One of coolest things NPR reporters get to do is travel to places where most people don't go. Sometimes, the things the reporters tell their friends and families about the place don't end up in stories, because they just don't fit. I've been in Washington, D.C., all week. But my colleague Jeff Brady was traveling around Colorado and Wyoming, visiting small towns that are going through big changes because of the boom of natural gas development in the Rocky Mountain West. Here are some of his impressions:
These are towns that just a few years ago were very sleepy, but now they feel like the carnival has come to town, and it's not leaving. Trucks sporting oil company logos boom down the streets, hotels are filling up as quickly as they can be built. Who would have guessed Parachute, Colo., would one day have a Holiday Inn? Or that I'd have trouble finding a room in Casper, Wyo., on a Tuesday night? Restaurant workers are run ragged and it's not easy for managers to find more help to relieve them because most folks would rather go work for the oil companies for much higher wages.
When I got into Rifle, Colo., I talked with two retired men on their way to morning coffee at a downtown café. Both are named Jack and they've lived in Rifle all their lives. When I asked them how the town had changed in the past few years, I expected them to talk about all the money flowing in and how high real estate prices had risen. Instead, they pointed to a sign along the street—"2 Hour Parking". The limits were just recently put in place. Both Jacks said they were surprised enough that the town needed a parking time limit, but then it had to hire an enforcement officer to come around and “paint your tires” too. As one of the Jacks said, "That's a sure sign that we've finally arrived."
I've traveled around the Rocky Mountain West some myself, working on stories about the environmental impacts of the energy boom. Local residents, hunting guides and ranchers have complained to me about gas development polluting the air in wilderness areas, fouling waterways and chasing wildlife out of migration zones.
In some areas, pressure is so great to conserve an area that it's holding the drilling companies at bay. The best example is Montana's Rocky Mountain Front, a diverse area of grasslands, foothills and tundra that's home to nearly every wildlife species described by Lewis and Clark. Earlier this week one of the energy production companies, Questar Corp., announced it will donate its leases to produce gas in the area. And Montana's Republican Senator Conrad Burns attached a bill to a funding package that would block the government from selling any more leases to drill in that gorgeous area.