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This Land Was Your Land

Teton Range. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

For the past 10 years I’ve been documenting the fate of the least protected and most at-risk portion of the national commons: the roughly 450 million acres across 12 Western states overseen on our behalf by the United States Bureau of Land Management and the United States Forest Service.

It’s an astonishingly diverse landscape of grasslands, steppe, mountains, deserts, forests, rivers and watersheds — places of beauty and wildness that Woody Guthrie once sang about, where no one person, or institution or corporation, is supposed to be privileged above the other.

Both the B.L.M. and the Forest Service operate with a congressional mandate for what’s called “multiple use” management. On paper, multiple use means exploiting the land for its resources in a way that maintains ecosystem health.

In practice, it long amounted to what William O. Douglas, a backpacker, outdoorsman and the longest-serving Supreme Court justice, described in 1961 as “semantics for making cattlemen, sheepmen, lumbermen, miners the main beneficiaries.”

Christopher Ketcham is the author of  “This Land: How Cowboys, Capitalism and Corruption are Ruining the American West” (Viking-Penguin).  He can be reached at cketcham99@mindspring.com.

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