Our national landscapes are rapidly changing.
Through technological advancements in power extraction, our national landscapes are evolving at a quicker rate than ever. And our power to influence the type of development has never been stronger. We just need to pay attention to what is happening, and make informed decisions about how we get the power that fuels our economic growth, our businesses, and our future.
This year, my family and I traveled by car from Austin, Texas to six of our National Parks & Monuments (Arches, Canyonlands, Carlsbad Caverns, Grand Teton, White Sands, & Yellowstone). The landscapes of these places are full of power; each one is completely unique and is the byproduct of generations of natural processes that can leave you breathless.
My family had a close encounter with a herd of wild bison, sled down a 60 degree slope of pure white sand, and climbed 1,000 vertical feet from below sea level in near pitch darkness. And we did all of those things without jeopardizing the underlying health and well-being of the landscape; our National Parks are sustainable landscapes. For that, we thank the National Park Service for not only protecting those places, but making them accessible for us all to enjoy.
Traveling to those places also took us through another landscape of power, albeit not one that many would recognize as a national treasure: West Texas.
On the surface, many view West Texas as a desert, a place you have to get through to get somewhere else; a place mainly untouched by the modern world. But after spending as many hours behind the wheel as I did this year moving through West Texas, I see something entirely different.
West Texas is the place where the sky meets the ground all around you; a place of hundreds of small town communities have formed around limited natural resources; a place where the natural flora and fauna are as tough and gritty as the people that inhabit it. Its power is in its open expanse and the minute differences that can be seen from town to town.
Like a National Park, West Texas has evolved to the point where people and the environment are in balance. The number of people and the extraction of resources needed to survive is in harmony. I consider West Texas to be the seventh national park that we visited this year.
Yet the true difference between a National Park and West Texas is that, unlike a National Park, West Texas does not have a central steward of the landscape. And as a consequence, West Texas is jeopardy like never before.
While I and those that live there see West Texas as a powerful landscape worthy of protection, others see it as a landscape to be exploited for economic bounty, with no regard for the balance that has taken several generations to achieve.
Technological advancements have made West Texas’s power reserves more accessible than ever. And these advancements are changing the landscape faster than it has ever evolved – and these technologies are shaping the future of West Texas like never before.
Below are aerial images taken from Google Earth of the landscape around two West Texas towns that we traveled through. The series of images are taken in roughly 10-year increments, and are of the same scale.
Between 1996 and 2005, the landscapes of both Pecos and Snyder appear to have minimal change. Ranch roads are where they were in Pecos and the agricultural areas seen in Snyder remain so. It is easy to imagine that if I went back to 1985 or earlier, the landscape would have looked much the same.
Now take a look at the rate of change that occurred within the last ten years.
What is striking about the above series of images is not that one area has developed faster than the other, it’s the way in which it has developed differently from the other. Both of these landscapes have evolved dramatically, yet it is much more apparent in Pecos than it is in Snyder. Why?
Lets zoom in a bit so that you can see the difference:
And a little bit further…
Over the last ten years, Pecos has evolved around the extraction of oil, specifically due to the technological improvements of hydraulic fracking that allow once-dry wells or once-low output oil fields to be productive. The large ranch areas that were once home to grazing cattle and virtually untouched landscape have given way to ones that are dominated by oil production.
Two lane roads are now bumper-to-bumper with tanker trucks, moving fracking oils and water from one spot to the next. Heavy equipment is scraping clean topsoil to make way for turn-around radiuses needed for support trucks. Mobile home and RV parks are home to thousands of temporary workers needed to install new fields. Transient populations now vastly outnumber locals that have lived on the land for generations.
Many expect that the current boom will eventually end in a bust, yet the transformation from a ranching to a fracking landscape will remain for generations. Once the oil is gone, so too will the temporary population that has no incentive to repair the landscape before they leave.
Contrast that with Snyder, which has also undergone a significant change due technological improvements to extract a natural resource; Snyder is a landscape of wind power.
Driving through Snyder, it is impossible to count the number of wind turbines, some of which have more than 100’ blades. They are enormous, in perpetual motion, and are popping up on every available piece of open land. Yet, the land beneath them remains virtually untouched, as evidenced by the aerial photos. In many cases, they are located within fields of crops that have little to no effect on the agricultural output of them.
While some argue that they are an eyesore or that they threaten birds, Snyder has literally been re-energized by wind power. The local population is growing and planning to be in Snyder for years to come. West Texas winds will always be present, along with the need to maintain, improve, and upgrade the turbines. I imagine that Snyder will have a sustainable future, one in which a new balance of power is established between the wind resources of the landscape and the communities needed to extract it.
The contrast between Pecos and Snyder, and their future, could not be more different. Yet it is all too easy for us to assume that we are powerless to influence the future of West Texas toward its most sustainable outcome. While the National Park Service will not be empowered to protect the West Texas landscape anytime soon, we all can have an immediate impact on its future in the power that we choose to run our fleets, our businesses, and our cities.
Every day, whether we know it or not, we are purchasing power that is either clean and renewable, or polluting and temporary. When businesses invest in and purchase renewable energy, they add power to a movement that protects our landscapes and the cultures and communities of those that support it. We can create sustainable communities through our collective purchasing power.
A “Landscape of Power” does not need to mean a landscape to be protected or a landscape to be developed; Snyder teaches us that it can be both. Through our choice of the source of our power, we can create harmony between economic opportunity, our culture, and our landscapes and retain power over our collective future.