It is dear, but so is the rest of our legacy. If climate change should indeed be our priority, just when will the loss of beauty stop?

Well into the 1980s, Oregonians valued a beautiful landscape, not just wilderness. On taking office in 1967, Gov. Tom McCall set the theme. “I think you’d all be as sick as I would be if Oregon becomes a hungry hussy throwing herself at every stinking smokestack that’s offered,” he said. Here again, by assenting that wind turbines are more aesthetic than smokestacks, environmentalists have only put more pressure on the Steens.

This is to underscore the real decision now facing Oregon and every state as dependent on natural beauty. Is a patchwork quilt of wilderness enough? Should we listen to developers – should we believe in them – now that they have learned to exploit our fears?

Still the role of environmentalism is not to bargain away any landscape but rather to defend them all. Oregon is beautiful because it set limits on growth, not because environmentalists succumbed to making deals. Smokestacks and wind farms do bring jobs, but so do they kill every other job that depends on beauty.

Steens Mountain should never have been in the middle of this argument, or for that matter, any of our public lands. Because they are, and because environmentalists have joined in putting them there, my fear is that Steens Mountain may already be lost.

A historian of the public lands, Alfred Runte lives in Seattle. He recently advised on and appeared in Ken Burns’ documentary, “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” and is the author of “National Parks: The American Experience.”