This Land: How Cowboys, Capitalism, and Corruption Are Ruining the American West
Featured image: Cows and cow-trashed lands Sonoran Desert NM Arizona, © George Wuerthner
By Christopher Ketcham
Reviewed by John Miles
In his hard-hitting account of the battle raging over public lands, Christopher Ketcham leads each chapter in This Land with a quotation. The lead to the third chapter in the first section of the book is from Aldo Leopold who wrote “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist … must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.” While Ketcham is a journalist, his ecological education came over ten years of reporting on public lands across the West, and he found a “world of wounds” and much denial of the degradation and ruination of the region. Leopold’s trenchant observation is a favorite of our own Dave Foreman who devoted a chapter of his Rewilding North America (2004) to a litany of these wounds, which have only grown worse in recent years.
Ketcham is an investigative journalist who digs deep into the situation of western public lands, finds a mess, and spares no one in his attribution of responsibility – mythological cowboys, cowboy culture, public land ranchers, cows; lawless anti-public land activists, especially the Mormon family of Cliven Bundy, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and Utah politicians; federal land managers, especially the BLM and Wildlife Services; collaborative environmentalists, especially The Nature Conservancy and Wilderness Society. This book describes disastrous public land policy and management and the culprits who are ruining the American West.
He opens with an account of his visits to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah, before it was carved up by the Trump administration. The landscape is magnificent, but as he interviews former Bureau of Land Management (BLM) staff of the monument established by President Clinton in 1996, he finds a problem symptomatic of much public land management, at least at the BLM. A retired botanist tells him that “Probably half of the staff at the Grand Staircase is anti-federal. I think it does have a lot to do with the Mormon way of thinking. With these folks I’ve seen naked contempt for federal environmental and resource laws. There’s a powerful anti-conservation interest, and anti-science interest, certainly an anti-climate change position. There’s even a lack of acknowledgement that all Americans own this land, that it belongs to the people of Vermont and Florida and New York too.” As Ketcham travels the West he finds many examples of such anti-conservation, anti-science, and anti-federal government sentiments and contempt for laws governing public lands.
The history of how this came to be the public land situation in the 21st century is deep, going all the way back to the beginning of the republic. In the early days, as the United States expanded and its land base grew, the policy was transfer of public land to private interests. Such was the policy over nearly the first century of American history; but then it became evident that this policy was leading to some bad outcomes, and transfer slowed and stopped. The idea of conservation emerged, federal land management agencies were created, laws were passed curtailing long-established “freedoms,” such as open range, in the West. As the government exerted more control over Americans’ public estate, those who had come to think of it as their own or at least its use as a right, rebelled in various versions of what came to be known as the Sagebrush Rebellion. Ketcham covers this history succinctly and well.
The principal agent of ruin across the region, as Ketcham and many before him have asserted and documented, is the cow which, of course, is not out there ruining the range of its own volition. Overgrazing by ranchers running too many cows on public range, allowed if not encouraged by federal public land managers, has been and is the problem. There are too many cows, but not only that, federal policy, much of it the province of the BLM, has been to “improve” the range, to make it more efficient in feeding cattle by, for example, removing wildlife competitors for the forage by dragging chains and spreading herbicides to get rid of pesky native plants like sage so that more grass can grow (though it seldom does)). Ketcham documents these land management atrocities. The worst outrages come in removing “competitors” to cattle, and this brings him to the agency he detests even more than the BLM – Wildlife Services.
This agency, a branch of the Animal and Plant Inspection Service in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, came to be because ranchers sought and received federal help in killing animals that they claimed encroached upon their welfare. Congress passed an Animal Damage Control Act in 1931 that was to result in “campaigns for the destruction of [any] animals injurious to agriculture.” Ketcham writes “True to its mandate, Wildlife Services kills anything under the sun perceived as a threat to stockmen, deploying an arsenal of poisons, traps, and aerial gunships at a cost of tens of millions of dollars annually. Between 2000 and 2014, two million native mammals fell to this machine, including twenty species of carnivores and twelve taxa of mammals listed as endangered, threatened, or as candidates for protection under the Endangered Species Act.” All of this for the Western public land stockmen who, according to Ketcham, produce less that 2% of U.S. beef, 0.07% of jobs in the region, and a livestock industry that “accounts for less than 0.5 per cent of all income.” And Wildlife Services is only one source of subsidy provided “welfare ranchers.” A Wyoming trapper told Ketcham that “Wildlife Services is nothing but a publicly funded ministration of the kill mentality. And the justification for continuing the killing, per usual, is that we are preserving a culture, a way of life, the cowboy way.”
So it goes, on and on in This Land, painful and frustrating to read. He describes how the Endangered Species Act (ESA) has been gamed by nearly all the federal agencies under pressure from not only ranchers but loggers and the oil and gas industry. He focuses on the recent fiasco involving the failure of the Obama administration to list the sage grouse as an endangered species. The Obama plan would put the BLM in the lead in what would be an “epic effort” that would benefit grouse “while giving states, businesses and communities the certainty they need to plan for sustainable economic development.” The administration allowed powers-that-be in the West to circumvent the ESA. Ketcham writes:
So it went in the Obama administration, on down the line of species that needed protection. A lot of big words about conservation thrown around but no real help for the wildlife. Perhaps you don’t care as I do about the greater sage grouse, nor about the sagebrush sea. This, as I have said, is the orphaned landscape of the West. The decisions of Fish and Wildlife under Sally Jewell will certainly doom grouse in the long run, and folks like Ertz, Salvo, and Marvel will protest to deaf ears.
Even the “epic effort” has been downgraded by the Trump administration to allow more oil and gas leasing, certainly confirming the grim outlook for the sage grouse.
Throughout This Land Ketcham travels in the field with people fighting against the ruination, quoting them extensively, telling their stories. He mentions three of them above, hard-working advocates for the sage grouse and other wildlife. He finds few currently in the bureaucracy who will talk with him or respond to his inquiries, yet he has sympathy for the plight of many of them in the anti-science and anti-conservation environment in which they must work.
As at the BLM, good people in the Fish and Wildlife bureaucracy protest these intolerable arrangements. They arrive into public service with idealistic visions, with formidable scientific training and the intention of enforcing environmental law, try to do the right thing for the land and wildlife, and find themselves facing the crude reality that science and law don’t matter, that their sense of vocation and higher calling is misplaced, and that to survive in the bureaucracy they better not speak out. I’ve spent a decade listening to the stories of people who bridle against this systemic corruption and oppression. The BLM, the Forest Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service: it is always the same story.
Dave Parsons, for instance (a friend of mine, and now Carnivore Conservation Biologist for The Rewilding Institute) directed the “contentious Mexican wolf recovery program in New Mexico and was forced into retirement in 1999 after twenty-four years with FWS.” The reason? “He clashed with higher-ups over his assertions that the government’s wolf program ignored the best available science as it succumbed to New Mexico’s powerful anti-wolf livestock interests.” As of course it still does. Parson’s experience is just one of many examples of such bureaucratic crimes against science and conservation cited by Ketcham.
In the third and last section of This Land Ketcham tackles politicians and environmentalists who many think of as on the right side of environmental protection but whom he concludes are not. Among these are big name national environmental groups like The Nature Conservancy, The Wilderness Society, and the Environmental Defense Fund. These groups claim to be practicing a “new environmentalism” and consider themselves “eco-pragmatists.” The pragmatism, according to Ketcham, involves a pivot “from opposing economic growth to supporting what was called sustainable growth, working to ensure their industry partners were somewhat less bad than they would otherwise be.” They engage in an anthropocentric environmentalism aimed at improving human lives with jobs and a stronger economy. What’s missing from their agenda, in Ketcham’s view, is “concern for nature itself.”
Another form of “eco-pragmatism” that Ketcham thinks is selling out the cause consists of “collaborations” between environmentalists and other stakeholders in environmental issues. As a conservationist I used to hope this was a good idea, that it might lead to less litigation and better outcomes, but Ketcham convinces me that I was naïve. Collaborations between environmental groups and “stakeholders,” like loggers and ranchers, have not served conservation of public lands, and Ketcham offers many examples. [So does George Wuerthner in his article “Collaboration Traps,” recently posted in these Rewilding Earth pages.] A decade ago, in 2009, Congress passed an Obama administration lands initiative that “included a provision for a new program that promised ‘collaborative, science-based ecosystem restoration’ of ‘priority landscapes’ in the national forests.’” This sounded very good, the program was funded for a decade, and “eco-pragmatists” got on board. After studying the collaborations that resulted, some of which he describes, Ketcham concludes that “… the ultimate function of these collaborations – though I don’t think this was the original intention of the conservation groups that participated in them – was to grease development of forests for private industry profit under a cover of green approval and without the entanglements of court intervention.”
Ketcham tells of collaboratives that resulted in compromises allowing the Forest Service to facilitate industry logging under the guise of, for example, thinning on a large scale for fire protection. NGOs became government contractors, paid for their work, and since the greens were for the collaborative outcome, it must be good. “For you see, in the public eye, these are independent NGOs that just happen to support the Forest Service on behalf of the public interest, when they are in fact on the Forest Service payroll.” Even the vaunted National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) might be at risk. “What critics of collaboration claim,” writes Ketcham, “is that backroom dealing between the Forest Service and groups such as the Payette Forest Coalition creates a side channel that diminishes everyone else’s participation, effectively pre-empting the NEPA process. Indeed, collaboration may be a statutory violation of NEPA, though no one has yet litigated the case to prove this is so.”
All this and more suggest to Ketcham that some parts of the environmental community have fallen to appeasement. In desperation, they have compromised too much and even been coopted. These are serious charges and I look forward to seeing how the green groups involved respond to them. Are they “desperate environmentalists” as Joshua Galperin of the Yale Environmental Protection Clinic wrote in a 2015 editorial? Ketcham quotes Galperin that desperate environmentalism is:
Characterized not by awe, enthusiasm and enjoyment of nature but by appeasement. It relies on utilitarian efficiencies, cost-benefit analyses, private sector indulgences and anthropocentric divvying of natural resources. It champions voluntary commitments, tweaks to corporate supply chains, protection not of the last great places on Earth but of those places that yield profit or services. From market-friendly cap-and-trade to profit-driven corporate social responsibility, desperate environmentalists angle for the least-bad of the worst options rather than the robust and enforceable safeguards that once defined the movement.
There is plenty of blame to go around for the mess we are in on Western public lands, lately including blame to some whose mission has always been perceived to be defense of those lands.
Ketcham summarizes the sad state of public land affairs his years of research has documented:
Over the last half century alone, the losses have been extraordinary. Millions of acres of forest logged, much it old growth; tens of millions of animals slaughtered by Wildlife Services; every year more than 155 million acres of BLM land and 100 million acres of national forests destructively grazed; hundreds of thousands of miles of new roads blazed, some 2.8 million roadless acres in our forests gone; tens of thousands of acres drilled for oil and gas or mined for precious metals and ores; the sage grouse headed for extinction, the last of the wild bison trapped in a tiny national park, the grizzly bear and the wolf clinging to vestiges of the wild.
So, what to do? Ketcham does not offer any comprehensive blueprint but does have some general suggestions. At the top of his list is a “cow exorcism,” for ridding the West of cows would lead to “an ecological recovery the likes of which has never occurred in modern history.” Next, shut down Wildlife Services which is damaging the public estate to serve a few ranchers. Slow down the growth of use of public lands, such as the national parks, which are being loved to death. Manage the public domain “using the ideological rules of capitalism” for “If the public exercised the same right to its property to advance the public interest as private property owners exercise for their rights, the corporate barons would lose.” Stop giving away public property, for that is what we are doing with ridiculously low grazing fees, and in many other ways. Most importantly, build a new movement for public land, engaging young people and educating them and other Americans who are abysmally ignorant of what they own and what its value is.
I hope this book creates an uproar because what is especially needed is attention to the ruination of the public lands of the West. Have we heard anything about this in the 2020 presidential debates? Not a peep. Ketcham’s treatment of them is bound to outrage all the parties he blames for the situation he describes. Good! This Land deserves wide circulation, critique, and discussion. Quite certainly it will get lots of attention out here in the public land states where I live, but more importantly it should be read east of the 100th meridian where public land is scarce. People there do not know of what they are losing. My hope is that this hard-hitting investigative journalism will get their attention.
David Brower, then Executive Director of the Sierra Club, gave a talk at Dartmouth College in 1965 on the threat of dams to Grand Canyon National Park. John, a New Hampshire native who had not yet been to the American West, was flabbergasted. “What Can I do?” he asked. Brower handed him a Sierra Club membership application, and he was hooked, his first big conservation issue being establishment of North Cascades National Park.
After grad school at the University of Oregon, John landed in Bellingham, Washington, a month before the park was created. At Western Washington University he was in on the founding of Huxley College of Environmental Studies, teaching environmental education, history, ethics and literature, ultimately serving as dean of the College.
He taught at Huxley for 44 years, climbing and hiking all over the West, especially in the North Cascades, for research and recreation. Author and editor of several books, including Wilderness in National Parks, John served on the board of the National Parks Conservation Association, the Washington Forest Practices Board, and helped found and build the North Cascades Institute.
Retired and now living near Taos, New Mexico, he continues to work for national parks, wilderness, and rewilding the earth.