They are landscapes my mind escapes to regularly. The painted canyons in eastern Montana and the Zion region of Utah. Forests of huge conifers in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest and northern California. The incredible arid desolation of Utah west of Salt Lake City and the deserts of Nevada. Sagebrushed plains in the Southwest. I spent many hours standing by the side of roads observing these and other landscapes in the western United States. Occasionally, I saw an elk herd in the distance or giant raptors flying above me. Once, I ended up covered in some kind of flying insects when I sat down either on or close to their nests in the Colorado heat south of Colorado Springs. Lizards often played on rocks nearby and I remained ever wary of snakes in crevices and shadows. There were a couple summers when I left the road and hiked into the mountains of Theodore Roosevelt National Forest near Boulder, CO. Just me, a sleeping bag and backpack with a little food, a collapsible fishing pole, some whiskey and some weed. Years have passed since those adventures.
Author Christopher Ketcham opens his book This Land: How Cowboys, Capitalism, and Corruption are Ruining the American West with a similar reminiscence. In the book’s second chapter, he gets specific. He is in the Escalante region of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The year is recent. The Trump administration has made clear its intention to shrink the monument’s acreage in favor of private interests. This time it’s cattlemen who consider the land to be theirs to destroy. All in the name of cowboy culture and rancher’s profits. Fittingly, the tale turns to the story of Clive and Ammon Bundy. These were the men who led the takeover of public lands in defense of their right to graze without paying a cent and then, after getting away with that, staged an armed takeover of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. As Ketcham describes the events, he also provides the history behind these actions. In short, the Bundy dramas were part of an ongoing battle over who should control those lands legally considered to belong to all US citizens.
Ketcham does not stop with the Bundys and their ilk–men who are actually bit players in the ongoing war between private interests and the public good. As his text moves forward, Ketcham casts his scrutinizing pen on the role played by the Bureau of Land Management, the Wildlife Services and the Department of the Interior—to name just a few of the government agencies involved—in the selloff of the lands. The story he tells is one of species threatened and species destroyed. It is also one that involves death threats and loss of employment to employees of those agencies who act as if their job is to protect the wild. It is a story that involves other powerful institutions in a conspiracy mired in greed and hubris: the Mormon church, the energy industry, agribusiness, and both political parties.
While it is clear that Ketcham’s purpose in writing this book is to bring attention to the abuse of the wilderness and to name those most responsible for its abuse, it is also apparent that he has an appreciation, indeed, a love, for the lands and animals he describes. His prose when describing these aspects moves beyond the merely factual and into the poetic. So do his profiles of the women and men fighting the behemoth intent on destruction. Conversely, his anger at those who pretend to be friends of the forests, grasslands and the animals who live there is specific, biting and without regret. Indeed, his discussion of those organizations and individuals who call themselves “green” while they work with industry in destroying the wilderness for the profits of the cattle and extraction interests includes some of his harshest words. Likewise, he spares nothing when discussing the Obama administration, which gave away more wilderness to those interests than the Bush administration preceding it. In the final pages, Ketcham makes it clear: if you want to save the environment, you must oppose capitalism. There is no other way.
Relentless, well written and informed, This Land: How Cowboys, Capitalism, and Corruption are Ruining the American West is an angry masterpiece. It eloquently describes an ecosystem disintegrating because of greed, ignorance, and the arrogance of humans. The heroes include the wolves, the grizzlies, the bison and the ravens, trying to survive against a conspiracy that only capitalism and a compliant and compromised civil authority could create.
At the end of the day, Ketcham’s text not only channeled my anger at those whose profits depend on intentionally destroying the environment, it also reminded me of the rapturous and synchronous beauty that so desperately requires us to battle for its existence.