Can the American West Be Saved?

Aug 15, 2019 · 58 comments
somsai (colorado)
An interesting book review, I'll have to read the book. I'd just note however that I wish all these retellings of the Bundy thing begin with unpaid grazing fees. It's in Wiki if one looks for Bundy, and then scrolls down to the history section and looks for permits. There was an unholy alliance made between Las Vegas developers and environmentalists, ranchers to be sacrificed and environmentalists to be employed at a tortoise conservation center. Oh, and developers got permission to scrape the desert and put up shopping malls and houses. It's the original sin of the Bundy saga. All the ranchers lost their permits. It's besides the point but it turns out ranching isn't harmful to the desert tortoise anyway, the turtles do very well in the presence of cattle. I read a long series of posts written under a pseudonym posted to an alternative press kind of web site, very well written and sounding very similar to this book. The posts were mostly about Ammon and the Malheur standoff. I'm wondering if there is a connection. Have to read the book I guess.
tom (midwest)
What is so often overlooked is the simple fact that all Americans own their public lands (whether federal, state or local) and allow the government to manage them on their behalf. What takers like Bundy do is use public lands for their private benefit without paying Americans for the privilege. That is the problem in a nutshell. The second issue is the tragedy of the commons. The third is the monetary value any one individual places on natural resources. What value do you place on clean air, clean water or a place that is untouched by human hands?
sansacro (New York)
These books, and Kirn, deserve a longer essay. I remember when Kirn wrote long reviews for the Times that provided a more spacious canvas for Kirn to deeply explore, with all his acerbic wit and intellect, a single book. Now we get an abbreviated summary of two books in about two thirds the space. The Times, and its editorials, are quick to chronicle our troubled and unreflective era of increasing short attention spans, but it contributes to the problem with its superficial and synoptic coverage of important books.
Guido Malsh (Cincinnati)
This land is your land and this land is my land From the California to the New York island From the Redwood Forest, to the gulf stream waters This land was made for you and me When the sun comes shining, then I was strolling In wheat fields waving and dust clouds rolling The voice come chanting as the fog was lifting This land was made for you and me --Woody Guthrie Was it ever really so? Even if it was, it'll never be that way again. More's the pity.
greg (utah)
The "Shadowlands" reviewer suggests that Ammon Bundy is a quixotic and mostly harmless crackpot from whom the idea that the land was placed here for man's use springs de novo as a form of romantic genius. Further that this is a more honest relationship with the west than that of "corporate" America. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact this is and always has been a central Mormon tenet and that undercuts the theme of the lonely idealist at war with the corporate state. The ruthless exploitation of the land (and, yes, the extermination of every wild predator that might endanger the furthering of that exploitation) is a very real problem of Mormonism in the west. The Bundys were not an exception in terms of how they see their relationship with both the land and its steward- the federal government. The only difference between them and most of their religious brethren is that as violent anarchists they are willing to kill to enforce their view.
wm.h.evans (media, pennsylvania)
Protecting the Second Amendment is NOT limited to being a right-wing cause. Anyone who knows the history of our country, other countries of the world and politics in general knows why and how we gained all the rights that our Second Amendment protects. Making snide remarks as if The Second Amendment is owned by those the left categorizes as superfluous should read how that Amendment came to be. It's like the First, Third. Fourth and all first Ten that make up our Bill of Rights; all are critical to our ability to protect ourselves.
Tucson Geologist (Tucson)
Copper mining is a huge business in southern Arizona, and thousands of acres of land have been destroyed in the process. Environmentalists fight new mines tooth and nail, but generally can't stop the mining. Ketcham sympathizers drive cars and live in homes, each with at least of hundred pounds of copper. If confronted with their hyprocrisy they generally end up supporting mining in some other country, most of which have more lax environmental standards than the quite stringent standards in the USA.
Larry Campbell (Darby, Montana)
@Tucson Geologist I am also a geologist. I worked in exploration for various minerals, including copper, for many years. I use copper. Does all that mean I can't oppose any new copper mines? No it does not. Some places are too important for other values like water or beauty to be mined. The failure of some miners, like Tucson Geologist, as well as the mining law to recognize the need for "suitability" analysis and legal consideration is very short sighted and antiquated.
Tucson Geologist (Tucson)
@Larry Campbell Actually, I agree with you. Other values matter too. Also, these deposits are millions of years old. It will not be a disaster if we don't mine them all this century.
Al (Idaho)
I'm no lover of grazing, mining, logging or much of anything else that occurs sconomically out here, but much of the point of what is happening to the west is missed here. It is being over run by humans. They need roads, dams development and mostly water. If you brought JW Powell back (first guy down the Grand Canyon and head of usgs) he'd be aghast at the cities and suburbs that have sprung up and the millions and millions of people living in an area that cannot support them longterm. The welfare ranchers and so called rugged individualists are a pita but are nearly as destructive as just the run of the mill suburbanites who are now everywhere. I've been going to SE Utah for ~40 years and the changes from tourism and the influx of coffee shops, real estate developers, SUVs, ranchettes, 2nd homes, internet Cowboys and everything that goes with them dwarfs all the changes the dwindling extractive guys did in the previous 100 years. And these folks aren't going away.
Kristy (Brooklyn, NY)
What an elegantly written review by Walter Kirn. His plaint about the general disarray of the country and we, the "puny, errant, bedeviled playings of the all-American colossus," is apposite and as always, wonderfully expressed.
Kristy (Brooklyn, NY)
Greg Jones (Cranston, Rhode Island)
Maybe this can be the start of a whole genre of "lyrical" accounts of the dreams of theives and those who destroy public lands. We might read of the beauty of poaching endangered species. Or maybe even the grander of the aum shinrikyo cult that simply wanted us all to know the beauty of mass death by Sarin. This is one of the most perverse book reviews I have ever read and I will be sure to never purchase a text of any sort that is recommened by "citizen" Kim.
TRS (Boise)
First off, Ketcham is a hypocrite of the highest order, vehemently supporting Trump, who has rolled back nearly every environmental regulation for the purposes of money. He's even trying to drill in our national parks, so immediately Ketcham's book has zero credibility, even if well researched. Secondly, it's not just the intermountain west (Utah, Nevada, Colorado) that is being ruined, it's the entire west. I'm a life-long Pacific Northwesterner and intermountain wester, having lived in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. Portland and Seattle are ruined cities now, wrought with homelessness, trash, the smell of urine in the streets. Travel magazines think they're great because they're booming. They're not great. Boise is one of the fastest-growing cities in America, in nearly 20 years here I see the same ruin happening as Seattle and Portland, and nothing will slow the growth. Most points between the cities have been ruined, too, once small burgs now burgeoning with fast food garbage and chain stores. Anyone who grew up in the West in the 60's-80's sees a once-great region being slowly ruined.
Bitsy (Fort Collins, CO)
@TRS Perhaps I'm confused but I've read Ketcham's book and spoken with him in person and completely missed the Trump-supporting side of him, if indeed there is one. Did I simply miss something?
somsai (colorado)
@TRS There's a lot to the west besides cities.
Larry Campbell (Darby, Montana)
Thanks for this book review of This Land. The book deserves wide circulation and considered thought. Ketchum hits the nail on the head with his critique of gang-green collaborator groups (TNC, TWS, MWA, GYC, etc) that take in huge money (including taxpayer funds) while they pretend to speak for conservation in small self-selected collaborator groups designed to bypass the American public while turning public interests, even land, over to private profits and consumptive or harmful uses. If it was simply conversation in lieu of conservation that might be harmless, but in fact they work against actual conservation while they use politi-corporate tropes and language to marginalize the groups doing effective conservation work. If Ketchum sounds strident it is because he sees clearly what is being sacrificed for the organizational development of faux conservation groups that actually undermine conservation of forests, wildlands and wildlife. The death by a thousand cuts of our mother land is very hard to watch with your eyes open. Harshing the destroyers with strong language seems reasonable given what’s at stake and the betrayal by supposed green groups taking the place of the public in anti-democratic “collaborations”. The criticism of language and tone obscures critical consideration of the truth of a desperate situation. Please reconsider the criticism and keep in mind what is at stake. Thank you, Larry Campbell, grassroots conservation activist
Conservationist (Washington DC)
Christopher Ketcham's enthusiastic support for Donald Trump's election, which he does not regret, has hastened the demise of the American West. That perspective -- along with his shallow reporting -- makes his book a joke.
Alexander (Boston)
The greed and self-righteousness of the Americans in the West laced with the cyanide of their Evangelical religion or the crack-pot cult of Mormonism is a testimony to the enduring nuttiness of a great proportion of the early 17th century settlers who landed on the East Coast. By comparison John Wayne and his 'real man' bluster was just a parody of these predators of the West.
Paul McBride (Ellensburg WA)
I assume all the commentators spewing hate at ranchers are vegetarians, since cheeseburgers don't grow on trees.
Maggie (Maine)
@Paul McBride. You’re aware, I’m sure, that it’s possible to buy your meat from small local farmers, not government subsidized ranchers thousands of miles away ?
Macbloom (California)
@Paul McBride Sorry to report I haven’t enjoyed a Mac burger in over 30+ years. However I have observed the cattle ranching, mining pollution and deforestation devastations to our beloved west. And, by the way, very nice delicious things do grow on trees.
Al (Idaho)
@Paul McBride. The arid, desert west is a terrible place to grow cows. Even with massive government subsidies in the form of basically free grazing rights it often takes 100s of acres to grow a single cow out here. There are counties in places like Missouri that grows more cows than whole states out here.
Lou Good (Page, AZ)
Astonishing to me how people that don't live in the west, and never will, glorify people like the Bundys and Finicum. Freedom fighters? Hardly. Watch the video of Finicum committing death by cop reaching for his pistol. They "thought" he had a gun? They saw the gun. You wanted them to wait until he shot someone? Stop romanticizing these people and their followers. They're petty crooks. Just because the Feds blow the prosecutions due to their own style of western incompetence and overreach doesn't mean these people are heroes of any kind. Most of us wish they would just go away and stay there. They represent nothing beyond their own selfish interests.
Sonja (Idaho)
@Lou Good Totally agree, how is their theft of grazing rights and ruining the land for anyone else's use in anyone's benefit but their own selfish interests? I also wondered at the time if they had been black activists, would one person have died or all of them? Lot's of white privilege in the American West (at least what I have seen in Idaho).
Immy (Phoenix, AZ)
Pipe Springs National Monument north of Grand Canyon, near Fredonia, AZ but just south of the border with Utah is worth a visit. A scenic-view sign along the hiking trail points out that the tundra one now sees - stretching from some 65-70 miles from PS to the Canyon rim - looks vastly different than it did in historical times. Where once waving masses of long grasses dominated the area. Now one sees something akin to a high desert plateau with sparse vegetation and perhaps an occasional stubby tree. Why the change? Cattle grazing. This practice destroyed the native vegetation and vastly altered the landscape. One also learns that the fire patterns - seen in tree rings - drastically changed around 1870. Why? Cattle grazing. Before then cattle did not freely wander throughout forests. But, with their introduction, low-lying grasses in the forests were destroyed by grazing which altered the fire patterns in the forests. Instead low-intensity fires every decade, which the trees could easily withstand, were replaced by these massive crown fires, so common today, which leave nothing in their wakes. Finally, the "savage" Indians preying on poor white settlers did so, not just because the land was being picked clean, but because Pipe Springs (a bit like a fort) was built atop the only water source for dozens of miles around. This spring which allowed a population of Native Americans to exist was now closed to them. Darn right they became hostile!
Susan (Erie)
@Immy Thank you!!
Jonathan Katz (St. Louis)
Why didn't Finicum's unnecessary death at the hands of a too-quick-on-the-trigger policeman arouse the same sort of outrage that followed similar incidents elsewhere, for example in Ferguson, Mo.? Doesn't his life matter? The indefensible Malheur occupation was triggered by prison sentences given ranchers whose crime was letting a fire set to destroy brush on their land spread to federal land. No one was hurt, or even endangered, by the fire, nor was there any property damage. Why not just require them to pay the cost of fighting the fire? A little more common sense on the part of the BLM would have avoided a lot of trouble, and disabused the crazies of the idea that the government is an enemy.
nom de guerre (Kirkwood, MO)
@Jonathan Katz Brushfires kill fauna and flora.
Clovis (Utah)
Sorry, but you leave out the details.... Those 2 ranchers accepted their guilt and sentences. They further disavowed the illegal occupation of the Malheur Reserve. The occupiers despoiled the Reserve headquarters, leaving human waste, bulldozing trenches that compromised Native American archeological sites and behaving like spoiled teenagers, leaving a deplorable mess behind. Bundy’s clan had been illegally grazing without paying the American public for their use of public lands in Nevada. In both the Nevada and Oregon cases, these “ranchers” were armed and not only threatened law enforcement, they aimed their weapons at them. Were these good old boys African Americans, they would all have suffered the fate that armed African Americans have faced (like the members of Move in Philadelphia). Instead, the federal prosecutors filed softball charges that couldn’t be successfully prosecuted. Good old boys got off.
T. Rivers (Thong Lo, Krungteph)
Really? Finicum deliberately went there for confrontation. Totally absurd false equivalence. But anyways, they wouldn’t have paid the bill for the deliberate damage they caused. The Bundys are socialist welfare ranchers and cheats. They steal from citizens of the US to serve themselves first.
Travelers (All Over The U.S.)
We see this. In the past 8 years my wife and I have roamed the west in our pickup camper, some 55,000 miles. We camp in BLM areas, off to the side of roads (far away from camp grounds). We have camped in over 300 different places, talking to many people. We have seen the west in a way that few have. We agree with Ketcham. We see the destruction by mining, cattle, and drilling. And we can't believe it. Don't the citizens of our country realize that we have something that almost nobody else on the planet has? We have a huge "park" that we all own--it is called our National Forests our National Grasslands, and our lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Central Park might be nice, but it is only a few square miles. Translate that to millions of square miles, almost all of it just as beautiful. That's what we collectively own. Yet, a few are profiting from it and taking little care of it. C'mon people. Demand that YOUR lands are protected for your children and grandchildren.
T. Rivers (Thong Lo, Krungteph)
You do realize, as part of the vanlife scourge, that you are a part of the problem, right? By no means as bad as fracking of course. But you literally can’t go anywhere in the west now without being besieged by people getting away from it all in their $100k Sprinter. BLM should ban off-road vehicles, vans, and yes, cows, from public land.
Travelers (All Over The U.S.)
@T. Rivers sigh. Only in the NYT could we be considered "part of the problem." Where we go we are not besieged by people in, as you put them down by saying, in the 100K Sprinters. We generally see nobody, maybe a person a day. How on earth could we be creating a problem? Aren't we just enjoying our public lands, the same as anybody could do? Do you really get out yourself and see the areas? BLM should ban vans? There are roads in these areas. Why have roads if no vehicles? Travel on these roads creates absolutely no harm to anything that belongs to all of us. And it would be the only way people could access them to be able to enjoy them.
Michael-in-Vegas (Las Vegas, NV)
@Travelers I live in the West, and it shocks me that you don't realize that you're part of the problem. Of course you are! As am I! Your justification is that "travel on these roads creates absolutely no harm to anything that belongs to all of us." Ridiculous. Many roads there are built specifically for emergency vehicles and fire management. But, as a backpacker, I witness time and time again the RVers like yourself who drive there and assist in environmental destruction, both accidentally and on purpose (illegal RV dumping has become a serious problem in many areas). You want to see it? Walk there. Also, Ketchum's point of view is often that of a petulant child. And if you agree with him as you claim, then I suggest that you aren't all that familiar with the man. He would happily explain to you your role in environment devastation.
Conservationist (Washington DC)
It's important to note that Christopher Ketcham urged anyone who would listen to vote for Donald Trump believing that the "American empire" needs to "burn down." And he doesn't regret helping Trump to get elected. For those of us working to bolster environmental safeguards and address the climate crisis, it's very hard to take Ketcham seriously. In this fight, we need grown ups, not infantile posturing.
corvid (Bellingham, WA)
Ketcham's willingness to shine a harsh light on mainstream environmental organizations whose first order of business is their own financial wellbeing (as opposed to grassroots groups earnestly working on concrete issues, often on a shoestring) is much needed. In my home state, for instance, the vast majority of orgs involved in public lands issues readily genuflect to corporate and political power. What they seek are access and growth. Actual improvements and protections within the arena of natural resources management are well down the list of their priorities. And they spend more than a little effort to marginalize and exclude said grassroots groups. These mainstream organizations resemble nothing so much as an extension of the corporatist, neoliberal wing of the Democratic Party.
Miss Anne Thrope (Utah)
@corvid - Mucho opinion, few facts. Are you referring to "mainstream" enviro groups like, say, The Sierra Club, w/ their $100M budget, versus, say, Monsanto's $14 Billion in sales? Enviro groups are the "David's" competing w/ Big Ag's "Goliath's".
Conservationist (Washington DC)
@Miss Anne Thrope Excellent points.
somsai (colorado)
@Miss Anne Thrope The Sierra Club runs an extensive travel business, like flying across the world kind of travel. I can't imagine a more climate destroying thing to do.
oogada (Boogada)
"The Bundys were “offering something kind of beautiful, a rural, community-oriented life, lived on and from and with the land”." No they weren't. Rules and ownership aside, the Bundys are human locusts, denuding pasture land, causing erosion and pollution, wrecking one plot and moving on. Granted the rare opportunity to raise livestock on public land at outlandishly low prices, they chose not to pay, for years, for what they consumed. This is no pioneer idyll, unless yu ignore all the people and everything they do. You note Bundy the Younger believes his entire warped picture of life ifs based in private ownership. What you mean to say is the only example of "beautiful community oriented life...with the land", the true natives his people stole the land from, is one he refuses to consider. In the meantime he and his ridiculous compadres live The Big Lie: that government has taken their land. Which is also not true (these guys have issues with reality). Government always owned all the land, ever since they shooed away the former community-oriented livers with the land. Government gave land to the states, the states gave and sold land to whoever they wished. The only reason land remains for Bundys to fight over is government saved it from the bottomless maw of capitalism and private property. Lets pretend Bundys win. Who do they think will own this land? They can't imagine they will even be allowed to walk across it, can they?
Bartolo (Central Virginia)
It looks like parts of Bundy country is drying up. When grazing becomes impossible, now inadvisable, watch for the Chinese to buy it up.
Charles Stark (Atlanta)
The land will be sold to wealthy individuals/ corporations/ sovereign wealth funds / money laundering schemes and these average people who live near these lands will never set foot on them again.
poslug (Cambridge)
Stop eating beef and other meats raised by ranchers. The Cattleman's Association is behind the reduced EPA controls, weakening of the Endangered Species Act, and has members who owe the taxpayers payment for the use and abuse of national lands. Not to mention do you trust supervision of a slaughterhouse? No way. Oil, gas, and mining as a group are another issue. It is our land. Not theirs.
UC Graduate (Los Angeles)
Myth has always triumphed over reality in the American West. In the American West, the wilderness isn't any wilder, one is not closer to God, libertarians don't have any special claims, guns do not possess any special magic, and there isn't any force field that keeps the federal government at bay. American West is the creation of Hollywood films and fantastical politicians, and the first step in saving it is to recognize that its subject to all the rules and laws that govern affairs of nature and humans. A molecule of carbon dioxide emitted in west Texas has the same impact on climate change as the one in New York City, and you should pay the same taxes for grazing on federal lands in Utah as one would in Wisconsin.
Michael-in-Vegas (Las Vegas, NV)
@UC Graduate said: "you should pay the same taxes for grazing on federal lands in Utah as one would in Wisconsin." Sure you realize how supply and demand makes this statement ridiculous?
LBarkan (Tempe, AZ)
I will not be reading AnthonyMcCann's book about Ammon and Cliven Bundy and their ilk no matter "nuanced" Walter Kirn claims it is. I am more on the side of Christopher Ketcham. It's time for us to burn red hot instead of having the environment do that until we are all burned up. The Bundys were/are criminals and welfare cheats who owe us at least one million dollars. Imagine squatters in a city who are discovered living in a building where the heat, water, sewer and air conditioning have never been turned off and the refrigerator is always well stocked. The landlord, discovering these squatters, tells them they can continue to stay, rent free. This is what we have done for the Bundys except they are destroyers of public lands that belong to all of us. Shame on McCann for making a nuanced argument out of something that is, clearly criminal.
qbyrd (santa fe)
I live in Escalante, Utah, where Ketcham lived for awhile during his research for his book. I am not a Mormon and I have not read Ketcham's book and likely won't because I've already had large sections of it read to me. That being said, that although he may have some good points to make, his over-the-top language and radical views of many of the locals here do a complete disservice to the people and place. He quotes one person in particular at great length. This person, who Ketcham apparently put great store by, is known locally to be a hateful, lying, radicalized crack-pot. Listening to this person and giving credence to his hateful rhetoric widens the divides that already exist and which many of us have spent years trying to mend. There are very good ranchers as well as very good environmentalists here. There are also rather poor examples of both. But coming out screaming and name-calling is a no-win tactic and a shameful way to deal with these issues.
Tim Clark (Los Angeles)
@qbyrd Two years ago I drove up to the Tetons for the eclipse and drove back through central Utah. The drive on Route 12 from Capitol Reef through Escalante is right up there with the coastal Routes 1 through Big Sur and out to the Keys.
Miss Anne Thrope (Utah)
@qbyrd - "There are very good ranchers… here." Yeah? Where? There are still a handful of so-called "family ranchers" who run some cows, but there are fewer all the time. Whether or not they're "good" depends on viewpoint. Most of the cattle on the Dixie National Forest and in UT are owned by Big Agribusiness. 9% of UT's ranches own 71% of UT's cattle. 3% of UT's farms account for 72% of total Ag sales. 28% of UT's farms receive 70% of gov't subsidies. We're not talking about Ma and Pa Kettle here. Typical of of arid Western states, 82% of UT's water goes to Big Ag and most Ag water goes to cattle and hay (Utah's biggest crop). 24/7 irrigation of alfalfa fields consumes far more water than all of UT's cities and towns combined. More than half of irrigation water is lost to evapotranspiration and runoff due to old, inefficient equipment. Water's cheap and Big Ag has no incentive to upgrade gear. Cows and hay suck up most of our water while producing less than 1% of UT's total GDP, fewer than 5k jobs (often low wage and/or seasonal) and only 4/10 of 1% of the nation's beef supply! Cattle roam, un-managed, over the magnificent Aquarius Plateau, churning alpine streams into cowpie-laden mudpits, trails into chopped-up mixes of mud/cowcrap and making the entire mountain smell like a feedlot. The USFS abiets this damage while charging below-market, subsidized grazing fees. Personally, I quit walking up there by early July, because it's depressing observing the cow damage.
qbyrd (santa fe)
@Miss Anne Thrope Your statistics, if true, are impressive. They miss, however, the human element at work here. I certainly agree that better management of grazing areas would be a huge plus, (and for that to happen, the Forest Service and the BLM would have to enforce current regulations), but I can't agree to demonize all ranchers simply because they ranch. Many of these people are good citizens and good neighbors and deserve some consideration for the work they do, however well-done or misguided and regardless of whether or not you like cows.
Ernesto Gomez (CA)
"Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort." - How are Bundy and his ilk, taking up arms against our government, not traitors, levying war against us? I could find sympathy for Bundy's struggle against the juggernaut of capitalism were he not also a traitor to our United States.
somsai (colorado)
@Ernesto Gomez Bundy's broke no laws, innocent by a jury of their peers. No arms, no anti govt, no nothing, simply enjoying our shared national lands.
nom de guerre (Kirkwood, MO)
How many of us get away with $1 million in unpaid government fees? It appears only heavily armed white militia members do.
Scott S. (California)
Why should the West be exempt from our ruining of everything else we touch? Rivers? We turned them into a toilet. Lakes? Toilet. Soil? We completely turn it to trash. National Parks? People actually fighting to allow guns in, drill and mine there. There is nothing that this country's greed can't ruin.
Bill Wolfe (Bordentown, NJ)
This might be one of the most egregious examples of false equivalence I have ever rad: to equate Ketcham with Bundy. Absurd. False. And cowardly. Have you ever come across a decapitated wolf hung from a tree? The ranchers out here are sick.
Conservationist (Washington DC)
@Bill Wolfe The reviewer simply makes the obvious observation that Ketcham is like the Bundys in one respect - both are slaves to narrow, blind ideologies. Both are happy to usher in wide-scale collateral damage and destruction. Bundy by armed standoff and Ketcham by working to get Trump elected. Both outcomes are terrible for our public lands.
somsai (colorado)
@Bill Wolfe Nope, only yotes, hung by the lower jaws to T posts. It's both a warning to other dogs and a temporary trophy for other dog hunters to see. It's the west.
See also