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Tell me if I got this right.

The vice president of the United States is heading a task force working on solutions to the growing crisis in energy supply and energy prices in this country. And in his first public statement about the recommendations that will come out of that group's work, he suggests that energy conservation "may be a sign of personal virtue" but it does not make for good policy.

Instead, if I get this right, we should launch a massive effort to mine, pump and otherwise extract as much of the remaining, non-renewable fossil fuel resources out there as we possibly can. It is such a desperate situation that we should open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil production. And you have read in this newspaper that Montana's own priceless Front Range country may also be on the hit list for further exploration and possible development. Meanwhile, while we're using up the oil and gas as fast as we can, we should also start building hydroelectric dams again.

But conservation?

Nope. That's just "feel good" stuff.

Austerity?

Not in America, for goodness sakes!

And alternative energy sources?

Forget about it. That stuff is years and years away from being practical.

And while we are forgetting about that, let's try to forget about a few more things.

This should be easy because the vice president also said that development of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would only involve 2,000 acres. As far as hydroelectric development goes, he assured us that the administration would be "mindful of fish and wildlife affected by manmade dams."

So let's forget about the legacy of lost wildlife habitat and vanished species that has been left in the wake of hydroelectric development over the last hundred years. Let's not think much about the riparian lands and prime farmland that has been inundated over the same period in the name of hydroelectric progress. Let's not worry about the potential for destruction of aquatic systems and the agricultural economy downstream from full-bore coal bed methane development. Let's forget about the concerns regarding air and water quality that might arise from the construction of the 1,300 to 1,900 new power plants that will be required to keep up with projected rising demands over the next 20 years.

Let's forget about trying to save the last of the native fishes. Wild salmon, steelhead and trout are just luxuries that we can no longer afford if we want to keep the air conditioners on. After all, what are a few more plant or animal species down the drain during a period when they are going extinct at a rate 10,000 times higher than ever before due to human activity? With 10 to as many as 70 species going extinct every day, and with 50 percent of the plant and animal species left on earth expected to vanish over the next century, there really isn't much point in trying to figure that into the equation. A few unknown impacts to a pristine wildlife refuge will be a small price to pay to keep our gas-guzzling four wheel drives on the road for another weekend, mine included.

While we're at it, let's forget about what we have learned about the fragility and complexity of the natural world that sustains us on this planet. Toss out the years of effort and achievement in the struggle to protect that natural world and set aside everything we know and hate to talk about regarding the limits placed upon us by the fact of our existence on this planet.

After all, efficiency is what we're after.

As near as I can tell, that means something on the order of "use it or lose it."

But turn out the lights once in a while?

Never.

I don't know about you, but that's what I call leadership.

It's two chickens in every pot and it's good to know that the folks in Washington are so sure that if we just open the spigot, we can have all the energy we need.

One of the first things I'm going to do today is call up my mother. That's because she is real quick to make obviously preposterous observations about energy use. For example, the other day she said that she remembered a time when the folks in California didn't have air conditioners in every house. In fact she was living there then.

"We got along just fine," she said.

She often puts off trips to the store or the post office until she has more than one errand to accomplish at a time. She never leaves home without being sure that the heat is turned down and every light in the place is turned out. She recycles everything, even birthday cards. Why sometimes it seems as though she must have lived through a time of austerity herself. Well, maybe that's what they had to do during the Great Depression. But times have changed.

This is what I'm going to say to her.

"Mom, you know how for the last 50-plus years you have been telling me to turn off the lights, turn down the heat when I'm out of the house, and quit driving when I could walk or ride my bike? Well it's all a scam. There's really no point to it, unless all you want to do is save a few pennies here and there. Energy conservation is just pointless, feel-good stuff. What we need to do is be efficient, and what that really means is continuing to use whatever energy source we use at pretty much the same rate as we do now."

Maybe, to really make my point, I should drive over to her house in my big hog of a pickup, which I know she secretly disapproves of, and leave it idling out in front while I pass the good news to her.

And while I'm at it, I might just suggest to her some of those possibilities for energy development that we have her close to home. The Yellowstone River, for example, not a hydroelectric dam on it, is just going to waste. And that Front Range again, what possible harm could come from a few more roads, a few drill rigs and a few more lights to brighten the night sky? Coal and methane from southeast Montana is a real winner. Nobody lives there and nobody ever goes there, so who really cares what happens to that?

On second thought, maybe I won't say any of these things to my mother. In her old-fashioned way, she has always believed that conservation makes sense. That's conservation in all of its forms. It could be very disturbing to her to discover that she has been wrong for all these years.

In fact, maybe what I'll do is walk around the house right now and turn out a few lights that I'm not using, just in case the vice president is wrong.

Greg Tollefson is a Missoula free-lance writer. His column appears each week in the Outdoors section.

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