This Land: How Cowboys, Capitalism, and Corruption are Ruining the American West

This Land: How Cowboys, Capitalism, and Corruption are Ruining the American West

by Christopher Ketcham


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“A big, bold book about public lands . . . The Desert Solitaire of our time.” —Outside 

A hard-hitting look at the battle now raging over the fate of the public lands in the American West—and a plea for the protection of these last wild places

The public lands of the western United States comprise some 450 million acres of grassland, steppe land, canyons, forests, and mountains. It's an American commons, and it is under assault as never before.

Journalist Christopher Ketcham has been documenting the confluence of commercial exploitation and governmental misconduct in this region for over a decade. His revelatory book takes the reader on a journey across these last wild places, to see how capitalism is killing our great commons. Ketcham begins in Utah, revealing the environmental destruction caused by unregulated public lands livestock grazing, and exposing rampant malfeasance in the federal land management agencies, who have been compromised by the profit-driven livestock and energy interests they are supposed to regulate. He then turns to the broad effects of those corrupt politics on wildlife. He tracks the Department of Interior's failure to implement and enforce the Endangered Species Act—including its stark betrayal of protections for the grizzly bear and the sage grouse—and investigates the destructive behavior of U.S. Wildlife Services in their shocking mass slaughter of animals that threaten the livestock industry. Along the way, Ketcham talks with ecologists, biologists, botanists, former government employees, whistleblowers, grassroots environmentalists and other citizens who are fighting to protect the public domain for future generations.

This Land is a colorful muckraking journey—part Edward Abbey, part Upton Sinclair—exposing the rot in American politics that is rapidly leading to the sell-out of our national heritage. The book ends with Ketcham's vision of ecological restoration for the American West: freeing the trampled, denuded ecosystems from the effects of grazing, enforcing the laws already in place to defend biodiversity, allowing the native species of the West to recover under a fully implemented Endangered Species Act, and establishing vast stretches of public land where there will be no development at all, not even for recreation.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780735220980
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/16/2019
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 401,593
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 8.70(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Christopher Ketcham has written for dozens of publications, including Harper's, National Geographic, and The New Republic. He has reported from the American West for more than a decade. This book is a product of those years in the last wild places. He currently lives in the Catskill Mountains of New York.

Read an Excerpt



In my book a pioneer is a man who turned all the grass upside down,

strung bob-wire over the dust that was left, poisoned the water, cut

down the trees, killed the Indian who owned the land, and called it

progress. If I had my way, the land here would be like God made it,

and none of you sons of bitches would be here at all.

—Charlie Russell, the Cowboy Artist


I've been wandering the public lands trying to figure out what's left of the wild in the West. Utah, Nevada, Idaho, Oregon, Wyoming, the states with the most public land, the big wide-open, what Woody Guthrie was talking about when he sang of your land. It's a gigantic experiment in socialism out west-who could have imagined it in the most capitalistic country on earth?-where everyone can say they own hundreds of millions of acres but no single person can claim it for themselves alone. This makes for high living. You can camp pretty much anywhere in some of the world's loveliest places, at the bottoms of canyons and on the tops of mountains. Wherever you please, come along. Just don't wreck it for the next person.

Mostly I car-camp, living out of a tent, a tiny thing, enough room for me and one adult male wolf or two women or twenty-six weasels. Driving my rickety old Subaru, which gets me where I need between breakdowns, as slowly as possible, and trying not to think about the return east. Back there are the reasons I go west. The problem is the species common in the East, Homo urbanus iPhonicus, say, in my native habitat in New York City. A creature clinched in its too-muchness and self-regard, staring at the unreality of screens, tripping over itself on the sidewalks, at turnstiles, in the museums, supermarkets, subways, wherever there's a surfeit of glass, steel, concrete, the human sardine can.

In the countryside of the East, the public lands are few. Whole mountains are privatized. Rivers and their banks, seashores, meadows, forests get hung with no trespassing and do not enter signs and keep out and electronic surveillance. Always there are fences, always the threat of prosecution for taking a walk in the woods. Forget about moving across the landscape freely, spontaneously, voluntarily. Forget about finding a view of this planet not reduced to the reminder of your fellow man. Love him you might, there's such a thing as enough of him.

Whereas in the West, in the lands that were never privatized, in the country of the pronghorn, the cougar, the grizzly, the bison, the sage grouse, the wild horse, and the wolf, where there's not enough water for the madding crowd but just enough for the wild things, a man is so free in his aloneness that he might not see another human being for weeks on end, maybe months if he has the genius for hiding high in the crags like the anchorites of old. I interviewed a guy once who went that route in a canyon near Death Valley, who came west from his overpriced midden of an apartment, leaving behind his useless shiny junk and job, and deserted in the company of the big books (Bible, Koran, Upanishads) to find the truth-all for free, no rent due this month or any other. It is still possible in this country to find wild, clean, open spaces, where the rhythms of the natural world go on as they should, relatively undisturbed by industrial man. I fear the opportunity, though, could disappear in our lifetime.

You will be asking what exactly these public lands consist of. The national parks are a trivial portion, covering less than fifty million acres. Beautiful as they are, consider them a kind of specialty zoo, heavily funded postage-stamp island ecosystems, overseen for wildlife but mostly for tourists. For our purposes the West is the roughly 450 million acres of grassland, steppe, desert, and forest managed in trust for the American people by the United States Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and United States Forest Service. These agencies are unsung sisters of the National Park Service, little known and meagerly funded. Here on the BLM and Forest Service lands are glaciers towering in the sky, deep Permian canyons, ten-thousand-foot plateaus, sagebrush seas, places where herds of big mammals roam unhindered. Here you can hike, fish, hunt for meat, raft, ride horseback, fire a Kalashnikov, sling an arrow, climb a tree, build a hut out of sticks, roam like the aboriginal tribes of the continent, get lost, stay lost for as long as you wish.

It's an American commons, and the chief requirement to enjoy it is some degree of self-reliance. Reliable water supplies, ready-made campsites-you'll find few of these things such as the national parks afford. The roads are often unsigned. They are muddy by turns of the season, or dusty to the point of choking, or rutted so as to threaten with death the struts of your car, or overgrown with vegetation to the point you don't know they're there. Abandon your steel behemoth, strike out from the roads, and you might dip a toe in the landscape. Walk on for a month or so, you might live like an animal, naked in the dirt, howling at the moon. I've done this on occasion.

That the BLM and Forest Service domain accommodates profit hunters is the crucial difference separating it from the national parks. You can prospect on these lands, extract commodities. Congress has enshrined in law this practice of "multiple use." Look across the public lands and you'll find the myriad uses: oil and gas fields in the deserts and steppe, and coal, copper, silver, and gold mines stabbed into cliffs and mountains. Forests are felled, grasslands overgrazed, wildlife slaughtered, and roads carved for all parties to gain access and exploit public ground for private gain. The BLM and Forest Service are schizoid. With one hand they protect; with the other they ravage. Such is multiple use. William O. Douglas, a backpacker and outdoorsman who happened also to be the longest-serving Supreme Court justice, shared his suspicions about the real meaning of the term in 1961: "'Multiple' use was semantics for making cattlemen, sheepmen, lumbermen, miners the main beneficiaries. After they gutted and razed the forests, then the rest of us could use them-to find campsites among stumps, to look for fish in waters heavy with silt from erosion, to search for game on ridges pounded to dust by sheep."

I wrote this book because little has changed since Douglas was writing. We are not safeguarding our public domain. The government agencies entrusted to oversee it are failing us. The private interests that want the land for profit have planted their teeth in the government. The national trend is against the preservation of the commons. Huge stretches are effectively privatized, public in name only. I went west to see what we were losing as a people.

Here's what's happening to our land: it is May 2018, in the Egan Range of Nevada, south of Ely, and a machine called a Bull Hog is approaching. Its engine roars. It runs on treads like a bulldozer, and affixed at its front is a spinning bladed cylinder. It has one use and one use only-the destruction of the forest in which I stand, a forest of pinyon and juniper that the BLM manages on our behalf. These are ancient trees, gnarled with age, short and squat with fattened trunks and curling bark, maybe twenty feet at their crowns, a pygmy forest, derisively called a woodland, and found on tens of millions of acres in Utah and Nevada. The pinyon-juniper forest is the great survivor in the aridlands, drought-resistant, adapted to heat, and is deliciously sweet-smelling-these two species, after the sagebrush, are the perfuming flora of the Great Basin and the Colorado Plateau. But they have no value for logging or wood products, no value that can be measured in money. Therefore they must be wiped out for other enterprises-for cattlemen, I later learn, so that the land in the Egan Range will be "productive" for cows and not wasted.

The Bull Hog, operated and funded by the Department of the Interior-at our expense, with our tax dollars-charges through the forest as I stand in a kind of fugue, incredulous at the pace of its destruction. 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 toppling 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. Within fifteen minutes the forest that I entered is gone. This is happening, or is planned to happen, in an area roughly the size of Vermont.

I have been darting from side to side as the Bull Hog passes, and now finally I show myself, for there's no tree left to hide behind. The operator throttles down, seeing me, and then realizes I am no threat. A man with a camera and a notepad, puny. Someone who will do nothing to stop him. He powers back up, the cylinder at the mouth of the machine spins again ferociously, and forward it rages. The cab where he sits is caged and shadowed, to the point that I can see no movement inside, no hint of organic presence at the helm. As if this were a servo-mechanism, a robot, a drone. May is prime nesting season for birds in the pinyon-juniper biome. Kestrels and hawks, mountain chickadees and house wrens, black-throated gray warblers, flickers, gray flycatchers, scrub jays, and pinyon jays live here, and in the soil between the trees nest the poorwills-all are being ground to red mist by the servo-mechanism, for no reason other than to expedite commerce.

After my encounter with the Bull Hog, I fished out, from the heaped library I keep in the trunk of my car, a copy of Edward Abbey's The Monkey Wrench Gang. It is a rollicking piece of fiction set in southern Utah, and established Abbey as the spokesman for a generation of ecosaboteurs. In the book, a quartet of pissed-off guerilla enviros destroy industrial infrastructure, doing their small part to take out "the world planetary maggot machine." The monkeywrenchers sabotage bulldozers and excavators, utility vehicles, backhoes and graders and scrapers and road reclaimers. They blow up a coal train, derailing it off a bridge into a canyon abyss. Abbey worked as a park ranger in southern Utah during the 1950s, in what would become Arches National Park, and there he drafted in rough his other great work, Desert Solitaire, a book of essays that together formed an anarchist's paean to the last of the wilderness in the Southwest. Abbey extolled the public lands as refugia for wild things and wild people, the beleaguered creatures, like him, who could no longer accept in good conscience America's "phosphorescent putrefying glory," the sprawl cities, the stupefying burden of technopoly, the spirit-destroying hustle of commerce. He didn't think much of techno-industrial civilization. He regarded its paradigm of permanent economic growth as a permanent crisis, a suicide pact with planet earth. "Growth for growth's sake," he wrote, "is the ideology of the cancer cell." How does the cancer proceed? The answer from Abbey was the obvious one, known to us all: "Dam the rivers, flood the canyons, drain the swamps, log the forests, strip-mine the hills, bulldoze the mountains." He advocated direct action to stop the machine. I suppose I clutched at The Monkey Wrench Gang out of a sense of shame that I let that Bull Hog live.


Driving west for the first time is always a romance. Here am I with a woman from the Catskills who I met just a few days ago. Smitten, I tell her I'm headed to the high country, and does she want to come? Everything dropped, she packs a bag and we go. The moment we hit the west, on the long slow ascent of the Plains, we both know it. The sparkling arid light, the scintillating sky, the clear bright vistas. Suddenly you realize it was five hundred miles back that you last smelled loam, and there is a new dryness in your mouth and not a drop of sweat that clings.

The West is the land that begins when you cross the hundredth meridian in North Dakota at Bismarck, say, on the last day of July amid electric storms that threaten and offer not a drop of water and race away leaving blue sky. The colors are of grassland and eruptions of badland, muted browns and grays and yellows, and the smell is sharp and quick, that of alkali or sage or dust. Draw a line from Bismarck south to Pierre in the Dakotas, slice Nebraska roughly in half, cut off Kansas at Dodge City, follow the pan edge of the Oklahoma panhandle into Texas down to Abilene and to Laredo at the border: the delineation where average rainfall drops below twenty inches a year. We stop after a rifle-shot run of two days' driving, just past the hundredth meridian, at the first of the public lands where we can camp at will, under the cottonwoods by the Little Missouri River, where a hailstorm amid lightning blows on our tent at midnight, and what rain that falls is so brief, so stingy, that in the morning there is no proof of its passage and the fiery sun holds sway again over all the world.

"The rainless country was the last frontier," wrote Bernard DeVoto, who told the story of aridity in the West perhaps more eloquently than any American. If beyond the hundredth meridian is the true West, its end lies at the High Sierras of California and the Cascades of Oregon and Washington, at the mountain rain shadow cutting off Pacific Ocean air. (The West does not include the relatively lush California coasts or the temperate rain forests of Oregon and Washington, essentially the Pacific Rim.) The region is geologically tortured, slashed across the middle with the Rocky Mountains, laced with many smaller ranges and countless basins, where snow and rain gather in the watershed of the forests and flow into the valleys and intermountain plains and steppe. The first Euro-American settlers, Jefferson's yeoman farmers, found it next to impossible to practice the rain-fed agriculture they imported from humid Europe that worked so well in the East. The forests back of the hundredth meridian had fallen in short order, but the aridlands could not be homesteaded so easily.

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