Empire of public land
Christopher Ketcham, a daring young journalist from New York, spent ten years observing and studying the public lands of the intercontinental American West. This is an empire of about 450 million acres of grassland, desert, steppe, and forest in Utah, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon and Wyoming.
Ketcham travelled to the American West to learn. His interests overshadowed those of a tourist. He drove a car from New York in the East to the West where an immense amount of land belongs to the people of the United States. He walked extensively in the public lands, getting lost in the mountain forests, sleeping in the wild, and falling in love with the American commons and the beauty of the natural world.
His writings about the American West are passionate, powerful, insightful, and revealing of the two sides of the same coin: that of the magnificent public lands. One is the gigantic vision and existence of so much land dedicated to the enjoyment and wellbeing of all Americans: those of New York and California and every other state in between.
Ketcham praises the beauty of this land to heavens. Unfortunately, the lands of the American West have become the conquering prize of oligarchs who have been fighting a war to privatize them.
Ketcham brings his experience and thoughts about the American West together in his first book: This Land: How Cowboys, Capitalism, and Corruption are Ruining the American West (Viking, 2019).
To say I like this book is an understatement. I love it. It’s a timely, riveting, and important story pleading with Americans to wake up and bring to an end the rape and plunder of their greatest treasure, their commons.
Ketcham urges you to enter the public lands and find out the truth about them. You will be shocked. You will find desert and steppe full of oil and gas fields; mines of coal, copper, silver, and gold “stabbed into cliffs and mountains”; loggers clearcutting forests; livestock ranchers overgrazing grasslands and slaughtering wildlife; and the government carving roads for all business, domestic and foreign, to keep exploiting our public lands for private profit.
Ketcham illustrates this grievous political reality with countless stories. One of those absorbing stories that shocked me is about a gigantic forest-destroying machine called Bull Hog — funded and operated by the Department of the Interior.
In May 2018, Ketcham witnessed this mechanical monster wiping out a forest of pinyon and juniper in the Egan Range of Nevada. He wrote:
“The beautiful old gnarled trees are devoured in the mouth of the mobile mulcher, knocked down and chewed up, defecated out its ass-end in fragments. The howl and whine of the engine and the spinning blades, the torturous topping of the trees, the cracking and crushing of trunks and limbs, the shattered spitting out of beings alive seconds before – it is almost too much to bear. What’s left is a flattened, denuded, tread-smashed wasteland, a bombed Dresden of pinyon-juniper.”
The Bull Hog is more than a mechanical mulcher of trees. It’s a Frankenstein monster annihilating the future. It’s a metaphor for the subversion of public trust. In addition, it’s a mirror of the separate worlds between city and country, where a handful of medieval-like officials theoretically working for all of us are no more than servants of the industry. The Bull Hog is modern violent technology exuding dark ages and feudalism.
I, too, wrote a book about my passion for land: This Land is Their Land: How Large Farms Threaten the World (Common Courage Press, 2006). I wrote primarily about the mechanical feudalism of modern agribusiness. But the stories in my book and that of Ketcham form the same narrative.
In addition, Ketcham’s book brought me back to my days at Humboldt County in northern California. You travel to Humboldt County and you are surrounded by the legacy and politics of plunder and violence against the public good and the natural world: widespread poverty and bombing-like clearcutting of giant redwood trees thousands of years old; signs everywhere are warning you: don’t enter, no trespassing, armed response, no parking, private property.
I used to jog in the redwoods park around Humboldt State University where I was a visiting professor. I rarely heard a bird sing or saw an animal.
This Land also reminds me of the vast political power of the industry and government that spitted out Bull Hog. My complaints about the US Environmental Protection Agency, how and why the industry and corrupt politicians are all over it, barely scratch the surface of the chronic and nasty, life-draining influence of loggers, petroleum men, other miners, cowboys, bought and sold politicians, and corrupt political appointees in the government.
These guys and gals are lobbyists. They have captured the very government institutions created to stop the plunder and rape of public lands: the US Department of Agriculture, the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Department of the Interior.
According to Ketcham, the Bureau of Land Management has degenerated to a “faithful servant to cattlemen” and a “slavering prostitute” to oilmen: Exxon Mobil, BP, Chevron, Shell, Halliburton, and numerous other petroleum companies.
While at EPA, I reviewed documents describing Wildlife Services, an organization of USDA, designed to “protect” the sheep, goats, and cows of ranchers grazing public lands. To my horror, Wildlife Services was a private-like contractor of the industry shooting and poisoning wild animals.
For decades, both livestock owners and Wildlife Services used the powerful deleterious compound 1080 and sodium cyanide in grain baits, resulting in widespread poisoning and death of prairie dogs, coyotes, cottontails, beavers, bears, and other wild animals.
In 2004, USDA spent about $ 100 million in killing 2.7 million animals, including thousands of birds. In 2014, according to Ketcham, the death toll included 322 wolves, 61,702 coyotes, 2,930 foxes, 580 black bears, 796 bobcats, eight eagles and numerous other animals. Ketcham offers proof of the malignant effects and corruption of the welfare queens harming our commons: landowners, loggers, miners, cowboys, and petroleum companies. They have been poisoning, raping and plundering public lands in the American West.
Judeo-Christian political theory
In addition, Ketcham offers a refreshing if inconvenient political explanation of why gangster-like behavior is rampant in the public lands of the American West.
He says religion fuels the long-standing enmity of private exploiters towards the public lands and the natural world. He argues that, yes, these guys (cowboys, loggers, oilmen, and miners) are thieves of public wealth. They are land grabbers.
However, like most Americans, the plunderers in the American West are followers of the prevailing Judeo-Christian ideology.
The book of Genesis in the Bible urges the faithful to put their fingerprints everywhere in the natural world. God made it for them. It’s yours, Genesis says, grab it and do what you wish with it.
The exploitation of the public lands is so extensive that Ketcham argues convincingly that the American West has become no more than a Judeo-Christian artifact. He explains:
“Dig beneath the skin of the livestock rancher, the oilman, the coal miner, the logger, the wildlife manager, the Chamber of Commerce official, the tourism booster — you’ll find a dominionist. The killing of wild predators to protect cattle, the damming of wild rivers for hydro energy and irrigation to feed industrial agriculture, the logging of forests for what the timber industry calls “sustained yield,” the landscape-scale fracking of the public domain, the management of national parks as zoos for mass visitation: they are all expressions of the same urge to use and control, with wild nature as an afterthought, subsidiary to the all-encompassing vision of resourcism….
“Even among those who claim to be environmentalists I see a secularized variant of this same toxic Judeo-Christian anthropocentrism that views the natural world as providing, for example, “ecosystem services” — clean air, clean water. A resource!”
Not merely lawyers and journalists but ecologists and scientists teaching and publishing on the natural world speak of ecosystem services. The Judeo-Christian bias is pervasive.
This is one of the reasons the message of Ketcham is very important, especially today when we are all becoming victims of anthropogenic climate change. Not many people, including experts on climate change, speak of the obvious: that the bias of Judeo-Christian faith towards nature is dooming America and the world.
However, humans and nature have a long history. Traditional reverence for the natural world goes a long way back. Some of those virtues were partially resurrected in Deep Ecology, a late twentieth century natural philosophy. Bill Devall, my colleague at Humboldt State University, was speaking with passion on behalf of the old growth trees and, at the same time, denouncing the loggers. He guided me through the beautiful wild forests of northern California. He inspired me.
I would hope Ketcham and This Land make a dent on public discourse: that our public lands and the natural world are worthy of respect, protection and veneration; that Judeo-Christian attitudes toward nature are detrimental for (1) understanding the magnitude of the existential crisis of the public lands and (2) protecting ourselves from the near certain catastrophic consequences of climate change.
The Mormon ecocidal crusaders
All this becomes startlingly clear with the Mormons and their Church of Later-day Saints of Jesus Christ. They conquered Utah, hoping to create a separate theocratic society, apart from the United States. Some of them commit seditions and have utter contempt for the environmental laws of the country. They dominate the federal lands bureaucracy in Utah, the better to subvert it from within.
Ketcham talks about members of the Mormon church, Cliven Bundy and his sons, who are motivated by the hostility of the Judeo-Christian metaphysics of Mormonism. They decided no such thing as public lands exist. They launched a campaign to privatize those lands. Cliven Bundy told Ketcham: “I don’t recognize the United States government as even existing.”
Loathing the presence of the federal government in the West and bent on war, the Bundy clan attacked federal officials at two government facilities: one in April 2014, in Bunkerville, Gold Butte, northeast Clark County, Mojave Desert in Nevada; and, in January 2016, in Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Harney County, Oregon. In both cases, the Bundy clan came armed and accompanied by members of militias from all over the country. They were abusive to federal employees and damaged federal property. Yet they got away with murder.
Cliven Bundy practically stole the gigantic federal land allotment he grazes his cattle in the Mojave Desert. The Obama administration ignored his terrorism and rebellion. It did not punish his crimes. The obnoxious administration of Trump empowered Bundy and his acolytes. Ecocide in public lands increased. In 2018, a federal court, inspired or frightened by the Trump administration, declared Cliven Bundy innocent of all crimes.
A Hydra complex of big green conservationists and plunderers
This Land gives us another valuable insight throwing light on the brutal resource wars in the American West. This is the pernicious role of big “conservationist” organizations. They advertise themselves as friends of the environment but, I reality, they are its worst enemies. They cover up the aggression of oilmen, timber barons, and livestock land grabbers.
Conservationists advocate collaboration rather than litigation. They seek “development by design.” In addition, they are proposing more extensive logging of the national forests as a medicine to fires. In other words, they are trying to convince the politicians to give the forests to the loggers.
Moreover, they seek contracts with capitalism and large companies, not for the restoration of biodiversity or the end of pollution or population control or the end of fossil fuels – much less restoring the public lands to their original purpose. In fact, these large green groups are plunderers of our commons and the natural world. Ketcham is right saying these large green groups and their corporate funders become a hydra-headed complex.
Ketcham is nostalgic of the 1960s and 1970s that produced an explosion of environmental legislation. The 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments marks the end of that era. Nothing for the last thirty years. He says: “We need to figure a way out of the snare of desperate environmentalism. We need an end to appeasement.”
Ketcham takes a stock of the losses of the last fifty years. They are gigantic. Our commons has been raped and plundered extensively: in millions of acres of logged forest, tens of millions of wild animals slaughtered, some 250 million acres of land overgrazed every year, hundreds of thousands of miles of new roads, tens of thousands of acres of land destroyed for the extraction of oil, gas, and precious metals.
In the midst of this ecological upheaval, it’s nonsense talking about endangered species. They are nearly gone. The sage grouse is on the verge of extinction. The bison barely survives, the wolf and the grizzly bear are “clinging to the vestiges of the wild.”
So Ketcham says enough with this ecocide. Get the cows out of the public lands and dismantle the federal welfare and services to the miners, cowboys, and loggers. No more slaughtering of wildlife and no more timber and roads. In fact, he suggests we destroy those roads in the public lands or allow nature to heal the wounds.
Read This Land. It’s about your lands, our commons. It promises to enlighten you and make you mad as hell. Ketcham is right. Time has come to liberate our commons from cowboys, cows, timber thieves, miners and oilmen.