Once great, wide and untrammeled, the American West, where wolves roamed in gray multitudes and sage grouse puffed and plumed in splendor, is diminishing against cattle herds, gas and oil drilling, and federal agencies that have forsaken their duty to protect the nation’s magnificent and mistreated frontier.
Tales of destruction have been going on for decades, but Christopher Ketcham’s important book, “This Land: How Cowboys, Capitalism, and Corruption are Ruining the American West,” is an urgent cry to expose the greed, stubbornness and neglect that is harming public lands. Journalist and wanderer, Ketcham has written a psalm to nature and a manifesto to stop the forces that are threatening a territory that stretches from Colorado to the Pacific Coast.
The West is a saga of God and commerce, homesteaders and cowboys, politicians and opportunists, wagon trains and slaughtered natives, grizzlies and coyotes, and mesas, buttes and gorges.
Its vistas, forests and canyons are branded in the nation’s imagination, an expanse where the soul is unbound across 450 million acres of public lands. But grazing, fracking, logging, mining and permits for other private interests are imperiling wildlife, soil and vegetation already under siege by global warming.
The intention of “This Land” is clear: “We are not safeguarding our public domain. The government agencies overseeing it are failing us. The private interests that want the land for profit have planted their teeth in the government. The national trend is against the preservation of the commons. Huge stretches are effectively privatized, public in name only. I went west to see what we were losing as a people.”
Ketcham takes particular aim at cattle barons and what conservationists call the cheap mythology of the cowboy. Cattle grazing herds poison water and ravage the land through desertification. (A cow can deposit 1 ton of waste on the soil every month.) But the legend of the cowboy is enshrined in movies and books, and these days in the resistance of men such as Cliven Bundy, whose band of anti-government followers held a standoff in Nevada with federal authorities over unpaid grazing fees in 2014.
One of the book’s many paradoxes is that President Teddy Roosevelt perpetuated cowboy lore even as he safeguarded public lands: “The irony is that the beloved Teddy, who as president expanded our national forests, defended our national parks, signed the 1906 Antiquities Act, and said of the Grand Canyon, ‘Leave it as it is … man can only mar it,’ is the same Teddy who worshipped the cattle culture that produced the likes of Cliven Bundy.”
Environmental laws passed in the 1960s and ’70s helped protect public lands and endangered species. But the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management have — through Democrat and Republican administrations — often not enforced regulations while allowing loggers, ranchers and drillers to degrade millions of acres of forests, grasslands and mountains at the expense of future generations. Capitalism does not mix with environmentalism; it is like compromising with an insatiable army.
Ketcham is a passionate guide. He can be polemical and overheated. But he is righteous and poetic when he writes about places like the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah, where the walls in Paradise Gulch “rise sheer, cream pink, tall as the sky.” The Trump administration plans to shrink the monument’s protected lands by nearly half. That outrages Ketcham as do the fates of sage grouse, grizzlies, bison and a wolf named Echo who roamed hundreds of miles to the Grand Canyon before being shot.
“This Land” lays out measures, a few of them drastic, to reclaim what’s been taken: Evict all cattle and “welfare-chiseler ranchers” from public lands; rip up 251 miles of paved roads in Yellowstone National Park; sabotage logging and mining equipment; band together against industry; demand stricter stewardship from Washington; and “throw our bodies on the gears of the machine and make it stop.” It is an infuriating battle when the agencies deemed to guard our public lands are the same ones putting them in jeopardy.
Conscientious government biologists and scientists often feel torn and overwhelmed, subsumed by a system co-opted by industry. They have been threatened and jeered at by loggers and ranchers. Some have quit; others have succumbed. They are at once abused and complicit, a front line with too many breaks.
Ketcham embodies the fervor of past environmentalist writers and books including Edward Abbey’s “Desert Solitaire” and Aldo Leopold’s “A Sand County Almanac.” He is itinerant, tracing the tack of rivers and the edges of cliffs. His book forces readers to consider how beauty can be spoiled even in the outreaches of the West. Such violation, he warns, will wound land and soul, and betray a nation’s promise to its citizens.