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The Politics of Public Lands Ranching Western Turf Wars

Western Turf Wars

by JAMIE NEWLIN

For those interested in understanding and maybe influencing the management of public lands, a new and so far under-appreciated resource is making its way onto the bookshelves. It’s Western Turf, Wars: The Politics of Public Lands Ranching, by Mike Hudak.
If you’ve ever suspected that current public lands management isn’t in the best interests of public lands and wildlife, Western Turf Wars will confirm your suspicions. But it will do so in a more personal way than most activist works on the subject. There are no pages of statistics in Western Turf Wars, no maps or charts. There are life stories.

Western Turf Wars is a window into the lives of individuals dedicated to improving public lands management, through the medium of interviews with scientists, activists and public lands agency personnel. 

Although the book focuses on grazing issues, anyone interested in the subject of reformers versus government agencies, or reformers versus the vested interests and traditions that hide behind government agencies, should find interest in reading Western Turf Wars. The interviews provide insight into the relationships between both citizen-activists and concerned government personnel, and the agencies that manage US public lands. Through the interviews, we get a sense of the relationship between the agencies and the resource users that in a de facto sense manage the agency personnel and their bosses. Western Turf Wars shows us paths of influence. It shows why the more agencies change, the more they pin up the green bunting, the more things stay the same. These insights are applicable to the politics of all resources on public lands, -sheep, lumber, gravel, recreational uses, you name it.

The interviews with now-retired agency personnel, -some retired a bit early because of their efforts to manage for the resources instead of for livestock interests, are particularly telling. It should be noted that these commentaries are likely to be relevant and useful for generations to come. The comments of out-going range managers will give new activists a lifetime of experience to draw upon, experience that will be every bit as useful twenty years from now as it was yesterday. Management, at least for the better, changes slowly on public lands.

But Western Turf Wars isn’t just tales from the last of the agency curmudgeons. It also features interviews with citizen activists, who in their turn find out why the agency personnel are so slow and so few to jump on the reform bandwagon. From social and political pressure to PR front groups and in some cases to death threats, established resource users are quick to defend their interests against reformers of either the governmental or citizen stripe.

If you’re going to be idealistic enough to tackle a subject like public lands resource abuse, you need to be cynical enough to know when everything presented to you by both the resource users and the managing agencies is pure cow manure. It can get downright surreal, the layers of denial. Along these lines I was particularly struck by Julian Hatch’s interview. Julian lives in rural Utah. He recounts, rather starkly and unflinchingly, everything from control of local government and federal agencies by livestock interests to the shooting of his dog by a rancher, apparently in revenge for complaining about cattle being let into Hatch’s vegetable patch. This one interview is worth the price of the book, and there are many good interviews.

Perhaps more than most conservation issues, the public lands grazing issue goes in and out of fashion, and then stays out of fashion. It always suffers as an issue in terms of its accessibility to the public, compared to obvious catastrophes like clear-cut forests or the impending extinction of spectacular animals. Thus the industry is easier to protect with PR structures than other resource extraction industries. Yet grazing is the dominant use of the USA’s western public lands, and arguably the dominant influence on the public lands environment in terms of habitat degradation. Roughly 80 percent of federal public land in the west is grazed. Livestock have shaped the western habitat so completely that we now perceive degraded states as natural. Thus Western Turf Wars is a welcome reminder, a window into an issue to which most of us are blind.

It’s a great book to browse. Opening it is like going to a public land management fiesta, of the reformist variety to be sure, and finding everyone you had hoped to talk to all under one roof. The more I look through this book, the more I am grateful that someone took the time to collect this wealth of experience and make it available to all of us. Without Hudak’s efforts, the experience of all the individuals interviewed would surely have been lost.

Efforts to reign in the negative effects of the livestock industry have so far been limited in results. The tide of rangeland improvement may even be running out again in this age of agency-mandated “categorical exclusions” from environmental protections, of congressional trimming of environmental laws, of professional ranching apologists, of rising food prices, and climate change. Too few people turn their attention to this issue.

So far, as activist Steve Johnson put it while being interviewed for Western Turf Wars: “ Progress has been very slow.  So slow, in fact, that we can’t really afford it.”

Read the book, and get inspired to reverse the decline.

JAMIE NEWLIN lives in El Paso, Texas.

 

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