Last week, the Bureau of Land Management announced that it was transferring five parcels of federally owned land along the U.S.-Mexico border to the control of the U.S. Army so that it could be used to make 70 miles of fencing. The handover, in New Mexico, Arizona, and California, was authorized by President Donald Trump’s declaration of a national emergency in February, which directed the secretaries of Defense, Homeland Security, and the Interior to support border security. It was an interagency “collaboration,” a BLM official said, through which “we will maximize safety and stewardship, benefiting all Americans.” Meanwhile, activists have already documented the drilling of wells in the federal borderlands’ delicate desert ecosystem to obtain water for concrete to build the wall.
The collaboration shouldn’t be much of a surprise. The current acting director of the BLM — appointed without Senate approval to oversee 245 million acres of federal land — is William Perry Pendley, who has explicitly stated that he does not believe public lands should exist. Earlier this year, he tweeted that selling federal land to build the wall “is what the Founders intended!”
When it comes to public lands, it’s easy to mistake the Trump administration’s blatant acts as the beginning of a new era, rather than an acceleration of established patterns, just as, with the wall, it’s easy to see things through the particularly exaggerated cruelty of Trump policies and forget that the criminalization of immigration began long before.
In a new book, “This Land: How Cowboys, Capitalism, and Corruption are Ruining the American West,” journalist Christopher Ketcham reviews the wreckage of a century-and-a-half of the management of public lands in the West — some 450 million acres, not just national parks, but BLM’s land plus another chunk run by the U.S. Forest Service — land that technically belongs to the American public, but which in practice is often sold off for use by private industry, and at a discount.
Pendley is typical of the ideology Ketcham chronicles. His Twitter handle is @Sagebrush_Rebel, a reference to a movement in the 1970s and ’80s by Nevada ranchers to claim federal lands for state and local authorities, or better yet, private interests. The Sagebrush Rebellion combined fierce opposition to federal authority with Mormon theology (Ketcham quotes former Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch saying the rebellion was “in the mainstream of Mormon history” and “a logical outgrowth of God’s command to subdue the earth”) with the deregulatory enthusiasm of the era (the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, sponsored model bills for opening public lands to industry across the Southwest). In 2014, when a rancher named Cliven Bundy engaged BLM in an armed standoff because he refused to pay fees to graze his cattle on public land, Pendley sympathetically compared the Bundys to the Sagebrush Rebellion, writing, “Westerners are tired of having Uncle Sam for a landlord.”
In an interview with The Intercept, Ketcham described a BLM that is divided between conservationists, including many scientists, “who believe in protecting biodiversity, who believe in the value of the land beyond its utilitarian use” and “conservative right-wingers who despise federal authority … doing their best to undermine the federal environmental regulations.” Other components of the Department of the Interior, such as the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of Fish and Wildlife, are similarly rent, Ketcham said, and the result can be seen in the weakening of the Endangered Species Act, and leniency in opening public lands to oil and gas exploration.
Ketcham argues that the “multiple use” mission of the agencies in charge of federal lands — to serve logging, grazing, mining, and other extractive industries with one hand and conserve ecosystems with the other — has long been lopsided in favor of exploitation. “The national trend is against the preservation of the commons,” Ketcham writes. The challenge is to envision what it would mean to “divorce land protection from instrumentalism” and take back public control of public land.
The book begins and ends at the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah, which Trump has tried to shrink along with another nearby monument, Bears Ears. In the desert in Escalante, “the canyons that bisect the mesas, that run like labyrinths in all directions, those canyons are hotspots of biodiversity. You walk for a mile in any canyon there in the spring and you’ll see this proliferation of wildflowers and bees,” said Ketcham. “That biotic complexity is also what attracted me to Southern Utah. And I ended up seeing that in Southern Utah, especially on the land managed by the BLM, there are a host of problems that reflect the broad issues facing the American West.”
The domination of Mormons in local politics and in the BLM, often with an anti-federal, anti-environmental bias, and the close relationship between authorities and what Ketcham calls the “ranching gentry,” have combined to essentially favor cows (and humans) over every other species that would call Escalante home. Overall some 22,000 permittees graze cattle on Western public land, contributing, according to Ketcham, “less than 2 percent of U.S. beef.” Ranchers like the Bundys are anomalies now, replaced by corporate holdings and heirs. Overgrazing in the region has led to erosion, species loss, and increased the risk of wildfire and desertification. And it happens at a monetary loss: “The lease that a rancher pays to graze a cow-calf pair on public lands is something like $18 cheaper on public land than it is on private land,” said Ketcham.
“The problem is capitalism … more people buying useless junk to go out and tramp about on the public lands for their fast-food vistas.”
“Similarly for oil and gas leasing, it’s incredibly cheap,” he added. “The returns for American public are minimal, whereas the gains to private industry are enormous. Logging is heavily subsidized and usually the receipts from logging, the returns to the public from the U.S. Forest Service handing over land to be logged by private industry, are minimal.”
Yet Ketcham rejected the line of thinking that would try to make federal lands profitable. “That reduces the land to market values and market systems. We don’t want the market to determine the future of public lands.”
Ketcham also related the recent history of public lands, with little love for the actions of the Bush or Obama administrations. The difference, he says, is that “today with Trump, it’s not so quiet — it’s all out in the open. The corruption, and the avarice, and the violence of public lands policy is now out there for all to behold. We don’t have the quiet neoliberal caretaker providing cover for industry.”
The corporate exploitation of public lands extends, for Ketcham, even to companies like Patagonia that were celebrated for taking on Trump over the attempt to shrink Escalante and Bears Ears, for instance. The outdoor recreation industry is still an industry and one that also sees in public lands a growth opportunity — even solitary hikers can impact wildlife and delicate ecosystems.
“Outdoor recreation is, I think, one the great threats on the horizon to the public lands,” he said. “If you have an outdoor industry that has, for its purpose, continual growth and expansion of outdoor recreation, that is, more and more and more people buying useless junk to go out and tramp about on the public lands for their fast-food vistas, the effect is going to be that you’re going to wipe out wildlife or vastly reduce the wildlife population in those areas. The problem is capitalism. The problem is trying to make money off the land. Not to mention that the outdoor-recreational-tourism complex has an enormous carbon footprint that, of course, is adding to the carbon sink driving climate catastrophe.”
There’s an elitism to that argument, of course, in that it’s one that can be made only by people who’ve already had the chance to fill their lungs with the pristine air of the backcountry, the small number who’ve traipsed out into the wild alone and been overwhelmed with the desire to keep it open and empty as it is. Ketcham said he advocated for “ecological elitism, that is, a self-education in biology and ecology so you’re not stupidly traipsing across the landscape and damaging it,” as opposed to the “adrenalized sporting complex” that “does not involve appreciation and understanding of the nonhuman and the landscape” or “the Instagram set, the crowds of people taking selfies of themselves in a landscape that is supposed to melt the self into the other.”
“Interdependence and smallness are the lessons to be learned walking on the public lands,” he said.
Of course, Indigenous activists in particular have long criticized the fiction that our public lands were ever empty, and then there’s the uncomfortable historical overlap between the country’s conservationists and the country’s white nationalists and anti-immigrant groups. The protagonists in public land stories, from the ranchers to the green groups, all tend to be white. Ketcham doesn’t address any of that history in trying to argue for a more truly democratic embrace of public lands.
“Outdoor recreation is one the great threats on the horizon to public lands.”
His demands are “the de-roading of the public lands, the total cessation of grazing on public lands, the ending of the federal timber sales program,” he said. The major Democratic 2020 candidates have said they’d stop drilling on public land, and many versions of the Green New Deal envision some kind of Civilian Conservation Corps to get to work on soil restoration and other projects. As for his recommendations, Ketcham said, “one can dream, but it ain’t gonna happen.” The Green New Deal is wonderful, he added, “but a the same time, the proposal is to massively increase solar and wind industrial plants across the public lands. Do we know how destructive those are for the biodiversity of landscapes? Green for us may not be green on the landscapes that are erased in order to establish these industrial facilities.”
In the meantime, there are laws that can be leveraged by the public. The National Environmental Policy Act “mandates public participation in land-use decision-making processes.” Ketcham says the Endangered Species Act is “the most powerful environmental law on the books. If it was fully funded and fully enforced, we could destroy the capitalist complex on the public lands, simply by the fact that the ESA mandates that if we want to protect species, you need to protect landscapes, you need to protect full ecosystems on which those species depend. We do that, we institute landscape-level protections, you can shut down industry and free those landscapes for the other-than-human.”
And then there’s protest and sabotage: a parallel historical tradition that runs almost as deep as cattle and lumberjacks. “If you see roading equipment on areas of public land where there is some contest as to the legality of the road-building, sabotage that equipment,” Ketcham said. “There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just an inanimate object.” The government, of course, has gotten much more heavy-handed in terms of its approach to environmental activism and protest, often treating it as terrorism.
“People say this is extremism,” Ketcham said. “No, extremism is killing living things for profit. It’s not terrorism, if all it’s terrorizing is businesses’ bottom line.”