The Size of the Risk: Histories of Multiple Use in the Great Basin

The Size of the Risk: Histories of Multiple Use in the Great Basin

by Leisl Carr-Childers

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The Great Basin, a stark and beautiful desert filled with sagebrush deserts and mountain ranges, is the epicenter for public lands conflicts. Arising out of the multiple, often incompatible uses created throughout the twentieth century, these struggles reveal the tension inherent within the multiple use concept, a management philosophy that promises equitable access to the region’s resources and economic gain to those who live there.

Multiple use was originally conceived as a way to legitimize the historical use of public lands for grazing without precluding future uses, such as outdoor recreation, weapons development, and wildlife management. It was applied to the Great Basin to bring the region, once seen as worthless, into the national economic fold. Land managers, ranchers, mining interests, wilderness and wildlife advocates, outdoor recreationists, and even the military adopted this ideology to accommodate, promote, and sanction a multitude of activities on public lands, particularly those overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. Some of these uses are locally driven and others are nationally mandated, but all have exacted a cost from the region’s human and natural environment.

In The Size of the Risk, Leisl Carr Childers shows how different constituencies worked to fill the presumed “empty space” of the Great Basin with a variety of land-use regimes that overlapped, conflicted, and ultimately harmed the environment and the people who depended on the region for their livelihoods. She looks at the conflicts that arose from the intersection of an ever-increasing number of activities, such as nuclear testing and wild horse preservation, and how Great Basin residents have navigated these conflicts.

Carr Childers’s study of multiple use in the Great Basin highlights the complex interplay between the state, society, and the environment, allowing us to better understand the ongoing reality of living in the American West.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806152523
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 10/09/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 328
Sales rank: 1,057,727
File size: 9 MB

Read an Excerpt

The Size of the Risk

Histories of Multiple Use in the Great Basin

By Leisl Carr Childers


Copyright © 2015 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-5252-3


The Last Grazing District

In the spring of 1936, a small group of ranchers from eastern Nye County in Nevada put their names to a petition requesting that the ranges on which they currently grazed cattle be excluded from any district organized under the Taylor Grazing Act, the legislative measure enacted two years prior to regulate public lands grazing. Among the signatories was Howard Sharp, signing for his father's estate. The Sharps ranched at the southern end of the long, narrow Railroad Valley, an unusually verdant stretch of Great Basin desert marked by several deep springs. Forming a fairly self-contained territory, the valley easily supported several thousand head of cattle, providing a good livelihood for the Sharps. They, along with several others from the surrounding area, made up the group who opposed joining what was slated to become Nevada Grazing District 4.

The White Pine County Farm Bureau, the community organizaton overseeing the creation of Grazing District 4, which encompassed parts of Lincoln and White Pine Counties as well as Nye County, expressed concern about the attitude of those who had signed the petition. In their investigations of the various grazing ranges in the area, agents for the farm bureau had found the bulk of the proposed grazing district to be in serious condition, especially "in the vicinity of the watering places." The agents argued that these regions had become horribly denuded "on account of climatic conditions and over-use of their summer ranges." The farm bureau worried that other ranchers in adjacent Hot Creek, Fish Lake, Monitor, and Big Smokey Valleys who depended on a portion of the same grazing range for their herds in winter would needlessly suffer from the lack of regulation in the region.

Nevertheless, William A. Marsh, a Nye County commissioner and state senator, recommended that the farm bureau exclude, at least for the moment, Railroad Valley and the other areas delineated in the petition from any organized district. The farm bureau decided to take his recommendation and alerted Governor Key Pittman, who was working to expand the acreage included in the grazing act, of its decision. Those who signed the petition represented a small but stubborn group of ranchers who believed they were in a better position to manage the public rangeland on which they relied. They believed this because they had been successfully managing that rangeland for the last thirty years to their benefit. However, over the next fifteen years, their desire to control these public lands locally ran counter to the growing necessity for federal organization and regulation of the public domain. The history of multiple use begins with this intersection and the arguments made regarding the value of the public domain by ranchers and those federal officials designated to oversee public lands. These conversations demonstrate how local interests diverged from national ones and how the burden of risk fell at the feet of these families from the beginning.

Multiple use initially took shape as a solution to the problem of making productive economic use of lands that were not yet settled because of their apparent limited utility. These public lands lacked identity and did not contribute in any organized fashion to the national economy. The creation of the forest reserves in the 1890s had opened the door to federal regulation of economic activities on public lands by creating a structure in which to oversee and direct the various uses of the natural resources contained in national forests. But the scope and territory of the Forest Service, established in 1906, were limited and did not encompass the majority of public lands. In addition, despite the agency's regulation of grazing resources, wildlife, and recreation and its adoption of multiple use in the 1930s, it supported primarily timber protection and harvest as a dominant use that gave forests a singular and essentially valuable identity. The rest of the public lands outside the national forests, and the even more heavily managed national parks, remained open to grazing, wildlife management, recreation, mining, and any other activity that created some kind of economic benefit. None of these endeavors ranked above the others, and all were subordinate to settlement under the various land disposal laws. This was the situation on the vast majority of public lands in the continental United States, most of which were in the Great Basin, which birthed the idea of multiple use.

Because of the particular characteristics of the Great Basin's environment and the belief that its public lands were worthless, the region remained outside the realm of both settlement and direct federal management throughout the first half of the twentieth century. It was here, beginning with the Taylor Grazing Act, that multiple use developed as the solution to the remaining public lands' deficient national economic value by creating utility for land deemed essentially worthless in the broadest cultural and environmental sense of the word. At its inception, multiple use left open the possibility that the political economy of public lands could include a number of different activities, because it legitimized, at least for a time, those who came to be at the bottom of the hierarchy of land use, local residents who used public lands for themselves. The act legitimated public lands ranching until those lands could be settled and did so without interfering with mining and wildlife management. And like the Taylor Grazing Act, each successive variation of multiple use represented an accommodation of both national and local interests but placed the burden of risk on those who relied on public lands the most. As a result, many Great Basin residents, especially ranchers like the Sharps, went along with it only reluctantly, and quite a few federal officials remained mystified by their resistance.

The Sharps arrived in Nevada in the 1860s and were, like most Mormon families, missionaries and farmers. They first settled in the long, flat-bottomed Pahranagat Valley in eastern Nevada around 1865. The family's patriarch, Henry Sharp, had worked as a blacksmith in North Hampshire, England, before settling in Birmingham, where he converted to Mormonism in 1854. He immigrated to America soon after and married another English immigrant, Charlotte Morris. The Sharps migrated west to Nebraska, arriving in Deseret in 1861. After settling briefly in the southern part of the Utah territory, they moved on to Lincoln County in Nevada to take advantage of the commerce generated by the area's mining boom. Henry Sharp homesteaded 110 acres at the north end of Pahranagat Valley, near the town of Hiko at the foot of Mount Irish. His oldest son, William, mined the mountain and homesteaded 160 acres nearby, north of Alamo and twenty miles to the south of the family ranch. Henry's twin sons, Joseph and Hyrum, also settled near Alamo, at Ash Springs, where they established water rights and formed the Grove Ranch. Joseph and his son Lawrence continued their ranching operations on the Sharp Ranch at Alamo.

While most of the family stayed in Pahranagat Valley, Henry's other son, George Sharp, settled near the Grant Range at Butterfield Springs on the east side of Railroad Valley. The dashing young man had ridden for several different ranch outfits before amassing enough funds to start his own. Between 1901 and 1917, George purchased several failing homestead claims adjacent to Butterfield, particularly Bacon Flat and Blue Eagle Ranch. He also obtained key water rights on the east side of the valley, including Mud Spring, Blue Eagle Well, Blind Spring, and several artesian wells near the Grant Range. Similar to the other water works owned by ranchers throughout the valley, Sharp's included pumps and pipe systems to bring water to the surface for livestock. But these improvements often drew other herds migrating through Railroad Valley, many of which had used the range seasonally prior to his arrival. On one water application, George complained that "sheep men trespass on the reserve and water their sheep" using his improvements. Besides running cattle, George also bred horses, importing well-bred animals and turning them out with nearby wild horse bands to produce hardy, smart mounts. The family grew their own fruits and vegetables, preserving the produce in glass canning jars, and kept a dairy cow to provide the family with fresh milk and butter. George's avid riding caused his death in 1934; he lost his way while out riding in cold weather and died of exposure. After his unexpected death, his sons Howard and Jim took over the running of Blue Eagle Ranch.

The Sharp family had established their ranching operation in the last moment ranchers were able to run livestock in Railroad Valley, or anywhere else in the Great Basin, without any federal oversight. Where once ranching had occurred predominantly in places rich in pasture and water, the growth of the farming industry on the best lands had pushed livestock production to the most desolate areas, where cattle and sheep herds ate up the sparse vegetation and a significant amount of water pumped from underground stores was required to survive. Any competition for these scarce resources led to conflict. This was an outgrowth of the land disposal process, which had prioritized agricultural settlement, via the 1862 Homestead Act, over all other settlement; but it depended on an abundance of arable land. Ranching was an acceptable substitute for farming if it led to private land ownership — the Stock- Raising Homestead Act of 1916 facilitated this possibility; but the trouble with land in the Great Basin was that it was ranched but not privatized. It was not being properly managed or fully contributing to the local, state, or national economy.

Available land had been one of the nation's greatest assets throughout the nineteenth century, and the disposal of this land had significantly influenced the nation's development and identity. But increasingly, the remaining arid lands proved impossible to settle. In the decades on either side of the turn of the twentieth century, two public lands commissions attempted to resolve the question of what to do with the remaining public domain. In 1881, the first land commission to study this problem, under the auspices of the U.S. Geological Survey, included the agency's first two directors, Clarence King and John Wesley Powell. The commission argued that the federal government should "part title direct to the desert land" because "if granted free of acreage in sufficient quantity, these lands may be developed by private interests." One of the members of the commission, Thomas Donaldson, a former General Land Office employee familiar with the frustrations of the land disposal process, further commented that "the largest portion of the remaining public domain, is at present, a common — herders, wood-cutters, lumbermen, and prospectors roam over it at will, most of them unable to acquire title under the present laws to what they require for their actual wants, and public benefit."

In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt organized a second public lands commission to address this problem. The Congressional Public Lands Commission of 1904 used the same language to describe the marginal nature of the remaining public domain, most of which by then was located in the Great Basin, and highlighted the increasing problem of multiple, conflicting ranching operations on public lands. The commission reported that the "general lack of control in the use of public grazing lands has resulted, naturally and inevitably in over-grazing and the ruin of millions of acres of otherwise valuable grazing territory. Lands useful for grazing are losing their only capacity for productiveness, as, of course, they must when no legal control is exercised." Through their unregulated use of public lands grazing resources, ranchers were not only taking for free what they did not own, they were wasting what little productivity these lands contained. The commission recommended, and Roosevelt agreed, that a formalized leasing system be established to streamline range access and prevent ranchers from overlapping their use of the range, which had led to conflicts like the Johnson County War in Wyoming. Many western ranchers had already taken to illegally fencing grazing areas they considered their rightful range to fend off newcomers. Roosevelt urged Congress to pass legislation to provide for federal range oversight similar to that which the government had provided since 1891 for timber resources. However, he argued that "local control of the range should be in the hands of western men familiar with stock raising, and there should be a full local hand in the management of the range." Roosevelt stated, "There is no need at present that the government should get a net revenue from grazing on the public range, but merely enough to pay for administration and development."

The Progressive notion of federal regulation of rangeland resources had its origin in the new land economics developed by Richard T. Ely. Rejecting the laissez-faire economic model that spurned government intervention of any kind, Ely advocated federal or state involvement in managing natural resources, utilities, and other aspects of the American economy in the interest of public welfare. Along with Frederick Jackson Turner, his former student at Johns Hopkins University and now his colleague at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Ely was concerned about the economic, social, and related political consequences of the closing of the frontier, as declared by the U.S. Census Bureau, and the subsequent cessation of the land disposal process. Turner expressed his concern in his 1893 essay "The Significance of the Frontier in American History," arguing that the end of westward expansion, which had been predicated on the availability of good, inexpensive farmland, meant the end of the nation's social and economic stability. Efforts to make the public domain "a source of revenue," Turner wrote, had been "in vain." Referring to the political consequences bred by the frontier, Turner remarked that western individualism had "allowed a laxity in regard to governmental affairs" that if left unchecked, produced economic crises. Ely articulated his concerns, driven by what he perceived to be the dearth of desirable land, by arguing that without the abundance of free land, which had "kept up the wages of labor" by encouraging Americans to own and work land instead of seek jobs in manufacturing, the nation had to remake its economy to compensate for the inevitable growth of the available urban workforce, which would severely lower wages.

Ely advocated federal involvement in administering the remaining public domain, an unpopular idea among neoclassical economists of the time who opposed government involvement in any economic sector. Ely, like other conservationists of his era, reasoned that federal oversight of the nation's remaining public lands and its natural resources ensured "the preservation in unimpaired efficiency of the resources of the earth, or in a condition so nearly unimpaired as the nature of the case, or wise exhaustion, admits." He agreed with his other colleague at the University of Wisconsin, John R. Commons, that the most valuable quality of land was its ability to furnish "room and situation." But, he argued, "not all space is valuable." Yet to Ely and the other economists of his generation, "idle land is never neutral." Letting land go to waste was every bit as wasteful as overusing natural resources. What, then, was the political economy of public lands? Ely recommended that the federal government use a process of land zoning or classification to determine the best use of public lands and their natural resources to prevent the continued "misuse of the soil on the public domain."

But despite his Progressive mind-set toward the management of public lands and natural resources, Ely did not disagree with the fundamental premise of utility embedded in both neoclassical economics and the new land economics. Rather, he differed as to the means by which utility could be achieved. Where neoclassical economists held that the perpetual balance between individual self-interest and sacrifice "brought the best good for all of society," Ely believed that the public good depended on the support ofgovernments that fostered scientific and technological innovation to assist the individual. He supported a system that promoted individual access to public lands to create economic opportunity and efficient use of natural resources through conservation and federal management. The creators of the nineteenth-century land disposal policies had argued that their laissez-faire approach accomplished the same objective through privatization. In either case, the goal remained the same: to use public lands to serve the interests of both the individual and the nation.


Excerpted from The Size of the Risk by Leisl Carr Childers. Copyright © 2015 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
1. The Last Grazing District,
2. A Backyard Workshop,
3. Mushroom Cloud on the Range,
4. A Threat to Customary Use,
5. Parks of Lesser Grandeur,
6. The Last Refuge,
7. A Matter of Mustangs,
Selected Bibliography,

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