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A Rebellion for the Wild West

Lamar Valley, Yellowstone NP. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

Christopher Ketcham’s “This Land: How Cowboys, Capitalism and Corruption are Ruining the American West” is a politically explosive and beautifully written chronicle of the ongoing struggle to preserve publicly owned land in the West. This is home to iconic endangered species such as the grizzly bear, the wolf, and the wild horse. Much of the left is rightfully fixated on the horrifying prospects of Bolsonaro giving the green light to ranchers, miners, oil companies and farmers to ravage the Amazon rainforest. Now it is time that we took a stand against the same kind of devastation taking place on American soil. If it was up to Donald Trump and the “liberal” Democrats like Obama who paved the way for him, all of the land that had been protected under successive presidents from Lyndon Johnson to Richard Nixon (yes, that’s right) will face the same fate.

In 1905, Theodore Roosevelt persuaded Congress to set aside such land for public ownership, “socializing” it in effect. Under the aegis of the Forest Service, millions of acres were to be protected from profit-seeking enterprises with exceptions made for raising cattle but under strict limits. Despite his wanton appetite for shooting large animals (shared by Ernest Hemingway), Roosevelt was so alarmed by the loss of wilderness that he would write these prescient words: “We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation.”

Revisionists such as Jedediah Purdy have attacked Roosevelt as a racist acting on behalf of fellow elites who sought pristine parks for camping expeditions. Whatever benefits the rich derived from national parks, it is more than balanced by the benefits it afforded wolves, grizzly bears and bison whose protection from extinction carried far more weight.

Others, just as leftist as Purdy, understood such benefits. After studying America’s publicly owned land, V.I. Lenin pushed through a decree in September 1921 titled “On the Protection of Nature, Gardens, and Parks” that set aside vast portions of Soviet Russia where commercial development, including tourism, would be banned. These zapovedniki, or natural preserves, were intended for nothing but ecological study. So you might ask who inspired such measures. Marx, Engels, or some anarchist like the far-sighted Peter Kropotkin? No, the Communists looked to Theodore Roosevelt for inspiration. The Soviet conservationist journal Okhrana prirody (Conservation) carried news from national parks in other countries, including translations of Theodore Roosevelt’s thoughts on Yellowstone, as well as articles on various endangered species, biological pest control and the risk of monoculture farming.

While ranchers and other capitalists were always seeking ways to expand their operations on public land through the “allotments” proviso, the federal government sought to regulate usage through the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Like any other federal agency, it is susceptible to the political agenda of the POTUS who in the case of Reagan, the Bushes, and Trump will appoint men hostile to the aims of the agency or with Clinton and Obama, the appointment of men or women all too willing to compromise with the Republicans.

In 2014, the BLM confronted Cliven Bundy, Dwight Lincoln Hammond, Jr., and their respective clans during the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. Claiming local sovereignty (town councils and sheriffs tended to back the ranchers) over their right to let their cattle herds run free on public land, they and their henchmen carried around miniature copies of the Constitution to back up their raids. Through his direct observation of and reporting on the armed confrontation between these Mormons and the federal authorities, Ketcham allows readers to get a highly detailed and shocking picture of how a small band of outlaws armed with semi-automatic weapons deprived us of the rights public ownership guarantees. As Woody Guthrie put, “This land is our land”.

Ketcham asks us to imagine the outcome if it were Blacks or American Indians who had staged such an armed occupation. Having seen what the Chicago cops did to Fred Hampton or what the FBI did at Wounded Knee, I can certainly imagine the rivers of blood that would flow.

To provide a context for Bundy and the Hammonds, he looks at the sordid history of the Mormon Church that in keeping with Ketcham’s high journalistic standards is as good an introduction as you are going to get anywhere. This religious cult based in Utah, which has tentacles in adjoining states, is the original spokesman for the “prosperity gospel.” Getting rich is godly. They oppose public ownership of Western land on the belief that they are the rightful owners of “Deseret”, i.e., Utah and surrounding states, rather than the federal government. Having the same kind of arrogance as the Zionists, their messianic beliefs fueled the Bundy and Hammond occupations.

In addition to Mormonism, another key element of their armed occupation was the growth of a rightwing ranchers movement in the 70s that referred to itself as the “sagebrush rebellion”. Like much else that developed under the neoliberal turn, it put property rights first. In Nevada, state legislators approved the Sagebrush Rebellion Act that declared all public land to be state property and up for sale to the highest bidder. That would be the ranchers, mining companies and the like. Although declared unconstitutional, it became a banner of reactionary resistance. Ketcham writes:

In 1980, as the rebellion raged, Sen. Orrin Hatch [a Mormon] sponsored sagebrush legislation in Congress that was essentially the same bill that Edward Robertson authored in 1946. Supporters of land transfer in this second sagebrush rebellion included the oil and gas and coal industries, the Farm Bureau Federation, and the National Rifle Association. Hatch gave the keynote address at the rebels’ conference in Salt Lake City in 1980. He compared “the mission of the sagebrush rebels with the mission of the Mormon pioneer leader Brigham Young,” placing the rebellion “in the mainstream of Mormon history.” It was “a logical outgrowth of God’s command to subdue the earth.”

Subdue the earth, indeed.

In countless ways, raising cows and protecting mother nature is incompatible. The most dramatic example of how ranching transformed the ecosphere was the extermination of the bison, the native grasses they ate, and nearly all of the American Indians whose life depended on the iconic beast. Today, even while protected in national parks, the beasts are frequently killed when straying too far beyond the park’s borderlines. Not exactly a case of “where the buffalo roam”.

Ketcham’s chronicle of the bison’s eradication is chilling:

The railroad companies stoked the frenzy, placing a bounty on each buffalo felled. In 1869, Harper’s Magazine reported passengers “shooting from very available window, with rifles, carbines, and revolvers.” Between 1870 rid 1880, as many as twenty million buffalo died. The animals were too easy to kill. They froze in place as their fellows collapsed from gunfire, then seemed to line up around the dead, shaking their heads, sniffing at the blood, doing a kind of death dance, doing everything but running away. At an auction sale in Fort Worth in 1873, two hundred thousand hides sold in single day. West of Fort Dodge, in Kansas, it was said you could walk a hundred miles along the Santa Fe line hopscotching the dead. Army colonel Richard Dodge, stationed in Kansas in 1873, wrote that “the air was foul with a sickening stench, and the vast plain, which only a short twelve months before teemed with animal life, was a dead, solitary, putrid desert.” The figures are uncertain, but it’s said that by 1900 there were fewer than a thousand buffalo in the wild.

While much of “This Land” is a recounting of such savagery, just as much is devoted to the celebration of wilderness that Ketcham has lived in during his years reporting for The National Geographic, Harper’s, and other magazines committed to wildlife preservation. As a back-packer and hiker, he is drawn to places that are free of cars, all-terrain vehicles, and other “modern” conveniences that go along with the transformation of national parks into overcrowded, glorified amusement parks.

His favorite is The Grand Staircase that refers to the sedimentary rock layers that stretch south from Bryce Canyon National Park and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, through Zion National Park, and into the Grand Canyon National Park. If you’ve read prose-poets of the great outdoors from Henry David Thoreau to John Muir, you’ll immediately recognize his kinship with them. Alongside Carolyn Shelton, just one of a fearless cadre of environmentalists whose stories he tells, he describes an Edenic setting:

We don’t make it up onto the Cockscomb [a line of jagged cliffs]. Instead we stroll in an aimless pleasing way, stopping to sniff at wildflowers in a pygmy forest of pinyons and junipers. The day grows very warm and the gnats swarm. We find a stretch of land that the cows haven’t chewed to pieces. I am delighted at the variety of the flowers, the colors, the perfumes. Hopsage with its intricate fuchsia petals, creamy milkweed beloved of monarch butterflies, the white sego lily, purple phacelia, orange globe mallow so small and delicate, the garish red fingerling petals of Indian paintbrush, the claret cup cactus, the pale yellow petals of the prickly pear, the white and pink of the flowering buckwheat.

In 1962, David Brower published a photography book by Elliot Porter that contained quotes from Henry David Thoreau. Its title “In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World” comes from an essay by Thoreau titled “Walking” that celebrates the kind of existence that Christopher Ketcham has lived. He and the environmental activists he has befriended and written about for a decade embody an ethos that must be embraced by humanity if we have any chance of surviving. Their stories, their battles with both wins and losses, have a poignancy that deserved to be told and nobody could have told it better than the author of “This Land”. Thoreau’s words resonate today in the face of the onslaught of “civilization”, or as Orrin Hatch put it, “God’s command to subdue the earth”.

I believe in the forest, and in the meadow, and in the night in which the corn grows. We require an infusion of hemlock spruce or arbor vitæ in our tea. There is a difference between eating and drinking for strength and from mere gluttony. The Hottentots eagerly devour the marrow of the koodoo and other antelopes raw, as a matter of course. Some of our northern Indians eat raw the marrow of the Arctic reindeer, as well as various other parts, including the summits of the antlers, as long as they are soft. And herein, perchance, they have stolen a march on the cooks of Paris. They get what usually goes to feed the fire. This is probably better than stall-fed beef and slaughterhouse pork to make a man of. Give me a wildness whose glance no civilization can endure,—as if we lived on the marrow of koodoos devoured raw.

In the concluding part of “This Land” titled “Resistance”, Ketcham poses questions that get to the heart of the “modernization” assumptions of the Marxist left, even if he probably had no such intention. He says that “a lot of nature isn’t particularly useful to people”. For example, the Agassiz’s desert tortoise has no utilitarian value. The grizzly bear? Useless. Wild, free-roaming bison: useless. And the bees of the Escalante canyons? Let’s say that they are not capable of pollinating the fruits and vegetables that show up in Whole Food bins. Why not let them go extinct?

At the heart of Marx’s political economy is the distinction between use-values and exchange-values. The use-value of an apple is as food. In terms of exchange-value, it is a commodity that commands a few dollars a pound at your local grocery. With so much of the Western public lands having no “use value” other than for hikers with the same predilections as Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, or Christopher Ketcham, perhaps the only recourse is to compromise with the ranchers, the drillers and the miners to preserve as much as possible.

There was a time when Marxism saw the use-value of the wilderness. Following Theodore Roosevelt, Lenin set aside millions of acres that would not even allow tourism. Perhaps the only way to approach these questions is from a higher level that is the province of mystics and poets. When I read “In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World” in 1962, I was a poet and a mystic, even if shallowly. Maybe my main quarrel with Marxists is their failure to incorporate that sensibility in their vision of a future world. I can recommend Christopher Ketcham’s “This Land” as the best platform for re-integrating Thoreau’s transcendentalism into the revolutionary project of our epoch, thus making utopianism practical.

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Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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