The cornerstones of the American West – from cowboys and their cattle to mountains and their forests – face a grave threat from global climate change. In the latest issue of Men's Journal, Rolling Stone contributing editor Mark Binelli explores the risks and realities in a feature titled, "Will the West Survive?"
Binelli traveled across Colorado, Wyoming and Montana to document the devastating effects of unprecedented heat waves and the subsequent wildfires, droughts and critical shifts in the area's ecosystem.
With little grass surviving the wildfires in Wyoming, cattle ranchers cannot maintain their stock and have been forced to sell out or drastically decrease their enterprises. Properties in Colorado, once prized for the majestic view of the mountains and trees surrounding them, have burned to the ground. In Montana, the extreme weather has docked the critical tourism industry, with water levels too low for rafting and the air too smoke-clogged to exert oneself outside for long periods of time. Bark beetles, whose populations have skyrocketed because of warmer days, are gorging themselves on Yellowstone's foliage, leaving vast reserves of kindling in their wake for wildfires to consume.
How will people living in the West adapt to a new world where extreme weather conditions are an everyday occurrence? Writes Binelli, "The new normal never seemed to refer to anything remotely desirable and now had extended its reach to the very elements: fire and drought and triple-digit heat waves."
Yet another huge task facing the West is turning residents on to the notion of climate change as cause of their newfound hardships. Binelli notes a sharp scarcity of believers, despite environmental scientists' recent victories in defining climate change. The story documents the attitudes of some local leaders who see a bright side in destructive wildfires – the financial boom that follows with reconstruction. Others resist innovative wind energy production because they remain faithful to the old ways of coal power.
"The West has been such an important part of the American mystique for so long that the changes that might occur would certainly affect our collective psyche," Binelli writes. "If that place becomes exhausted, or spoiled, or simply too unfriendly a landscape, well....what, exactly, will we have lost?"