Restoring a River and a People: The Elwha River Project

The new estuary carved from the recent heavy rains.

by Michael W. Childers with photographs by Leisl Carr Childers

Standing on the abandoned roadbed, I look down at the large earthworks imagining the dam and hydroelectric plant that once stood here. There are signs of the dam if you know where to look. A small eye-hook embedded into the ground, a handful of holes where the dam was once anchored into the bedrock, and of course the roadbed on which I, along with rest of a tour group* led by NPS Historian Chris Johnson and Olympic National Park’s chief cultural resource manager Dave Conca, are now standing. In truth, the area appears like any reclamation site. Carefully graded slopes are thinly covered with native grasses, and further up stream, what was once the reservoir’s high water mark is now planted with those same grasses in efforts to stabilize the slopes and beat back invasive species. But what is most important is the Elhwa River pouring through the narrow rock gap on its way to the Straight of Juan de Fuca.

The connection between mountains and the sea is particularly pronounced on the Olympic Peninsula where the Olympic Range rises to 8,000 feet above sea level before plummeting down to the peninsula’s rocky, weather-beaten beaches. Snowmelt cascades down from the mountains into the Pacific, the Straight of Juan de Fuca, and Puget Sound in a system of streams and rivers, cutting through dense rainforests. The peninsula abounds with elk, bobcat, otter, and thousands of bird species. On the peninsula’s northern end, a quirk of geography blocks much of the rainfall seen on the rest peninsula. Sheltered by the Olympics, the area is much drier, which has made the region much a more attractive place for human habitation for millennia.

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I join the rest of the tour already hiking down to the former dam site, where we listen to Conca briefly tell the dam’s story. Built in 1913, the Elwha Dam system, consisting of an upper and lower dam, provided the needed electricity to the upper Olympic Peninsula’s thriving timber industry. But in doing so, it slammed the river shut to thousands of Chinook and Coho salmon from making their annual run upstream and inundated the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe’s creation site, severing both the tribe’s physical and spiritual connection to its ancestral home, causing them to become, in the words of the tribe’s lawyer, refugees in their own homeland.

Unable to make it past the dam (the original fish ladders having lasted only a year before collapsing) salmon failed to reproduce in sufficient numbers. As the number of fish declined, the once thriving beach at the mouth of the Elwha slowly eroded away, leaving behind only a rocky shore. With no fish and no beach, the birds, crabs, seals, and sea lions all moved on.

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And so it remained for a century. The two dams destroyed one way of life while providing the basis for another. But one generation’s triumph became another’s foil, and dams, particularly those in the Pacific Northwest, became the targets of increasing criticism over their environmental and cultural implications.

By the late 1980s, electricity from outside the region surpassed that produced by the increasingly outdated Elwha plant. Faced with the reality of both the dams’ growing obsolescence, along with growing calls to remove all dams throughout the northwest, in 1995 the owners of both the Elwha and Glines Canyon Dams, along with the Bureau of Reclamation and the National Park Service agreed to take down both. As is often the case, the final removal of the Elwha Dam took nearly another two decades. But in the spring of 2012 the Elwha Dam and hydroelectric plant were gone.**

After wandering around the former dam site, we loaded back onto the tour bus and headed down to the month of the river where the tribe’s river restoration director Robert Elofson meets us in parking lot of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribal Center. Herding us back into our bus, we follow Elofson in his pickup down to the beach where he excitedly marches us to a newly formed estuary. With a wide grin, he explained how this winter’s torrential rains, some of the heaviest in recorded history, had plowed open the beach, allowing seawater to flood back in, recreating the long-vanished estuary.

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Cautioning us not to stand too closed to the bank, Elofson then led us off onto wide gravel beach. Whole trees, along with cedar stumps the size of my car and driftwood lie strewn across the expansive beach. Walking along the water’s edge, I soon am pointed to a school of porpoises swimming in the straight. A seal pops its head above the shallow waves before disappearing again below. Thousands of sea birds soar above us in the crisp afternoon air, their cries creating a cacophony of sound. Reaching the far end of the beach, about a mile hike, I notice several bald eagles resting on a stump in the middle of the Elwha as it enters the Straight of Juan de Fuca.

Remarkably, none of this, not the birds, the clams, the porpoises, not even the beach itself was here just a short two years ago. The removal of both dams released nearly 14 millions tons of sediment down the river, forming this beach in a matter of months. Today, the estuary measures some seventy acres, and life has returned to the Elwha. Pausing where the river fans out and enters the straight, Elofson begins to talk of the future. The tribe is waiting another few years before they start harvesting the salmon in order to allow the number of Chinook and Coho to stabilize. They are already in talks with Whole Foods he grins, hoping to capitalize on the Elwha’s story to sell salmon in the Seattle area, a possibility that was inconceivable two decades ago.

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In his Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River, historian Richard White writes, “We have managed the river to deliver power that has improved lives; the river has also irrigated land and served as a highway for barges. But judged against the larger hopes, our efforts have been failures, and integral to them was a failed relation with nature.” Published in 1995, the book could have as easily been about the Elwha as the Columbia. Walking back across the beach I am struck by two thoughts. One is how the removal of the Elwha Dam adds a chapter to White’s work. We have remade the river by removing a dam, and in doing so, have reconnected a people to their home. But the second is how modern a story this is. The Elwha will continue to work, but this time producing salmon and clams for the Seattle market, an economic as well as cultural link between the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe and the millions who call the booming metropolitan area home. It is this reconnection between river and people, people and fish, fish and birds, birds and mountains, that is so captivating as I turn to leave the new beach. This is better model for the modern West.

* The American Society for Environmental History Conference organized the Elwha Dam Removal Tour as part of their conference activities on April 3, 2016. Our thanks to Chris Johnson from the National Park Service Pacific West Region’s Seattle office  for all the work he did in putting the tour together.

** For more on the restoration of the Elwha River, see the National Park Service’s Elwha River Restoration site and the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe’s Elwha River Restoration site.

Creating a Digital Denver

Cover photo

By Robert Jordan

In the spring of 2015 and 2016, students in my HIST475 course on digital history at Colorado State University began work on an ambitious new project focused on recreating historical spaces in a virtual environment. During the selection process for the location of the project, I identified Denver as an ideal historical space to work with, as it was familiar to nearly all my students, local archival materials were easily accessible both physically and digitally, and the breadth of available archival materials would allow for a multifaceted recreation of the economic, social, environmental, and cultural life of the city. In order to take the first stepsSlide2 towards the ultimate goal of the project – the creation of a 1:1 scale, virtual facsimile of the city of Denver at the dawn of the twentieth century – my students and I utilized resources from the Denver Public Library’s collection of Sanborn maps and digital photographs, Colorado State Library’s Historic Newspapers Collection, and an education-focused version of the immensely popular video game Minecraft. As a digital platform for the building of virtual environments, had enormous advantages due to its relatively shallow learning curve for my students Slide4working within the time confines of a 15 week semester and its utility for use as part of a public history project, as our final product could potentially be accessed by tens of millions of Minecraft users.

Students also were tasked with researching thematic topics from within the social, economic, political, and cultural history of the city and the larger U.S. West to be incorporated into a companion website. Blue-colored information markers placed throughout the virtual environment allow for visitors to engage with a multifaceted, multimedia exploration of the history of Denver provided on our prototype Tumblr site still in development.
By layering online access to newspaper articles, historical photographs, and original studentSlide5 research onto the virtual spaces of the city, visitors will gain a deeper understanding of the spaces and places of this growing city seated on the edge of empire. However, as much as potential visitors have to benefit by an exploration of this virtual space, my students benefitted most from this complex process of creating a historical facsimile of Denver.

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Student outcomes from participation in this project were varied, but several themes remain consistent as we come to the close of construction this semester. First, despite the fact that many students came into the course unfamiliar with the history of the U.S. West, they soon came to understand Denver through researching the daily practices and experiences of frontier peoples within the spaces and places of this booming city. According to French sociologist Henri Lefebrve, these public and semi-private places, real and imagined, represent the spatialized production of ideas, values, and memories that individuals and the state attach to them.[1] In their individual research, students came to better understand that historical actors’ creation and ordering of spaces across the city had the power to “transform space into place,” capable of shaping and reshaping the cultural landscape of the city of Denver.

Slide20Secondly, as a prerequisite to constructing the spaces and places of the city, students did research at a level of detail unlike anything encountered in their previous history classes. To accurately recreate the historical spaces of Denver, research into the small details needed to do so revealed information about
Denver’s placement within the larger history of cities in the U.S. West. During the turn of the twentieth century, Denver strived to assert itself as more than a mere imitator of east coast cities and attempted to showcase itself as a unique center for local innovation and economic development. These aspirations of city officials and wealthy residents could be seen in our virtual version of historic Denver by reading the built environment like a text. The small details discovered by my students as they built the urban landscape from the ground up illuminated the social and cultural life of a city in transition, made visible through details such as the planting of non-native oak and Slide19maple trees in the green spaces of the city by homesick easterners; the manipulation of the Platte River and its subsidiary creeks for urban use; the ubiquity of saloons as gathering places for immigrant men; the grandiose theatres, opera house, and civic buildings designed to showcase the city’s cultural sophistication; the abundance and nature of peripheral businesses connected to the boom in mining and agriculture; and the technological advances in energy, communication, and transportation made manifest in the chaotic webs of electrical wires and streetcar tracks coursing throughout the streets of the city.


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Slide12Thirdly, through this process of building a living city from scratch, my students gained an incredible amount of understanding of the history of the city and the daily practices of its residents, but equally as important, they came to understand the limits of historical knowledge and the impossibility of ever truly knowing the past. In their attempts to conduct research on the ethnic composition of Denver at the turn of the twentieth century, students were disheartened to discover a significant lack of photographic and written evidence for the existence of non-white peoples outside the cold figures of the census rolls. This marginalization of non-whites was further hammered home by a greater understanding of the spatial orientation of the city, as students came to realize the amount of physical distance placed between the wealthy elites in the city center and the immigrant laborers relegated to the growing periphery. Additionally, despite that the majority of my students were Colorado natives with a high degree of familiarity with Denver, despite the fact that our archival materials were incredibly extensive, and despite the fact that our research focused on a period roughly a mere century ago, many students were shocked by how little we can actually know about city life during this period. Huge knowledge gaps exist on the appearance of physical structures, the design and utility of interior spaces, and the aforementioned social and cultural practices of many non-white community members. As David Lowenthal famously stated and my students came to discover, the past is a foreign country, not an easily discoverable body of comprehensive, objective data.[2]

Slide22Slide21Lastly, this kind of project-centered learning with a heavy emphasis on collaboration between students, archivists, and instructors to create an immersive and interactive means of exploring the past has been an amazing experience for everyone involved. A number of teachable and non-teachable skills were gained through the process of our project development, including leadership, problem-solving, locating and utilizing archival data, digital literacy, the practice of public history, and project planning. Looking to the future, the time-intensive nature of this kind of ambitious digital project requires far more than two semesters of labor to fully create the city of Denver at the dawn of the twentieth century, as we have currently completed streets and building exteriors for only around 40 blocks of the city. Our projected launch date for a living, fully completed version of historical Denver is currently the year 2020, but soon we will be releasing updated versions of the map on a regular basis to share it with libraries, schools, and the general public, allowing a unique opportunity for any interested parties to virtually immerse themselves within the living landscape of the city of Denver as it was over a century ago.

[1]  Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991), 321-323.

[2] David Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Eldora Ski Resort and A Hopeful (?) Future for Public Lands


By Mike Childers

As mud season hits and westerners began dreaming of warmer days, the future of Eldora Mountain Resort appears to be a little more hopeful as concerned locals are now working with the resort’s owners and U.S. Forest Service in resolving what potentially could have been yet another chapter in fight over ski resort development on public lands. A fight brought further into focus with the rising tensions over the management and use of public lands throughout the West.

Last fall, Nederland resident Betty Bass contacted me by phone. Concerned over the Forest Service’s impending decision about the small ski area’s proposed plan to add several hundred acres and improve its facilities. In that first conversation, I had not been too encouraging about her hopes on halting the expansion, but wished her luck. Like many of us, Betty was not opposed to some of the ski area’s improvements. She and her family loved skiing at Eldora, considering it a perk of living in the funky little mountain town known more for its annual Frozen Dead Guy Day celebration than as a tourist Mecca.

Betty, along with several other locals, was worried that the ski area’s proposed construction would attract more skiers and snowboarders to the area, negatively impacting the local environment and economy. Now it seemed she and others would have a greater voice in the ski area’s future. It was a surprising development, particularly given the history of ski resort development throughout the West over the past half century.

Expansion is often a four-letter word when discussing ski resorts. This was certainly the case concerning Eldora Mountain Resort. The windswept ski area has long been the favorite of a small number of Colorado skiers unwilling to brave the bumper-to-bumper traffic clogging I-70 every winter weekend. Yet, over the past several seasons, Eldora’s growing popularity stretched its aging lifts, parking, and facilities to the brink. Overwhelmed and in need of serious investment to meet this growing demand, the area announced plans to modernize its ski lifts, add an on mountain restaurant, and yes, add roughly ninety acres of new terrain.

Map of proposed expansion from USFS record of decision

Map of proposed expansion from USFS record of decision

From there the story began to take on a familiar narrative. Needing Forest Service approval, Eldora worked with the local district office to conduct an environmental impact statement. Locals voiced their opposition to any expansion of the resort, fearing the impacts they would have on their community. Environmental groups soon joined the fray, along with Boulder County, condemning any expansion, arguing that it would have a profound effect on the area’s ecology and community. Such fears seemed to be confirmed, when, last February, the Forest Service released its Draft Environmental Statement approving Eldora’s expansion, leaving many opponents to begin considering bringing a lawsuit against the ski resort.

This is a well-rehearsed script. For the past several decades, ski resorts have sought to grow in order to meet our insatiable hunger for more terrain, faster chair lifts, and better amenities – all of which help grow their bottom line. Faced with growing public demand, the Forest Service is locked into a legal structure that requires it to seek ways in which to mitigate rather than halt development. Critics bemoan the loss of local character, sky rocketing real estate costs, and environmental impacts such recreational development brings.

But that is where Eldora’s story began to differ. While approving the upgrade of two chairlifts, expanding snowmaking operations, the construction of the new Challenge Mountain lodge, and the addition of 182 acres already within the current ski area boundary, interim Forest Supervisor Ron Archuleta deferred the most controversial component of the plan – the expansion of the ski area beyond its current boundaries to include an additional eighty-eight acres. Instead, Archuleta called for all parties to work collaboratively to resolve all “environmental and social issues.”

A week later Betty gave me a ring and asked for my thoughts. Dumbfounded, I noted that such decisions are far from typical historically, and meekly encouraged Betty that she and all of those concerned seize the opportunity to build a consensus over the future of Eldora. In truth, the final decision on Eldora’s expansion remains the Forest Service’s hands.

This decision could have ramifications much further than just within Colorado. As continued numbers of skiers and snowboarders flood the West’s ski resorts, such constructive conversations between concerned groups may help settle, or at least defuse, bruising legal fights over proposed ski area expansions such as those at Arizona’s Snow Bowl and Utah’s Park City, to name just two.

Perhaps giving equal weight to preserving local communities when considering expanding our ski resorts will help us achieve the greatest good for the greatest number in the longest run. After all, this is not a simple “them” or “us” issue. Rather, it is conversation that involves all of us and the future of our public lands. In light of recent events in Oregon and the Representative Robert Bishop’s stalled (failed) public lands initiative, it is clear that the future of the West’s public lands remains an emotionally charged issue, one in which we are all culpable in pushing our own agendas. Like many concerned over the implications of ever-large resorts built on National Forest lands, I anxiously checked my mailbox every evening last fall for my new season pass. How we meet these seemingly contradictory impulses deserves some thoughtful conversation. Maybe the conversation over the future of Eldora can provide a little direction.


A Culture of Fear: Sexism’s Ugly Role in Federal Land Agencies


Introduced in 1970, the NPS offered seven different women’s uniforms, all included short skirts made of thin material. Most infamous were the go-go boots, when combined with the skirt offered a highly sexulaized and rather unprofessional look.

There is no doubt that for many, a career working in the West’s vast public lands is a dream job. From the sublime beauty of Yosemite to the sagebrush flats of Wyoming, federal employees spend their lives managing and protecting our national heritage.

But while recent events in Oregon have focused attention on the struggles between rural land users, recreationalists, and local and federal governments, a darker, more troubling story has begun to emerge concerning the culture of sexism and intimidation within federal land management agencies.

Last week, the Huffington Post’s online magazine Highline published “Out Here, No One Can Hear You Scream.” Written by journalist Kathryn Joyce and producer Emily Kassie, the multimedia piece exposes the pervasive culture of sexism within every federal land agency, telling the stories numerous women and their struggles with unwanted advances, intimidation, cronyism, and rampant misogynism. It is a powerful condemnation of a culture too long accepted, and well worth a read.

A longtime friend emailed me the story. With nearly two decades working for various federal land agencies primarily in the West, the women’s stories in the article struck a deep chord within my friend. “And here I thought it was just me being a “damn feminist,” she wrote before launching into a testimonial of her own experiences. Needless to say, they mirrored many within the Highline article.

Reading, and then rereading both the article and her testimony, I went from being enraged to deeply concerned. When combined with the growing violence, or threat of violence, against federal land managers as chronicled by the High Country News, the rhetoric calling to “return” public lands to states, the incredible pressures federal employees face in trying manage millions of acres of land while under attack from all sides that believe that their use/view has primacy over all others, and the good ol’boy-networks that often run most rural western communities, it is frightening what dangers women face when simply attempting to do their job.

What am I supposed to tell my eager young students who dream of someday working in a National Park, National Forest, or on BLM lands who romanticize long days under a western sun, hiking, four wheeling, and protecting our western public lands? It is difficult enough to express the complex politics, laws, and histories of these places. What about the daily struggles of simply being seen as an equal? Fending off unwanted, and often unprosecuted, sexual advances? The inequities in promotions, access, and acceptance?

I am not sure what the answers to these questions are, but I do know that they should start with an acknowledgement that these women are a part of our western communities. They are our neighbors and friends, and so should be treated as such. We need to demand accountability from local, regional, and even national land management offices in rooting out such behavior. And we need to combat the often red-hot anti-government rhetoric that targets federal employees and has led to events such as the illegal occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by armed criminals. All of these untenable situations have helped create a climate of fear and intimidation in which we ask our land managers to not only protect our national lands, but also to preserve them for future generations. This is a tall order under the best of circumstances, and an impossible one if half of our land managers are marginalized, harassed, and out-in-out ignored because of their gender.



Shawn Regan of PERC on Managing Conflicts Over US Federal Rangelands

Steve Mrlaugh, A Horned Herford Cow in Nevada, 2009

The national conversation about managing grazing on public lands is becoming more thoughtful as groups across the country weigh in, many pointing to helpful publications that predate the events at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. One of those organizations approached BlogWest and we appreciated the perspective they had to offer. The Property and Environment Research Center (PERC)’s Shawn Regan, a prolific writer whose work you’ve probably seen in the High Country News, Grist, and the Wall Street Journal, posted a piece on January 8th entitled “Managing Conflicts Over US Federal Rangelands” that appears on the PERC site and as a chapter in a larger publication Ranching Realities in the 21st Century (Fraser Institute, November 2015). The author takes seriously the issues of property and water rights, and provides a comprehensive and understandable explanation of how convoluted and prone to conflict the legal and administrative structures that govern public lands have become. Our thanks to Shawn for his efforts in helping us think about these issues.

Essential Reading on the Incidents at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

Jeff Sorn, A view of the Steens Mountains from the Buena Vista Overlook located in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, July 30, 2010.

Our good friends at The Institute for Mountain Research at Westminster College asked BlogWest administrator Leisl Carr Childers for a compilation of valuable resources that can help readers understand events at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge this past week. Click here to peruse the list.

Federal Policy, Western Lands, and Malheur

Flickr: Steven Miller

At the root of these controversies was not just “interest” in the conventional sense of an economic stake but values. The economic interest of producers undergirded their opposition. But at a deeper level of human response was the degree to which producers’ values were offended. They could not accept the notion that what environmentalists thought was useful and valuable was, in fact, so.

Samuel Hays

The federal government administers a lot of Western land.

Western federal lands.

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To people like those occupying Malheur, that large portions of the West are under the administration of the federal government is an affront to their sensibilities. These lands, they would contend, deserve to be opened up and sold to private entities, to expand private property ownership in the West and allow the land to be put to “productive” use. The continued presence of federal ownership, they’d argue, threatens the sovereignty of states and individuals. But these lands were never meant to be a “theft” from production. Quite the opposite. Except for wildlife preserves, most federal land management encourages the use of these lands—for recreation, grazing, military testing, and so on. Although these lands are regulated in the kinds of use they contain, they are, ultimately, used.

But that very use introduces a complex political problem referred to as “multiple use.” The western federal lands have many interests that need to be served. Multiple use urges “harmonious and coordinated management of the various resources” to “give the greatest dollar return or the greatest unit output.” By and large, although both sides might grumble about each other, public land officials and ranchers tend to work together—and must if we hope to reach a balance between the protection of land and its use for production or leisure.

The militants represent a long debate in the West. Many are pointing to the Sagebrush Rebellion. An apt comparison, in this case. At the policy level, public grazing law underwent dramatic changes beginning in 1970 with the National Environmental Policy Act, followed by the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 and the Public Rangeland Improvement Act of 1978. The combination of these legislative actions endorsed the environmentalist critique of livestock on the public range and sanctioned the reduction of livestock, which prompted a sharp reaction among ranchers in the West. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, what became known as the “Sagebrush Rebellion” called for the privatization of public lands.

The development of modern rangeland policy dates to 1934 with the passage of the Taylor Grazing Act, which placed all public domain lands under the control of the Department of the Interior that had been previously managed by the U.S. Forest Service. Furthermore, the act formed grazing districts under the control of local ranchers that had the power to issue, deny, and admit new grazers to the range. Secretary of Interior Harold Ickes formed a Grazing Division to monitor the grazing boards, which became the Grazing Service in 1939 before it was dismantled in 1946 and replaced again by the Bureau of Land Management. Although the Grazing Service was under the control of local ranchers, they nonetheless lacked the sort of control over public lands they desired. The Forest Service, which was not under local rancher control, administered greater regulatory services on the public range. Administrators in the Forest Service maintained that grazing permits were government-granted privileges for ranchers using public lands, and the permit did not grant ranchers private claims. This conflict—over who controlled the public lands—formed the basis of disagreements well through the 1970s and 1980s. The Taylor Grazing Act and the bureaucratic battles that emerged from it fueled early resentment towards government regulation of the land.

If the 1930s stirred western resentment, the 1940s placed ranchers on the defensive. Early in the decade, the House Appropriations Committee demanded an increase in grazing fees from the Grazing Service, followed by the Forest Service calling for herd reductions in National Forests in the years after World War II. Ranchers criticized the activist federal government as a giant leviathan encroaching on private property rights and free enterprise. As evidence of this growing controversy, government hearings over public land disputes ran almost continuously between 1941 and 1948. Public land controversies died down in the 1950s and remained relatively quiet until the 1960s and 1970s as the polarized politics between organized ranchers and environmentalists exploded over the issues of grazing on the public lands.1

The first stage of the battles between environmentalists and ranchers emerged with the implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in 1970, which allowed federal agencies to take “actions significantly affecting the quality of the human environment” to “assure for all Americans safe, healthful, productive, and esthetically and culturally pleasing surroundings” and required agencies to provide detailed assessments of environmental impacts.2 Environmental impact statements, or EISs, became a source of legal conflict as environmentalists filed suits against the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), challenging their ecological assessments of the impact livestock grazing had on public lands. The first of these came from the Natural Resources Defense Council, which filed suit in 1973 to contest an EIS the BLM completed in evaluating its grazing program. The National Resource Defense Council argued the EIS insufficiently detailed the specific impacts at the local level. In December 1974 a federal judge agreed, saying that the EIS was not “fine-tuned” and failed to account for “individual geographic conditions.”3 The mounting pressure from environmentalists forced the agency to react and set in motion tremendous changes in public grazing policy to such an extent that a group of legal scholar noted “future historians may date the beginning of modern rangeland management from December 1974 when a federal district court ordered the BLM to comply with the NEPA.”4

Western federal land administration.

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The management and regulation of public grazing felt the impact of two more legislative measures before the close of the decade. The Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) passed in 1976 addressed a series of issues related to Bureau of Land Management lands. Specific to grazing, the act took into greater account wildlife and recreation interests in setting range policy and declared that “the public lands be retained in Federal ownership.” Thus, the possibility of privatizing federal land was removed from consideration. Two years later, Congress passed the Public Rangeland Improvement Act (PRIA) that gave priority to range management, directing that range plans be “tailored to the specific range conditions of the area to be covered by such plan” and whether the plan would “have been effective in improving the range condition of the lands involved.” Legislation and federal rangeland administration gave rise to western resentment over land management.

The emergence of federal rangeland legislation in the 1970s coincided with the growing environmental movement and the concerns of consumers. Consumers questioned the application of chemicals to the foods they ate, such as growth hormones for beef and dairy cattle or genetically modified crops. Farm researchers at the end of World War II believed the use of chemicals would solve production problems and stressed technological efficiency that would improve crop and stock production.5 By the 1970s consumer-interest groups lobbied for food-processing companies to halt their purchases of agricultural commodities they concluded were unsafe, even if scientific evidence was inconclusive about the long-term health effects on humans. Consumers also expected safe drinking water uncontaminated by agricultural pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, and runoff from large cattle and hog feedlots. Natural resources in the West were, in the words of Arizona Senator Paul Fannin, being “revalued in a Nation where open space, clean air and room to stretch and roam are becoming priceless commodities.”6

To western ranchers, environmentalists were conspiring to upend rural communities. In 1974, the South Dakota Stockgrower, a publication of the state’s cattle interests, wrote that “[ranchers must] become involved in plan policy making for his own well-being, otherwise, he may discover that pressure groups, technical planners and government agencies have established the policies for him.” The heated debates between ranchers and government regulation arose from a belief among ranchers that public lands were their land rather than land privileged to them. Ranchers complained that land planning threatened the “time-honored concept that the land-owner may do with his land as he ‘darn well wishes.’”7 Complicating matters further was the process of range permits that appeared to confer a right to use property. Thus, when environmental and rangeland regulations emerged from Congress, ranchers asserted their rights against what they saw as an oppressive federal regulation of public grazing administration. The lack of local input and perception of endless bureaucratic red tape fueled the call of ranchers accusing the federal government of replacing law with overarching administrative power and bowing to the interests of an environmental lobby.8

But it’s not just about the Sagebrush Rebellion, or the ones that preceded it in the 1920s, 1940s, and 1950s. The anti-government militants are tapping into a mythology almost as old as the West itself: that these small-time farmers are simply watching out for themselves and hoping to keep federal power from encompassing their lives and liberties. The militants in Malheur point to a “golden age” when the lack of federal oversight meant unfettered access to their lives and land. But that story overlooks a long history in the West of a few large land interests monopolizing thousands of acres to control access to water and rangeland. In the process, these cattle barons locked settlers out of vast territories. Only during the anti-monopoly age of the 1880s and 1890s were these empires dismantled as tensions and violence ran high among small farmers and ranchers, furious at monopolistic interests that tied up the West’s lands.

Yet this very concern over the government’s overreach collides with a dissonance that the federal government massively subsidizes production on the nation’s public lands. Ranchers pay low fees to work the land administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). At market prices, most small-time ranchers would be looking for other work. Land subsidies mean ranchers often receive a 93% discount on the land. Not to mention that the federal administration of public lands saves states massive amount of money they otherwise would spend on administrative costs, and much of the money collected by the government is funneled back to states to cover the possible loss of taxes they would’ve levied otherwise.

And let’s not forget: this is Pauite land, whose land claims were dismantled and eventually transferred to public domain as retribution after an uprising in the late nineteenth century. But the militants are not so concerned about the loss of Native sovereignty.

Ranchers deserve some empathy. They’ve been asked to adapt continually to changing political pressures and land management regimes. But the stridency of resistance has grown more violent, as High Country News reported last summer. And the militants in Malheur have claimed they don’t intend harm unless there are threats to remove them from the building. Ranchers have their place on the nation’s public lands, but those lands are subject to multiple interests—wildlife, recreationists, and so on all use these lands, and no group has exclusive use of the lands. We cannot forget that we, as a society over time, decided that these lands are worth protecting.

The complexities of the past have been replaced by the tidy myths of the present. We should continue striving for the equitable and collaborative use of public lands.

This post is cross listed with

  1. Karin Merrell, Public Lands and Political Meaning, 12-13; William Rowley, “Open Range to Closed Range,” 106-109. To complicate matters further, the Interior Department’s first director of Grazing, Farrington Carpenter, interpreted the Taylor Grazing Act as establishing range rights for ranchers, an interpretation Secretary of Interior Ickes stridently disagreed with. Ickes recognized the local thortonomy in the grazing districts, but sided with the Forest Service in maintaining that ranchers had not gained any rights to the public domain. See Merrell, Public Lands and Political Meaning, 135-168.
  2. 42 U.S.C. §§ 4321-70a (1988). The quoted language is from 42 U.S.C. §§ 4331(b) (1988).
  3. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc. v. Morton, 388 F. Supp. 829, 840 (D.C. Cir. 1974), Pacific Legal Foundation v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 427 U.S. 913 (1976).
  4. Merrill, Public Lands and Political Meaning, 206; Charles Wilkinson, Crossing the Next Meridian: Land, Water, and the Future of the West (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1992), 95-98; George Cameron Coggins, Parthenia Blessing Evans, and Margaret Lindberg-Johnson, “The Law of Public Rangeland Management I: The Extent and Distribution of Federal Power,” Environmental Law 12 (1982): 535, 554.
  5. James Sherow, “Environmentalism and Agriculture in the American West,” in The Rural West Since World War II, ed. R. Douglas Hurt (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998), 61.
  6. Fannin, quoted in Brian Q. Cannon, Reopening the Frontier: Homesteading in the Modern West (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2009), 154.
  7. “Land Use Laws Are Here To Stay, So Get Involved In Planning,” South Dakota Stockgrower (June 1974): 18.
  8. R. McGreggor Cawley, Federal Land, Western Anger: The Sagebrush Rebellion and Environmental Politics (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1993), 4-5; Merrell, Public Lands and Political Meaning, 202-204.

Cliven Bundy Revisited

Gary Halvorson, Oregon State Archives, 2007

I take back the term “empathy.” I’m not even sure I’m sympathetic at this point. Over the weekend, after the completion of a peaceful protest by several hundred marchers in Burns, Oregon, according to The Oregonian/, “a group of outside militants drove to the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, where they seized and occupied the refuge headquarters.” Among the militants were three sons of Cliven Bundy. Major news networks, ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, and Fox, reported the event, several acknowledging that the unwelcome presence of the militia and the brothers.

The Bundy brothers were there to support the Hammond family, whose patriarch Lincoln and son Steven had recently been convicted of illegally setting two range fires and sentenced to the minimum of five years in prison. But, the demeanor of the Bundys is absolutely out of line. Though the brothers affirm that they are not “looking to hurt anyone,” they threaten violence if anyone threatens to remove them.

It is this position that places them outside the realm of empathy. Last summer, the High Country News investigated the incidents of violence against federal land management employees. In their efforts to protect their perceived rights–their unchanged access to public lands–they have dehumanized the personnel who strive to facilitate and regulate that access.

This is where I lose my grip on empathy. The nature of public lands, since their inception–first as property owned by the federal government under the Land Ordinance of 1785 (this predates the US Constitution itself) and then as property permitted under the Forest Reserve Act of 1891 and the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934)–necessitates collaboration. There are a wide array of interests represented on public lands, and all of these interests have legal and historical standing.

Public lands ranchers have a place on public lands, but they aren’t the only ones. Because of the multiple use concept, wildlife have shared equal footing with ranchers under the Taylor Grazing Act. As of the mid-1970s, wild horses and burros and outdoor recreationists receive similar consideration. And, the military has historically had more access to public lands than any of these groups. However, no one group is allowed to maintain exclusive control over this real estate. The nature of public lands and the multiple use concept which governs it necessitates collaboration and flexibility.

This seems to be what has been lost in the conversation: too many public lands users feel they are entitled to a majority share of those lands without consideration for other users. Some of this entitlement comes from their interpretation of what it means to be a historical user, some of it comes from the ways in which they interpret the very different pieces of legislation that govern public lands, and some of it is derived from the fact that private water rights provide powerful anchors to public lands use.

Even so, we all must work to accommodate each other on these lands–they are ours, what we have saved, both the iconic landscapes and the leftovers. If I have empathy for anyone at this point, it is for every single public lands rancher and official who strives with unending energy and patience to work out the kinks in pubic lands policy so that all can benefit.

Leisl Carr Childers is assistant professor at the University of Northern Iowa and author of The Size of the Risk: Histories of Multiple Use in the Great Basin.


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