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Environmentalist momentum in the West

The best way into Denver is by taking the train to Union Station, a cavernous Beaux Arts building with a barrel-vaulted ceiling, giant chandeliers wrought in brass and milk-white glass, and arched windows as tall as trees. From there, it’s only a couple of blocks to a popular hiking trail. People like to walk along Cherry Creek, following the path as it connects to a highly developed network populated by skaters, mountain bikers, joggers, and dogs. The trail wends through the city center to join another, and then another, along South Platte River, where runners meet kayakers and fly-fishers. More trails splinter off in all directions, but a traveler is likely to veer west, toward headwaters and mountains. You can continue on to Golden, Boulder, ice and rocks, national parks, and solitude.

John Hickenlooper, Colorado’s governor, likes trails. When I visited him in the capitol building, he was wearing a tie and a suit that was a delicate weave of earth tones. A few weeks shy of sixty-five, he had soft eyes set in wrinkles, but he grinned boyishly. He has a reputation for informality, and as we sat down — not at the twelve-foot-wide, U-shaped desk in the middle of his office but at a table by a window — I suspected that the conversation might get rangy.

“Let’s say you want to hike from Aspen up over the Maroon Bells and down to Crested Butte, six, seven hours,” he said. “I’ve done it. I went over the Maroon Bells the second week in August. The wildflowers were higher than my waist. I’ll never forget that the rest of my life.” The trail, he explained, loops “twenty-five of our fourteeners.” This is Colorado patois, referring to mountains higher than fourteen thousand feet. Credibility is gained from a life list of fourteeners that one has “bagged,” i.e., climbed.

We had arrived at this subject in response to a question I’d asked about politics in the West. Hickenlooper launched into the details of “16 in 2016,” a push to complete the development of that many trails across the state’s wilderness. The program, still ongoing, is an essential part of his plan for economic development — along with music venues, museums, and bookstores. He ticked off the names of clubs in Denver where concerts are held (YouTube videos exist of Hickenlooper playing banjo with Old Crow Medicine Show), and he wanted me to know that his new favorite band, the Lumineers, had moved to Colorado. He also showed me the compact electronic piano that he keeps by his desk.

Conservation, support for the arts — these are key platforms for a politician in his position. In 2014, though Colorado voters chose the G.O.P. for the Senate, they delivered Hickenlooper, a Democrat, to a second term as governor. The state has historically leaned Republican, but in recent years its constituency has changed, and the same has been true across the West, as hiker-progressives have turned districts blue. Last November, Hillary Clinton lost Montana, my home state, to Donald Trump by 20.5 points, but in the governor’s race the nature-loving Democrat Steve Bullock beat a superrich archconservative by 4.* The states along the Pacific Coast — California, Oregon, Washington — have long been dependably Democratic; now Nevada and New Mexico are trending that way, too. These states, along with Colorado, all went for Clinton last fall.

Hickenlooper and I left his office and shuttled off to an SUV for a ride across town. In the back seat, as he pored over a speech, he took a call concerning meetings he’d had a week before, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. He talked for twenty minutes or so, a monologue of arcane details about computer chips on bank cards and surgical joint replacements in livestock — the minutiae of Colorado business. Then we pulled up to a suburban conference center, a bit late.

Inside, we encountered an audience of a couple hundred, dressed in suits. Lunch was served: steak. This was an annual state conference of water users, most of them rural agricultural folks — and, as Hickenlooper noted from the podium, Trump voters. In the arid West, there is a saying that water naturally runs uphill toward money, and conferences like this have been held regularly to impress that on governors. But addressing the crowd, Hickenlooper challenged their exceptionalism, extolling the applicability of big data to water conservation and allocation. “I do see water as the lifeline to every part of the state,” he said. “But I also believe in broadband, that we have to raise some serious money to extend that to every part of the state.” He received polite applause. Someone offered him a beer.

We returned to the SUV. It slithered though a subterranean passageway used by caterers and musicians; we parked, walked through winding halls, and arrived at another auditorium. This one was filled with around three hundred people who had come for the annual conference of Snowsports Industries of America. Here, Hickenlooper and his entourage were wearing the only ties in the room. Most in attendance were dressed in fleece and spandex, eating boxed lunches balanced in their laps: salad, chips, and Granny Smith apples. Hickenlooper joined a panel on recreation, and he opened the proceedings by counseling retailers on how to defeat online competitors.

But then he was back on the trails again, as a way of discussing childhood education and health. Colorado was the leanest state in the nation, he said. “Your self-interest is very closely aligned with my self-interest,” he continued. “My job is to get kids off the couch. . . . We’re lucky if they are outside, in unstructured time outside, ten minutes a day, and they are instead spending ten hours a day in front of a screen of some sort, which every single health measure says is lunacy.”

Of the day’s two audiences, Hickenlooper knew which was growing faster — in Colorado, the recreation industry takes in $20 billion a year and provides nearly twice as many jobs as agriculture. Moreover, he seemed to understand which had become crucial to his prospects in future elections, including, some speculate, the 2020 presidential race. Indeed, political operatives across the West are seeing economic trends that bode well for progressive platforms. In the simplest sense, I learned, their outlook is due mostly to the fact that this part of the country offers voters scenic places to live.

The next day, in a renovated brick building in downtown Denver, a group of professional campaigners gathered to speak with me about environmental strategy. Pete Maysmith, an intense guy with a red beard and close-cropped hair, shook my hand. He is the head of Conservation Colorado, the largest and most powerful state affiliate of its national umbrella organization, the League of Conservation Voters. Formed in 1969 as the political arm of the environmental movement, the league played a pivotal role in reelecting Hickenlooper, just as it did for Bullock in Montana and in races across the Rockies. Nationally, during the 2016 elections, the environmental lobby spent more than $100 million; no group contributed more than the league. In the West, this organization and its allies have assumed a role once filled by labor in the traditional Democratic coalition.

As we settled around a conference table, Maysmith explained that the success he has seen is as much a result of the unique political culture fostered by the state’s recreation economy as it is of traditional spending and organizing. “The folks who come here to work in those jobs, they end up voting those values,” he said. “Being pro–public lands is a vote-getter.” The same goes for being pro-solar or pro–wind energy. “That’s why we see candidates running on these issues. They can read a poll as well as anybody.”

The polls, according to the latest Colorado College survey of seven Western states, show that 56 percent of voters want to keep public lands under federal control. About half of all land in the Western states is federal, and even as right-wingers agitate to sell it off, 75 percent of respondents said that their views on public lands affect how they vote. Seventy percent identified themselves as “conservationists,” up from 63 percent last year.

Seated across from Maysmith was Jon Goldin-Dubois, the president of Western Resource Advocates, a nonprofit based in Boulder. He told me that constituents are beginning to get past an old dichotomy — environmental interests versus financial interests — and to view the two as connected. “That is the piece that has dramatically changed and is common throughout the Western states,” he said. “The more you advance a clean-energy economy, and the more you protect public lands and open space, and the more you provide opportunities for people to enjoy the West, the stronger those economies are becoming.”

From the far end of the table came the voice of a guy in a Patagonia vest. He was Aaron Browning, who had been working in Montana, first as a hired gun on Bullock’s gubernatorial race and then on the congressional campaign of Rob Quist, a banjo-playing Democrat from Glacier County. In the spring, Quist ran to fill the House vacancy left by Ryan Zinke, whom President Trump had chosen as his secretary of the interior; the G.O.P. had long held the seat. The Democrats appeared to have a decent shot, but Quist would ultimately lose to Greg Gianforte, a Republican multimillionaire, in a vote that was split sharply between progressive cities and the rest of the state. In the abbreviated race, public-lands politics became a factor, but so did unprecedented campaign spending, health care, and Gianforte’s body-slamming a reporter after at least two thirds of the votes had been cast. In the end, the margin was 6 points among the same voters Trump had carried by more than three times that. The possibility of such a shift, Browning believed, implied a clear strategy for conservationists: “Make our issues the signature issues in a particular election and defeat people who are outside the mainstream of the consensus.” Of politicians who fail to sign on to environmental protections, he added, “It’s our imperative to make sure they are punished for that.”

Conservation advocacy’s ability to energize can be seen in Hickenlooper’s political evolution. The wonks in the room supported him, but when I mentioned his name, they fell silent. Eyes avoided my gaze. Someone asked, “Who wants to start?”

Hickenlooper, a former oil-field geologist who was laid off during an Eighties energy bust, entered politics in 2003, as the mayor of Denver. At the time, he was best known for establishing a successful microbrewery, Wynkoop Brewing Company. It still stands, two blocks from where my conversation with the environmentalists took place; when it opened, in 1988, the neighborhood was derelict. Hickenlooper’s record as mayor was impeccably green, bolstered by such accomplishments as building a mass transit system and decreasing the city’s carbon footprint. But when he ran for governor, in 2010, he needed to appeal statewide, and like many Western politicians, he acted as if this required a shift to the right. In a speech that year to the National Western Mining Conference, he said, “I don’t think that the scientific community has decided with certainty that climate change is as catastrophic as so many people think.” Later, he endorsed fracking, and went as far as drinking a sample of fracking fluid at a meeting with oil executives from Halliburton. This rattled his environmentalist friends. Looking around the table, I could see the group’s residual frustration.

Once in office, however, Hickenlooper convened a group — which included Maysmith — to set rules for disclosing the contents of fracking fluid, a measure that the industry had lobbied against in other states. Hickenlooper also oversaw regulations limiting methane emissions from oil and gas wells, which became the model for a federal policy adopted under the Obama Administration. (That law is now at risk of being shredded by the Trumpists.) Proposals for expanding the trail system followed. And while he continued to authorize fracking in Colorado, his mitigating measures seemed to prove that he was sufficiently green. In 2014, when he stood for reelection, the environmentalists largely stood behind him.

Maysmith and the others at the table said they believed that Hickenlooper had finally learned to follow his constituency. An important influence was the state’s growing number of Latino residents, who now represent about 21 percent of the population, up from 13 percent in 1990. The rise of Hispanics in the West is contributing to the advancement of environmentalism, which challenges a common critique that the conservation movement is lily-white: Polls show that Latinos support clean water and solar energy at roughly the same rate as Caucasians, and in some cases more. According to the Colorado College survey, 75 percent of Latinos in the West favor increased access to public lands and the protection of clean air, clean water, and wildlife habitats, compared with 67 percent of other demographics. This played heavily into campaigns last year in Nevada, where the League of Conservation Voters spent $5 million in partnership with several other environmental organizations to help elect Catherine Cortez Masto, the first Latina to become a U.S. senator.

Maysmith told me that his staff included thirty-seven people, and a quarter of them were Latino. “There is political power in having a movement that actually looks like Colorado,” he said.

After the meeting, I went to visit Joe Salazar, a Democrat in the Colorado House of Representatives, where he had been given the office — or, more precisely, the window — he’d wanted. When I arrived, he had me look out at the mountains, which on that crisp winter day were snow-cloaked and gleaming. “I wanted a west-facing office because that’s the view that I have,” he said. “This is a beautiful view. This is Colorado right here.”

Short, round, and pugnacious, Salazar represents a working-class, 35 percent Latino district surrounding Thornton, just outside Denver. He characterized his constituency as “fiercely in favor of the environment.” This is in part due to fracking, as oil and gas companies had been planting themselves right at the edge of town, under prized lakes (and even Republicans’ houses). Salazar said that “people are livid about this,” including blue-collar members of the industry he represents.

Beyond the immediate concerns about their homes, Salazar went on, his constituents had long held an interest in conservation. They include people like his own family, who have been in Colorado since before it was Colorado, as well as immigrants; the latter have no smaller a commitment to protecting natural resources, he explained, since many of them have known the opposite. “I want to make sure I have clean earth and clean air and clean water for my children,” they tell him, “because that’s why I came here to Colorado.” With their support, Salazar can sell his platform in the legislature: For instance, he resisted the passage of a bill that would have given eminent domain rights to oil-pipeline companies.

About a month after we talked, Salazar declared that he would run to become the state’s attorney general, and he has inserted fracking and conservation into that campaign. The incumbent, a Republican named Cynthia Coffman, had made fighting off the Obama Administration’s climate change policies one of her top priorities. So it seemed a savvy move when, announcing his candidacy before the press, Salazar pointed to the mountains behind him and promised, “I’m going to protect the environment.”

The best explanation I found for the economic appeal of an environmentalist platform was not in Denver but in Bozeman, a bustling mountain town of forty-five thousand people in Montana’s southwest corner. Many Montanans call this place Boze-Angeles. One morning, I pulled into the parking lot of a high-end strip mall, where I saw that a Sotheby’s real estate office was offering $5 million ranchettes to customers known locally as “all hat and no cattle.”

I was on my way to meet Ray Rasker, the executive director of Headwaters Economics, who offered me a seat in his corner office. He was of late middle age, dressed in jeans, leather clogs, and a quilted ice-blue goose-down sweater. Rasker, who has been studying the economy of the West for more than thirty years, told me a story from his days teaching at Montana State University. He’d sent students on a walking tour of Bozeman’s downtown and asked them to describe local commerce on the basis of its appearance. They assessed it as cowboy bars, fly-fishing shops, and establishments dedicated to fleecing tourists headed for Yellowstone National Park. Then he had them redo the assignment by going up to the second floor of the same buildings. The students found, behind the facades, a sort of reverse Potemkin village, where unassuming exteriors hid a real and humming substance: startups. “They’d run into companies like Schedulicity, with millions of customers worldwide for online scheduling software,” he said. “You go on the second floor and you see this hidden economy of people writing code.”

The caricature of the West is picturesque, rural, largely conservative states where folks farm wheat, drill oil, and punch cattle. Yes, there are vast open spaces, but most Westerners live in cities, some of which have monster economies, including the Front Range (Colorado), Puget Sound (Washington), and, most notably, Silicon Valley (California). In each of these places, whole industries or sizable segments of them have, in the past few decades, decoupled from manufacturing as it has moved abroad; what’s left are prestige jobs in design, finance, and marketing, filled by highly educated, well-paid employees. This economic model is not solely a Western phenomenon, though the West has been a particularly fecund place for its contributors, members of what Richard Florida, the urban theorist, calls “the creative class.” Facilitated by fiber-optic cable, they can simply move their work to where they want to be. Since 1970, employment in the West has grown 176 percent, twice as fast as in the rest of the nation; personal income has gone up along with it.

To understand how this transformation has affected Western economies apart from the three powerhouses, Rasker turned to Bozeman (including the region around Yellowstone). Compared with those areas, he found, Bozeman is growing at a faster rate, according to standard measures like population, employment, and per capita income. The reason, he concluded, is that the town has as its economic infrastructure the immediate accessibility of public lands. That is what entices people with the most portable and independent jobs — and, often, the rich — to settle there. The same applies to places like it. In another study, Rasker looked at each county according to its share of public lands. Over the past forty-five years, the economies in places with more access performed better — one long, strong trend.

Rasker wanted me to know that not all of the region’s gains have been driven by people selling ski equipment and mountain bikes. In Montana, for instance, 5 percent of economic activity is in the old economy — mining, logging, and farming. Recreation and tourism account for roughly 11 percent. A much larger portion is the business of the new economy — dominated by tech startups, joined by health services, marketing, finance, and an array of support industries — with offices adjacent to hiking trails.

From Bozeman, you can drive your Subaru to the airport, catch an early-morning flight, arrive in Denver in less than two hours, ride a half hour on a slick electric train to Union Station, and walk two blocks to a midmorning meeting. When I visited, glass-walled skyscrapers with on-site baristas were rising all around. Rasker explained that, on the one hand, remote mountain towns like Bozeman attract businesses because of the scenery, and also because wages, housing, and office space are relatively cheap. On the other, there remains in the creative economy a need for occasional face-to-face meetings with clients and colleagues — the connectivity of a city. Futurists once envisioned telecommuters living anywhere and working everywhere, and while there has been some truth to that prediction, it’s not exactly right. Regional airports, Rasker said, allow for mobility between nature and commerce. But politicians have hardly begun to tap into the evident appeal of bringing them closer.

On a February morning in Washington, D.C., my friend Tom Lopach picked me up for a ride through the lobbyist traffic on K Street, headed north toward the Jefferson Hotel. Lopach’s suit and haircut were impeccable; he blended into the hotel bar, where two cups of coffee set me back fifteen bucks and the music was anodyne jazz. That week, he was settling into a new job as a lobbyist for a communications firm called Subject Matter, but he has long been a Washington insider. In 2016, he was the director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and before that he served as the chief of staff for Jon Tester, a senator from Montana, and as an aide to Senator Ted Kennedy.

Lopach told me that during Tester’s 2012 bid for reelection — he won narrowly over a mulishly conservative congressman — the effectiveness of the environmentalist platform was obvious. “After the 2012 race it was abundantly clear to me who was out on the doors as campaign volunteers: the League of Conservation Voters and the other conservation groups,” he recalled. This, in addition to heavy investment, he confirmed, was decisive in last year’s Western Senate races, especially for Cortez Masto in Nevada.

As our conversation continued, however, we came to the Colorado counterfactual of 2014. Senator Mark Udall was beaten in that election despite full support from conservationists. He was not just a Democrat but a Udall, a member of an environmental dynasty. He is the son of the longtime congressman Mo Udall, and the cousin of the New Mexico senator Tom Udall, who is the son of the former interior secretary Stewart Udall. When I asked for Lopach’s read on what had happened, he demurred, not wanting to say what he wanted to say, which was that Udall lost because of a botched campaign. He didn’t have to. Udall had told me as much a few days before — specifically, that he was talked into a slick, data-driven, off-the-shelf Democratic Party campaign and tried to broaden his base by ignoring conservation and speaking to identity politics. “There’s compelling arguments by some — and that includes me — that I didn’t remind voters enough of the importance of our public lands and my deep connection to those public lands,” Udall said.

The lesson that Lopach hoped Western progressives would take from Udall’s defeat is that voters will accept differences on certain points as long as the candidate seems sincere and not the servant of a party. “They may not agree with a Heidi Heitkamp” — a Democratic senator from North Dakota, which went for Trump — “or a Mark Udall fifty percent of the time, but voters know they are not bullshitting,” he said. “That is appealing, and you have to have enough internal fortitude to say no to your consultant and staff and follow your gut about who you know the voters to be.”

In the midst of a campaign, of course, it’s not always clear how best to approximate voters. Later, I left Lopach to see Neera Tanden, the president of the Center for American Progress, who became known last year as part of Hillary Clinton’s inner circle. Last November, on the day after the election, Tanden had put in a call to Governor Bullock, in Montana. Any reasonable person in her position should have been either drunk or catatonic or both, and yet she was chirpy. When I met her at her office, I asked what she had hoped to learn in that conversation about a strategy for progressives.

“The most important question for the future of the Democratic Party is not how to bring the Midwest back,” she replied. “The most important question for the Democratic Party is how to keep the gains we have made in the West and elsewhere, and also do better in the Midwest. You cannot forfeit the future in order to reclaim the past.”

Tanden is compact, with dark hair, expressive brown eyes, and a heart-shaped face. As we spoke, she tempered her comments with the same sort of talk that has underpinned much of the postelection progressive hand-wringing about making economic overtures to working-class Rust Belt voters. “We have to have a better answer for people who don’t go to college, because I think it’s the right thing to do,” she said. “They are angry. They are hurting.” Yet there is a progressive answer — it’s just not front and center, where it belongs.

In The New Geography of Jobs, the economist Enrico Moretti writes that the best indicator of a person’s income is not whether she is a carpenter or an orthopedic surgeon but whether she lives in a place with a high proportion of college graduates. In Colorado, the unemployment rate is 2.3 percent, and in Montana, it’s 3.8 percent — that is, virtually full employment, as people with degrees and lower-wage workers together foster a creative economy. U.S. News and World Report’s latest ranking of state economies placed Colorado at the top, and five Western states made the top ten. When I raised this with Tanden, she nodded knowingly, and made the case in convincing detail. In the West, manufacturing jobs are indeed mostly gone, but nobody misses them; conservation-minded policy has driven its own growth. She had seen this in places like Denver. “A higher proportion of college-educated folks brings the income up for everybody,” she said. But she and her cohort hadn’t managed to deliver that message on the national scale, even as elected officials across the West continue to win people over by linking public lands and the economy.

In May, the Center for American Progress held an Ideas Conference, which seemed like an opportunity to begin harnessing the power of a conservationist argument as an economic appeal. It was not to be. The event took place amid the uproar over Trump’s firing of the FBI director, James Comey, and the speakers — several of whom are being touted as possible presidential candidates in 2020, Governor Bullock among them — wallowed in a mush of poll-tested bromides and outrage over the day’s news. In the fog of constitutional crisis, certain ideas are liable to vanish.

It’s not a long walk from K Street to the National Mall, land that is under the purview of the Park Service, just like Yellowstone. I passed by on my way up to the Capitol. Ostensibly, I was going to track down three senators — Tester, Michael Bennet of Colorado, and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico — all Democrats and beneficiaries of the environmentalist lift in their home states. In truth, though, I was going for some reassurance that things would be all right, that they and their colleagues would provide some adult supervision in Washington. As I walked through the Hart Senate Office Building, every room appeared to have at least one, sometimes three, flatscreen TVs tuned to Fox, MSNBC, or CNN. “Historically we senators have been at our best when we have thought fifty years down the road,” Bennet told me. “Now we are trying to govern between the commercial breaks on cable television.”

I asked how conservation factored in. Public lands, Bennet replied, provide this country’s best example of the benefits of long-term thinking, despite the G.O.P.’s persistent desire to abandon them. Republicans argue that such protections place an economic burden on rural communities — which is not just untrue but the opposite of true — and in January, Congress made it easier to sell off hundreds of millions of acres of federal lands to developers. Nonetheless, all three senators told me they believed that these lands would be safe. The idea to jettison them “is the creature of right-wing think tanks in Washington, D.C.,” Bennet said. “It’s not an agenda that even Republicans in Colorado support. It would be hard to imagine something that has more consensus than the role public lands have played in our cultural identity and the growth of our economy.”

In Utah, which is steadfastly red, a plurality (47 percent) of voters oppose relinquishing control of public lands. After the rules changed for divestment, Jason Chaffetz, a congressman from that state, proposed legislation to transfer 3.3 million acres in the West from federal ownership, with a mind to sell. Hunters and fishers promptly jammed his phone lines in protest. Hoping to calm his base, he withdrew his bill and posted a picture on Instagram of himself wearing camo. (“I’m a proud gun owner, hunter and love our public lands,” the caption read.) But when he went home for a town hall meeting, he faced a raucous crowd of a thousand people, shouting in outrage at his inattention to parks. Most important was the Bears Ears National Monument, in San Juan County, which Obama established in the last days of his presidency, and which Trump has threatened to shrink. (At the end of June, Chaffetz resigned from the House of Representatives.)

Within the administration, which has pitted itself fiercely against the environment, Zinke, the Montanan interior secretary, initially provided the senators with a glimmer of hope. Zinke is a hard-core conservative, but during the 2016 campaign he boycotted Republican platform meetings because of a proposal to off-load public lands. Since then, however, he has proved himself to be a craven opportunist and a grandstanding self-promoter — on his first day at Interior he rode a horse to work — and he recently went on a tour of national monuments, at Trump’s request, to see where cuts might be made. Bears Ears, he determined, ought to be smaller. During his confirmation hearing, he broke with Trump’s view on climate change, saying that he did “not believe it’s a hoax.” Yet when asked whether there would be fossil fuel development on public lands, he replied, “We have to have an economy.” Senator Heinrich told me, “The secretary keeps saying he wants to be like Theodore Roosevelt, but he needs to start behaving like him.”

Traditional wisdom holds that even where there is consensus on parks, it won’t apply to the broader environmental agenda. The hunters and fishers who railed against Chaffetz have historically had no inclination to come along on matters like controlling pollution. But when I raised this with Senator Tester, he said that this assumption is becoming outdated, particularly when it comes to clean power and global warming. Polling supports that view. For instance, 76 percent of respondents in the survey done by Colorado College support tax incentives for solar and wind energy; 81 percent favor federal rules that reduce methane leaks from gas wells on federal lands. “It’s tough to drive the wedges,” he said. “But if on the one hand you’re talking about a habitat for hunting, good mule deer, and good elk hunting, and on the other hand you’re talking about removing the regulations for clean water, these people understand you can’t have it both ways.”

This is not to say that these senators will have any luck whatsoever in pushing clean energy policy, given the circumstances in Washington. The Environmental Protection Agency, especially, could lose a third of its budget and see critical programs eliminated, while fuel-efficiency standards are being rolled back and Obama’s Clean Power Plan is likely to be dismantled. In June, Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord. But the reality is that the nation has made its greatest progress in reducing its carbon footprint through market forces, such as cheaper natural gas that is replacing coal, and commercial incentives for wind and solar energy. Clean power is rising in popularity as people are making money on it. Twice as many Americans work in solar as in coal, and the former is creating jobs at about twelve times the rate of the rest of the economy. This momentum is what will have to carry us forward.

I flew home, to Helena, Montana. Founded as a mining town, Helena, the state’s capital, backs up against mountains that once held gold and now host hiking paths. The grid of streets, even in the oldest sections of town, ends in a trailhead every couple of blocks — the result of a recent city administration that believed such access was an asset. There is a trailhead four blocks from my house, and I begin most days there. I can choose a quick loop of maybe a few miles. Four or so get me to the top of Mt. Helena. Or I can run ridges trending west about twenty miles to the Continental Divide Trail, thence north on public lands all the way through the Scapegoat, the Bob, and the Great Bear Wildernesses, then through Glacier National Park to Canada. Or south, through Yellowstone and the Tetons, to Colorado.

One morning in winter, I was with my dog, Puck, and feeling sluggish in my crampons as we walked over packed snow. Topping a rise, we took a mandatory stop: Four mule deer were making their way across the toe of the hill below us. Puck and I gave them room to amble at their own speed and conserve energy, since it was starvation season. Mule deer are seen less often than the white-tailed species, not because they are shy and afraid but because they are misanthropic. One pauses to honor their judgment. When I did, I took a moment to look out at Helena, a dinky bit of a city as it spreads downslope, centered on the capitol dome. A gray day’s light made it hard to pick out among bare trees because the dome is the dull green-brown of tarnished copper.

I was reminded of a conversation I’d had with Hickenlooper as we approached his capitol building, in Denver, with its shining gold dome. I said that it provoked a certain amount of dome envy for a Montanan, and he remarked that Helena’s is historically appropriate. This was a subtle dig at my state’s history: Montana’s capitol was built during the reign of the copper-king plutocrats who sent minions into the state legislature with wads of cash. Copper mining so dominated Montana that the state was said to have worn the “copper collar,” a choke hold on our democracy. Now our dome is a symbol of — and a warning about — fat-fisted oligarchs.

A half hour later, I was showered, jacketed, and tied, running up my capitol’s steps. I dashed through the rotunda where, a week before, a thousand people had scrunched into the balconies to protest any possible sale of public lands. Because the legislature is controlled by Republicans, bills supporting the transfer of federal lands to the state surface routinely. On the day of the demonstration, the dissenters convened at the head of a marble staircase, their voices rattling the chambers’ walls. Governor Bullock was among the crowd.

Down a long hall, I found his office door open. A window offered a view across the Helena Valley — the neighborhood where he grew up, and his high school (the same as Tom Lopach’s), a few blocks away. I could see the tracks that carry twenty-five or so trains through town every day; most have a hundred cars, freighting Montana coal toward Asia to be rendered as carbon dioxide.

Bullock beckoned me in and we sat at a coffee table. He is fifty-one, and was wearing a suit, tie, and brown oxfords — a lawyer first and always — in an office that has known its share of hand-stitched, stacked-leather-heeled boots. Almost exactly as Hickenlooper — a friend of his — and the senators had, he laid out the story of public lands and the new economy and shifting political dynamics. But as we talked, he took a more philosophical tack, conjoining public ideals, public lands, and public education. “If we actually focus on what our values are,” he said, “we transcend identity politics.”

Bullock believes that identity politics have overtaken the progressive agenda. He and the others did not see public lands as simply another special interest, he said, but rather as the foundation of the general interest. Public lands — the availability of what is open and wild — provide experiences that generate commitment to a range of egalitarian causes.

During his election campaign, he had often referred to public lands as “equalizers,” and I asked him to expand on this. The reply, as I’d been hearing all over, was put in economic terms. “The great equalizer is, it doesn’t matter how wealthy you are,” he said. “It’s not your checkbook size that allows you to go out and enjoy our public lands and stream access. We all own them.”

’s article “Over the River” was published in the January 2017 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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January 2017

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