On October 13, 1961, Assistant Secretary of the Interior John A. Carver, filling in for Secretary of the Interior Stewart L. Udall at the last minute, delivered the keynote address, entitled “The West Against Itself,” at the first meeting of the newly created Western History Association (WHA). In his speech, Carver expressed Udall’s vision of land and natural resource management. Both Carver and Udall had been profoundly affected by the writings of western historians and their conservation policies reflected scholars’ increasing criticism of the exploitation of the western environment. Carver stated that DeVoto’s essays in Harper’s Magazine,such as “The West: A Plundered Province” and “The West Against Itself,” had a profound effect on his vision of public land management. He embraced historian Walter Prescott Webb’s premise that the heart of the American West was a desert and that the region’s aridness created fundamental “deficiencies” which limited its development. Webb’s essay on the subject in the May 1957 issue of Harper’s Magazine, “The American West: Perpetual Mirage,” stirred public outcry in several western states after Senator Michael J. Mansfield of Montana had the article printed in the Congressional Record.
Carver’s invocation of western historians’ writings and the emphasis the works placed on the region’s environment bears highlighting. As the WHA began its official existence, embedded in its consciousness was the gravity of the aridness of the area, the amount of public land, and the close relationship the region’s population had with the federal government. These concepts are nothing revolutionary from our perspective more than five decades distant from that October, yet at that time, Carver provided a critical acknowledgement of the deficits. The concept of deficiency had outraged several senators, namely Wallace F. Bennett of Utah and Arizona’s Barry M. Goldwater, who had objected to Webb’s use of the word deficient, which they interpreted as describing the region’s value to the nation. However, residents of the American West knew differently. Attempts to conform development in the Great Basin and Colorado Plateau, Mojave and Sonoran deserts, and other arid areas, to national standards of prosperity had left its minimal water resources depleted and its society second-class. Carver declared, that the old pattern of land and natural resource management driven by a “Neanderthal morality” and “the luxury of frontier wastefulness” was at an end. His emphasis on scarcity and thus conservation challenged the national narrative of abundance. Carver’s speech marked the national prominence of scholarship on the American West and a sea change in public land management.
by Leisl Carr Childers
by Michael W. Childers
For a number of weeks this past summer, images of walls of flame ripping through neighborhoods outside of the Colorado cities of Colorado Springs, Boulder, and Fort Collins garnered national attention. Declared the most expensive fire season in the state’s history, the Colorado fires underlined the increasingly problematic relationship between the West’s continuously expanding metropolitan areas and nature. While the fires outside of Ft. Collins (Colorado’s fifth largest city) and Boulder (the state’s eleventh largest city) burned several thousands of acres they caused relatively little private property damage. In contrast, the Waldo Canyon Fire just outside of Colorado Springs (Colorado’s second largest city), burned 18,247 acres, and ravaged whole subdivisions on the city’s periphery. Burning 346 homes, insurance claims are well over $350 million to date.
We know the reasons why so many catastrophic wildfires raged across the West this past spring and summer. Two extremely wet years were followed by the worst drought in over a half a century left Western forests primed for fire. Combined with over a century of suppression and population growth, the Waldo Canyon Fire was the unhappy confluence of two of the most poignant forces of the past century that have come to shape the modern America West – urbanization and nature resource management.
The West is at once the most urban and rural region within the United States. Well over 90 percent of the region’s population call a metropolitan area home, while at the same time the West is home to the vast majority of the nation’s public lands. Both have historically driven the West’s economy—the cities as hubs of commerce and transportation, as well as growth machines, and public lands as sources of natural resources and amenities. But following World War II, the region underwent an incredible period of population growth shifting the center of American gravity shifted westward. And as western metropolises sprawled ever further outward as at remarkable pace, the U.S. Forest Service expanded its own ability to suppress wildfires through the use bulldozers, trucks, and aircraft. As metro areas like those along Colorado’s Front Range have continued to grow so too did the suppression of fires in adjacent national forests and other public lands. The combination of which has led to some deadly, and expensive, consequences.