In his new book This Land: How Cowboys, Capitalism, and Corruption are Ruining the American West, investigative journalist Christopher Ketcham floats the rivers through red rock canyons, views sage grouse and wild horses in the “sagebrush sea” of the intermountain high desert, and searches for grizzlies in the forested northern Rockies. He brings us across the vast expanse of the federal public lands — lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, and other agencies to protect and manage a public domain that belongs to all of us and the wildlife who live there.
But as much as Ketcham celebrates these landscapes, he laments their destruction. “We dam the rivers, flood the canyons, pave the roads, and forever gone is the way it was,” he writes.
Throughout his decade reporting on public lands in the West (including for Earth Island Journal), Ketcham frequently encountered public landscapes degraded by private industry. He discovered a corruption in federal land management that favors the industries of extraction, particularly the large-scale ranchers who drive their cattle onto public lands and bring along with them an all-American culture of subjugation and destruction.
As the Trump administration makes significant pro-industry rollbacks in public land and environmental policy, including recent revisions to the Endangered Species Act, Ketcham makes it clear that this isn’t just a Trump problem. The country has operated under both parties in accordance with “the one true faith, the mad faith that says the economy must grow always bigger and at a faster pace on a planet of finite resources that can’t handle the growth.” The very idea of public lands, as Ketcham shows, contradicts the corporate capitalist values of the country in which it belongs.
In the end, Ketcham calls for a braver environmentalism on the public lands. He derides “neo-greens” like the Nature Conservancy for their ineffective, compromising approach to public lands policy. Evict the cows, he says. Put limits on our pursuit of profit. The wild places in this country provide an opportunity, perhaps the last one, to be a part of the “land-community” that Aldo Leopold describes, to be content with the way things are rather than let global capitalism run its ugly, insatiable course.
If that sounds extremist, Ketcham has an answer: “The real extremists among us destroy life for profit.”
But demanding that federal agencies manage public lands not for the privileged few but rather as the shared Commons, including the wildlife who live there? Calling out public lands grazers for corruption and hypocrisy with an anger reminiscent of a monkey-wrenching Edward Abbey? And even, in Abbey fashion, pouring sand into the gas tanks of an inanimate Caterpillar D9 about to destroy a stretch of pinyon-juniper to replace it with forage grasses for cattle? That’s not extremism, says Ketcham. “That, to me, is justified defense against unjust power.”
Austin Price: You’ve lived and reported in the West on-and-off for over a decade. When did you decide that you needed to write this book on public lands?
Christopher Ketcham: It’s been on my mind to write a book about the West since I first moved to Utah in 2006. As an Easterner who came West as an adult, my concept of public lands was that they simply consisted of the national parks. I thought that all the rest of the West, all that vast domain, was private land. I had no clue that the BLM and Forest Service domain existed, certainly not on the scale of hundreds of millions of acres. I was astounded that this was all my land. Our land. Public lands are owned in common by all American people. I couldn’t believe it. You could camp anywhere. Where I came from, it’s “No Trespassing” signs and KOA campgrounds.
But the problem is how these public lands are managed. Under congressional mandate they are supposed to be overseen by federal agencies not just for monetary gain but also for the health of soils, air, water, plants, and wildlife. This is not happening. Under what’s called “multiple use,” we’re supposed to believe that there can be these many uses for public lands that do not ultimately destroy healthy biodiverse ecosystems. But multiple use turns into abuse to benefit the few, namely the livestock industry, oil and gas companies, the mining and timber industries, and even, in a sense, off-road vehicle recreation and industrial tourism. It’s de facto privatization. The public lands have become public in name only. They’re not managed for everyone.
You mention all these extractive industries on public lands, but your book singles out the livestock industry. Why pick on the ranchers?
Because of their monstrous, childlike behavior. The whining, fit-throwing, and temper tantrums, coupled with the sheer hypocrisy of their position. Public lands ranchers claim an independence and self-reliance, with this hardscrabble, rangeland image of big hats and horses riding into the sunset, but the great majority of permittees on public lands consist of either corporations or wealthy hobbyists. Massive subsidies and government intervention help maintain public lands ranching, at the same time that elected officials who support these ranchers and the ranchers themselves decry the socialism of things like welfare and medicaid and all these terrible programs that suck our treasury dry for the sake of...mere human beings? Give me a break, dude. Subsidies for public lands ranching looks a lot like socialism for the rich. That hypocrisy is offensive. Dante put the imposters and frauds in the lower circles of hell. There’s a reason for that.
You mention Cliven Bundy specifically.
Well, for 25 years Bundy defied demands that he reduce the amount of cattle on a public lands allotment in Nevada to protect habitat for the endangered Agassiz’s desert tortoise. Year after year, he refused to move his cattle, and refused to pay his grazing fees. When the federal government, terrified of what might happen, finally stepped in to round up the errant cattle, Bundy called to his side armed militiamen and stared down the BLM with assault rifles. The BLM backed off, and the cattle remain today.
Later, his sons descended on the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon and took it over as a protest against government overreach and government oppression. Another example of pure ridiculousness, especially given that parts of Malheur had been routinely handed over to ranchers for haying and grazing. And this is a wildlife refuge we’re talking about. Wildlife. Refuge. It’s supposed to be land for wildlife, but the refuge managers have bowed to pressure from stockmen to continue abusing that refuge for the benefit of the industry.
The Bundys seem to be an exuberant example of a pretty widespread distrust in the very idea of federal lands, which you talk about in This Land. Not two weeks after your book came out, Trump’s Interior Department appointed William Perry Pendley, someone who shares this same anti-federal lands ideology, to manage federal lands. Should we be surprised by that?
Not at all. It’s actually refreshing. There’s no pretense of environmental protection. There’s no pretense of maintaining protection for the public good. This whole, repulsive capitalistic system existed before Trump. This has been going on regardless of administrations. Under the Obama administration, it was a lie that the administration cared for the environment, that it cared for public lands. But the Trump administration’s evil is completely unalloyed, which is actually nice. It’s better to know the person sitting across from you as a devil rather than having that person pretend to be your friend. That’s the sole advantage of Trump.
William Perry Pendley has argued for decades as lead counsel and president of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, that public lands should be privatized. They should be managed for extractive industries. He believes public lands regulators should not be constrained by environmental laws and regulations. That’s not a surprising position at all, given the long history in this country of deference to polluters, abusers, pillagers, denuders, extractors, and the like.
This also puts the recent changes to the Endangered Species Act in perspective.
The Endangered Species Act has been a dead letter for a long time. In many cases you get species who are listed, but aren’t given the protections necessary to actually protect the species on the ground. There’s very little or no enforcement. The public thinks, Oh, well, it’s listed on the endangered species list, so everything must be fine. But like public lands, endangered species are routinely shoved aside for the benefit of industry. That’s just the nature of things.
Not only that, but many animals are actively targeted and killed on behalf of industry on public lands, under the guise of “animal control.” What did your reporting uncover about Wildlife Services?
Wildlife Services is a blood-soaked agency run out of the Department of Agriculture. Its main purpose on public lands is to exterminate those animals considered pests by the livestock industry. Wildlife Service officials gun down or poison coyotes by the tens of thousands. I have some basic figures here: Between 2000 and 2014, 2 million native mammals fell to the machine of Wildlife Services. In 2014 alone they killed 322 wolves, 61,702 coyotes, 2,930 foxes, 580 black bears, 196 bobcats, 5 golden eagles, and 3 bald eagles. They also killed cougars, wolverines, beavers, prairie dogs, etcetera, etcetera. Almost all of those operations specifically serve the livestock industry on public lands. They are extremely destructive and seemingly unrepentant despite the media and activists showing that what they do is actually unnecessary for the protection of livestock.
I see Wildlife Services as an expression of a culture of domination and death, rather than functioning in any ecological way to help cattlemen. It’s a culture that wants to control and subjugate. In a sense, Wildlife Services is really a brutish expression of Western civilization, this view that the natural world serves no purpose but to be dominated and controlled for our benefit, for the benefit of one species. The chosen ones: Homo sapiens!
You write that “to save public lands we need to oppose the capitalist system...to say, without equivocation, that capitalism and environmentalism do not mix.” Are you calling for economic degrowth on public lands?
Absolutely. Capitalism is irremediably connected to growth. It’s based on making more, making a profit. It’s like this morbidly corpulent pig that can’t stop eating. There has to always be more and more and more. My view is simply that we have grown enough. I mean, what is climate change telling us? It’s saying that we have to curtail our consumer culture. We have more than we need. We are drowning in abundance. Now we need to work on better spreading that abundance to the people who need it, to the poor. And we have to make a decision as a society whether we want to protect what remains of unspoiled and untrammeled wildlands and wildlife and whether we want to allow the evolutionary processes on those landscapes to continue as they should, as they have for millennia.
The question is, do we want to curb growth so we can have a relatively sustainable civilization that isn’t based on the wholesale destruction of everything? Or do we want to just continue forward, off a cliff and into the abyss? We have to make a collective decision to become poorer, and the rich have to pay first. Let’s try to step back and have a little humility and restraint in relation to the last remaining wildlands in this country.
Do you think that’s politically possible?
It has to be a collective, democratic decision. I remember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently said that conflict and discomfort spur change. That’s exactly right. That’s the only way to move forward. The moderate, milquetoast, mediocre green groups like the Nature Conservancy are sitting on the sidelines saying let’s all talk this out and get along, asking you to cede to the professionals and nonprofits who simply ask you to sign a petition and send a fifty dollar check. What if Democrats had told Martin Luther King, Jr., No, no. Don’t march on Birmingham. Stay home. Just write a petition and vote.
You can argue that our environmental laws were passed with some degree of compromise, sure. But we’re at a crisis point that requires far more citizen engagement and citizen concern then that which led to the outpouring of environmental legislation in the 1960s and ’70s. All of the incredible laws that passed back then didn’t just happen in a vacuum. There was widespread citizen activism with a concern for ecological preservation. Congress listened. We need to revive that citizen engagement. It needs to be grassroots, rising up and engaging with elected officials and acting against immoral, unethical, often illegal, activities taking place on public lands.
In the book, I talked with numerous retired Forest Service and BLM employees who told me that their agencies routinely violated their own regulatory mandate and federal environmental laws. If we as citizens don’t stand up against that, then they’re just going to keep on breaking the law for the benefit of a privileged minority, from the cattle industry to logging to Halliburton, Schlumberger, Exxon Mobil, and companies controlled by the Koch brothers, the uber assholes of anti-environmentalism. The public lands are a perfect starting place for that kind of democratic, citizen engagement. By law, we’re all involved. We all have a stake.