U.S. Bureau of Land Management

Late last week, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) published a photograph of a coal seam on its homepage. The move offended “keep it in the ground” groups like Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, and before long, the photo was a national news story.

According to NBC News, the photo was emblematic of the Trump administration “rolling back environmental protections.” National Public Radio reported that “a photo of a young boy and his companion backpacking across a mountain meadow” had been taken down “in favor of one showing a massive coal seam at a mine in Wyoming.” E&E News, a trade press outlet catering to policy wonks in the nation’s capital, said the photo swap was “sparking internet outrage.”

To people in the West, the media reaction was puzzling, even silly.

“I don’t see anything at all wrong with the picture,” Jason Small, president of Boilermakers Local #11 and a Montana state senator, told Western Wire. “As a matter of fact, I think that’s a fairly impressive seam of coal, to tell you the honest truth,” he joked.

The coverage of the photo is another example of the news media “catering to the vocal minority,” Small said. “If Trump getting elected showed us anything, it’s that not everybody in the country is offended by natural resource extraction.”

But environmental activists certainly took offense. “Instead of the scenic vistas of the past, the greeting image is brutal,” the Sierra Club complained. “The path to a safer future doesn’t include coal,” Greenpeace said in an infographic shared over Twitter.

As an agency of the Interior Department, the BLM manages multiple uses of federal lands across the West. One of those uses is the development of natural resources, including oil, natural gas and coal. Last year, the former Obama administration imposed a three-year moratorium on issuing new leases for coal mining on federal lands.

The moratorium was the result of pressure from “keep it in the ground” groups that oppose all fossil fuel production. It was strongly opposed by Western leaders, including Gov. Steve Bullock (D) of Montana, Gov. Matt Mead (R) of Wyoming and Gov. Gary Herbert (R) of Utah. Last week, President Trump’s Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said the moratorium would be lifted along with other restrictions on domestic energy production imposed by the Obama administration.

“It is better to produce energy here under reasonable regulation than watch it get produced overseas with none,” Zinke said.

In a statement to NBC, BLM spokeswoman Kristen Lenhardt said the picture was part of a “weekly rotation” of different images showing “the many uses our public lands have to offer,” including conservation, recreation and coal development.

Lori Shaw, a resident of Colstrip, Mont., said the media’s reaction to a photo of a coal seam was disappointing but not surprising.

“People have become so immersed in anti-coal rhetoric that they don’t even realize that there’s another side,” Shaw told Western Wire. “So it’s like an unintentional bias.” Too many news outlets are stuck in a “no-coal zone” and “they don’t even think about trying to appeal both to anti-coal and pro-coal people,” she said.

Shaw is the co-founder and director of Colstrip United, a group of residents from the coal-mining town who promote “the importance of coal and coal energy” in Montana and across the country. She praised the BLM for putting the photo on its homepage.

“I’m glad that the BLM did that, because the only way to start fighting that bias [against coal] is to start talking about it more, and start showing people those pictures more,” she said. “It shouldn’t be shocking, it shouldn’t be controversial, and it does benefit you, even if you don’t live near coal country.”

The BLM’s decision to promote its role in regulating the western coal industry was “a beacon of hope” for people living in coal-mining communities, Shaw said. “It was a little gesture saying ‘listen guys, we are not going to be forgetting about you anymore.’”