The war on the West is not going badly—from a Westerner’s point of view. As of mid-February, salient victories included the successful filibuster, by Western senators, of Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt’s range reform bill; the routing of the obnoxious Representative Mike Synar (Democrat-OK), the congressional instigator of “reform”; the firing of the arrogant Jim Baca from his job as Director of the Federal Bureau of Land Management; and Secretary Babbitt’s decision to adopt less confrontational strategies in the future, such as the creation of local grazing committees composed of ranchers, environmentalists, and recreationists. Best of all, the doughty Commander in Chief of the federal troops, panicked by the unaccustomed sound of heavy artillery, the unfamiliar smell of cordite, and the terrifying sight of blood is, like the Duke of Plaza Toro, leading his regiment from behind. In the din of battle, a modest and seemingly innocuous pronouncement by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation—that, after 92 years in the business of impounding and diverting free-flowing rivers, it has no plans to build more dams—went virtually unremarked, even in the West where the great majority of its former projects were constructed. Still, this quiet bureaucratic event may in time have a greater impact on the American West than any number of land-use reforms could ever have. As the fact sinks m, it is likely to strike millions of Westerners with intimations of disaster. Others, more farsighted, may see in it the makings of regional salvation.

Historically, the West’s case for greater autonomy has been compromised by its being, unlike the Old South, substantially an economic creation of the federal government and of Eastern capital. Purchased from a foreign nation by congressional authorization and with federal funds, the region and its aborigines were subdued by federal forces while its settlers, most of them socially small potatoes and poor as Job’s turkey, had to be subsidized in their enterprise by Congress and capitalized by the same powerful paleface interests they had sought to escape in the first place. The winning of the West, it could truthfully be said, was not accomplished by Westerners alone; rather it was a national effort, like the later Civil Rights Revolution, the War on Poverty, and the Battle Against AIDS. So when the Sagebrush Rebellion broke out a decade and a half ago and the rebels appeared to be staring around for their own Fort Sumter to shell, little more was required to make them look foolish than for “conservatives” like George Will to remind them haughtily that they were effectively squatters on land belonging to All the People, poor relatives camped out in a field behind the Big House. Eastern commentators noted that water development in the arid West was entirely the work of the federal government, paid for by All the Taxpayers without whose largesse there would scarcely be any Western settlement at all. It was even meanly suggested that conservative Westerners, ever contemptuous of national welfarism, as water welfarists were actually its greatest beneficiaries. There is enough truth in both of these claims to hurt, and more than enough to give honest Westerners and their apologists pause for sober reflection.

A massive federal irrigation program was not the idea of the early settlers who arrived on the arid highlands west of the Hundredth Meridian in response to the Homestead Act, the Desert Lands Act, the Timber and Stone Act, the Swamp and Overflow Act—attempts by Congress to deny (and to encourage Western settlers to deny) the fact, plain to anyone who had ever set foot in the Dakotas or in Utah and Colorado and Wyoming territories (of course hardly any congressman had), that the almost unbelievable superabundance of land was matched by the equally incredible absence of water. Major John Wesley Powell, the one-armed Civil War veteran who in 1869 led the Powell Geographic Expedition in four wooden dories down the Green River from the town of Green River, Wyoming, to Grand Wash Cliffs at the confluence of the Colorado and Virgin rivers, perceived at once that the land rush being stimulated by the government and encouraged by every sort of lying and unscrupulous entrepreneur would turn into a Gadarene marathon unless the problem of apportioning settlement in accordance with the available water were tackled head on and in a responsible manner. In his Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States, with a More Detailed Account of the Lands of Utah and in his subsequent testimony before Congress concerning the report, he insisted that only a small fraction of the Western lands was irrigable; that the irrigable parts were restricted almost entirely to riparian areas; and that, even so, the cost of building dams, reservoirs, and irrigation systems would be affordable only by the federal government, which would either have to take care of the job or watch the Western migration founder. (Powell argued further that state boundaries should be surveyed around watersheds —what environmentalists today call “ecosystem management”—while settlers ought to be encouraged to hold lands in common on the plan of the Mexican eijido, for the purposes of minimizing the fencing of the open range and maximizing the efficient use of water.) Though he managed to procure short-term funding for an irrigation survey, Powell’s ideas were anathema in an era of fortune-seekers, territorial boosters, professional and commercial optimists, land-grab artists, and self-styled rugged individualists eager to proclaim that they had no need of federal charity. This spirit of manly independence failed to withstand the droughts—predicted by Powell—of the final decades of the 19th century and was knocked down for the count by those of the 1930’s: almost overnight, federal irrigation projects struck everyone as the obvious solution to the West’s water problem, these to be built for—but not paid for by—the legions of yeomen farmers beholden to nobody. “The result,” Marc Reisner says in his magisterial Cadillac Desert, “was a half-century rampage of dam-building and irrigation development which, in all probability, went far beyond anything Powell would have liked.” It was also the ingenious Rube Goldberg system of reservoirs, aqueducts, canals, and tunnels without which half or more— perhaps much more—of the present population west of the Mississippi River would be living east of it instead. Unlike the South of a century and a half ago, the West is only by artifice a self-sustaining region; only after the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers have done their worst is it capable of feeding itself (thanks to California, which is 110 longer, culturally and politically speaking, a Western state). Take out its water system and it would starve to death. At least its cities would, hi particular the cities of Southern California and Arizona.

To this extent the population of the West is indeed living beyond its means, for which it has substituted Eastern handouts. Clever of the government, cynics and conspiratorialists might say: exactly what was required to bind all those millions of square miles, rich in oil and gas and minerals and timber, potential bombing ranges and concentration camps for Medicare recipients, to the federal treasury. The truth is that Washington, for the past nine decades, has dedicated itself to creating water welfarites, willing or unwilling, as deliberately and ruthlessly as it has made crack and food-stamp addicts for the past three. Far better than the beneficiaries of its programs, it knew what it was doing—rolling pork-barrels and buying votes; more than they, it bears the moral responsibility for their corruption. For 90 years the federals have paid farmers to grow crops where no crops should be grown, subsidized ranchers to graze their animals in numbers for which permits ought never to have been written. Now Washington, responding to pressure from Eastern skiers, backpackers, mountaineers, beautiful people, and second-home builders, has changed its mind: it wants the West back, for itself. And for millions of other people transplanted to the exploding cities of the West where they seek “a better quality of life”—and soak up the critical paucity of water that remains here.

A national administration sincerely concerned for the Western “environment” would pay relatively little attention to the sheep and cattle men, the wheat and alfalfa growers of the Rocky Mountain region, and concentrate both its attention and its bully-boy methods on the corporate CEOs busily relocating themselves and their employees from the East and from California to intermountain metropolitan areas that as much as 25 or 30 years ago were already straining their fragile desert surroundings and intricate natural water systems, which, in the basin-and-range West, may be only a few miles away. It is the cities that are primarily responsible for creating environmental distress, but nobody has ever dared tell Americans where they may and may not live, not even when their choice must be subsidized by tens of billions of dollars of public money from somewhere else. The result, in our complacently hubristic society, is a municipality of 12 million people trapped in a strip of desert between the Pacific Ocean and a mountain range and entirely dependent for its survival on water electrically sucked and pumped through aqueducts arriving from hundreds of miles away. The Colorado River system, so oversubscribed by water-rights holders that it enters the Gulf of California as a literal trickle, is the victim not of irrigators in the largely rural Upper Basin states of Wyoming, Utah, and Colorado but of the downstream megalopoli of Las Vegas, Phoenix, Tucson, San Diego, and Los Angeles, of agriculture in southern Arizona, and of industrial agriculture in the great valleys of Southern California (most of it serving as a lucrative tax write-off for Union Pacific, Prudential Life, and other corporate behemoths) that are draining and destroying a watershed encompassing eight states. Days after he was fired from the BLM, Jim Baca sneered that the Clinton administration had backed off from its grazing reform program after being confronted by “29,000 [grazing] leaseholders.” My guess is John Wesley Powell, prophet that he was, would have understood that the problem today is not 29,000 leaseholders; it is two million Denverites, a half-million Albuquerqueans, one million Salt Lakers, two million Phoenixites, three-quarters of a million Tucsonians, and 12 million Angelenos. It is the 40-story bank towers, the shopping malls, suburbs, highway-overpasses, industrial parks, ski resorts; the hundreds of thousands of quality-of-life seekers and the millions of retired-at-fifty-with-too-much-money types whose membership dues give the AARP the clout and ferocity of the Bosnian Serbs.

Washington, D.C., and the American non-West are apparently under a misapprehension: that the salvation of Western federal lands lies in a combination of boom time for the Western cities and bankruptcy for the small indigenous land-based rural economics. In fact, this is a prescription for disaster. In spite of the excesses of the Old West, which even many ranchers—by nature a stubborn and habit-bound breed—concede must be controlled and tempered, it never was and is not now fundamentally incompatible with environmental health and stability. But the New West is incompatible: probably it is fatal. Regional environmentalists understand this, unlike the $87,000-a-year boys at EPA headquarters in Washington: Ed Marston, publisher and editor of the environmentalist paper High Country News in Paonia, Colorado, recently assured an audience at the University of Wyoming that the subdivision of the West in the 1990’s is a far greater threat than the mining of it during the 1970’s and 80’s was. Though the idea appeals to Deep Ecologists, giving the Rocky Mountains back to the Indians is unfeasible. Perhaps leaving it in the hands of the Westerners who succeeded them is. too. But “environmentalism” as Washington understands it today is only “progress” in another guise, whose intention is to convert an entire region into a playground for the wealthy and an object of consumerist greed for the nation at large. Real environmentalists will stick with 29,000 leaseholders am day.