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.
The federal government administers a lot of Western land.
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
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 jasonheppler.org.
- 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. ↩
- 42 U.S.C. §§ 4321-70a (1988). The quoted language is from 42 U.S.C. §§ 4331(b) (1988). ↩
- 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). ↩
- 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. ↩
- 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. ↩
- Fannin, quoted in Brian Q. Cannon, Reopening the Frontier: Homesteading in the Modern West (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2009), 154. ↩
- “Land Use Laws Are Here To Stay, So Get Involved In Planning,” South Dakota Stockgrower (June 1974): 18. ↩
- 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. ↩
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/OregonLive.com, “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.
Make sure to mark your calendars for this year’s Charles Redd Center for Western Studies Fall Lecture Series on the American West, which will be webcasted live on the center’s Youtube channel.
The series will start off with University of Nevada, Reno art professor Peter Goin’s talk “Re-Visiting Tahoe: Then & Now, A Visual History” on September 17 and wrap up with our very own Leisl Carr Childers, who will be presenting her recent work in the lecture “Making Sense of Mustangs and Mushroom Clouds” on November 19 (OK, we might be a bit bias towards this one). Other speakers include UCLA’s Peter Nabakov, Carleton University’s Michael Hogue, Freelance writer and editor Sarah Fox, Emeritus Professor of History and Geography Richard Francaviglia, and Brigham Young University’s Jacqueline Thursby.
“The Redd Center has a long tradition of hosting scholarly lectures of the American West on campus, but while the quality has been great, the audience has been somewhat limited to those on campus,” explained Charles Redd Center Assistant Director Brenden Rensink on the center’s move to love cast the series. “We are excited to begin live webcasting our annual Fall Lectures Series so more can participate.”
Each lecture will take place at 11:00 a.m. Mountain Standard Time on the dates noted bellow. Audiences will be able to live tweet their questions for each speaker at @byureddcenter and on center’s Facebook page.
“One desired outcome would be for this to become a regular part of Western Studies professors fall prep – checking to see who the Redd Center is hosting and adding the events as meaningful parts of their undergraduate and graduate courses every fall,”said Rensink. Adding, “We hope the live streams will enable more of the general public to participate as well.”
Schedule of Lectures:
17 September 2015:
Peter Goin, Foundation Professor of Art, University of Nevada, Reno
Re-Visiting Tahoe: Then & Now, A Visual History
1 October 2015
Peter Nabakov, Professor of World Arts and Cultures, University of California, Los Angeles
How the World Moves: The Odyssey of an American Indian Family
15 October 2015
Michel Hogue, Assistant Professor of History, Carleton University
Metis and the Medicine Line: Researching and Writing the Transnational Histories of Plains Indigenous Peoples
29 October 2015
Sarah Fox, Freelance Writer and Editor
Stories from Downwind: A People’s History of the Nuclear West
5 November 2015 (7:00 PM, MST)
Richard Francaviglia, Emeritus Professor of History and Geography, University of Texas in Arlington
Map-making and Saint-making: A Cartographic History of Mormonism
12 November 2015
Jacqueline Thursby, Professor of English, Brigham Young University
Basques in the American West: Cultural Maintenance and Legacies
19 November 2015
Leisl Childers, Assistant Professor of History, University of Northern Iowa
Making Sense of Mustangs and Mushroom Clouds
Spring is a magical time of year for fly fishing. May will bring may fly blooms, drawing millions to the West’s rivers and streams to match their wits against the cunning trout. In this edition of Conversations, we sat down with Jen Corrinne Brown and asked her a little about her book Trout Culture: How Fly Fishing Forever Changed the Rocky Mountain West, and how she “overturns the biggest fish story ever told.”
BlogWest: How did you come to write about trout fishing in the Rocky Mountain West?
Jen Corrinne Brown: The book stems from a love of fly fishing and a passion for history. I grew up in Montana and learned to fly fish on the Beaverhead and Big Hole rivers in college, falling in love with the sport. Once I started studying history in graduate school, it seemed natural to combine the two.
BW: You open your book by stating that it overturns the biggest fish story ever told. That the trout fisheries of the Rocky Mountain West are environmentally and socially complicated. What is this story, and how do you retell it?
JCB: In western iconography, advertising, and imaginations, fly fishing has loomed larger than life, portraying a timeless, natural West ready to be enjoyed by residents and tourists. Dating back to railroad advertisements and nineteenth-century boosterism, westerners have sold the region as a place for play, a place to restore oneself in nature. Using the skills of a historian, I retell this story by examining the environmental changes that created western trout fisheries, from the introductions of nonnative trout to dumping toxins into rivers to kill off millions of native fish.
BW: You play with the idea of what is, and conversely what is not, natural throughout the book. Specifically, that there is a romanticized ideal of trout fishing in these mountain streams, yet many of the fish desired by anglers are non-native to the region. How does this complicate our understanding of nature, recreation, or just fishing?
JCB: The question over what people think is “natural” or “unnatural” originally drew me to environmental history. The central irony of the book is that, despite these very romantic notions, industrialization and fish stocking created trout fisheries in the West. In explaining this history, I hope Trout Culture will provide context to current conversations over native fish and conservation in the region. Currently, we are experiencing an interesting in shift in fisheries management, where the focus is continued nonnative trout opportunities but also more of an emphasis on native fish management. Dozens of recent native trout restoration projects have sought to save trout rather than native suckers, chubs, or other endangered fish. Privileging nativeness over biodiversity, these efforts involve the heavy use of fish toxicants to remove nonnative trout—and anything else that swims in the river—then the planting of native cutthroat trout, in most cases, taken from brood stocks maintained by state agencies. Fisheries managers have extremely hard jobs in which they are constantly faced with tough decisions along with the small budgets and incessant demands of any state agency. Yet, the history reveals that fish managers are often quick to the draw with fish toxicant use, now viewing it as a panacea for native fish ills. My book helps to explain historical actions and current dilemmas over fishing and the environment.
BW: One of my favorite essays on fly-fishing is John Gierach’s “I’d Fish Anyone’s St. Vrain,” in his book Sex, Death, and Fly-Fishing. In it he describes how all dedicated fly-fishermen have a deep connection to their local fishing spot. You make a similar point that fly-fishing connects people to the rivers and creeks in a deeply personal way. How is this important to our broader understanding of environmental, American West, or history in general?
JCB: Roderick Haig-Brown once said one of the charms of fly fishing is getting to know a river. The connections that fly fishers have with their favorite home waters, I think, illustrates the power of place. In spending time on the water, observing wildlife, birds, and nature, anglers have developed a deep understanding of their local waters, just like John Gierach’s love of St. Vrain Creek. Historically, the local knowledge and appreciation of nature often translated into environmental stewardship. The role of sport in conservation, therefore, represents a central theme of the book. For all the complicated and strange ways that anglers and fisheries managers manipulated trout streams, the same people held views on conservation remarkably ahead of their times. For instance, the first superintendent of the federal fish hatchery in Bozeman, Montana, wrote about water pollution and environmental degradation by the 1880s and 1890s, long before habitat concerns became central to natural resource management.
BW: And finally, where is your favorite fishing spot?
JCB: I love many rivers in the West, but I’d have to say that one of my favorite fishing spots is a high mountain lake in southwestern Montana, nestled below a tall peak. You can only reach it by a strenuous hike or horseback almost five miles up a steep trail to a small lake at 9,000 feet. It’s worth the effort. Just at the tree line, the view opens up and sometimes mountain goats hang out in the rocks above. Most importantly, large cutthroat trout live in the lake. A bit of history exists there as well; fish did not originally inhabit the lake and the particular subspecies of cutthroat trout found there today is more of a hatchery strain not native to the area. I’m just going to call this place “Golden Pond” for the sake of saving my favorite fishing spot, but it is out in the high country for you and your readers to explore.
We are quickly approaching the Western History Association April 1, 2015 awards deadline and the administrators at BlogWest would like to highlight one of the awards – the Autry Public History Prize – because of its emphasis on public engagement and because the WHA has extended its deadline to May 1, 2015. This award honors projects that “contribute to a broader public reflection and appreciation of the past or serve as a model of professional public history practice in the history of the North American West” – something that we at BlogWest strive for as well. For more information on this award, see the notice below.
The Western History Association invites nominations for the 2015 Autry Public History Prize. The Autry Public History Prize is awarded annually to media exhibits, public programs, or written works that contribute to a broader public reflection and appreciation of the past or serve as a model of professional public history practice in the history of the North American West. The award consists of a $1,000 prize and a certificate to the award recipient. The prize is made possible by the generous support of the Autry National Center.
To be eligible for the award in 2015, the project must have been completed in 2014. When submitting material for consideration, please follow the Autry Prize Submission Guidelines available on the association’s website. Eligible projects include, but are not limited to, the following areas:
- Media such as web pages, web-based video, audio, blogs, documentaries, and films (DVD, etc.)
- Exhibits in museums, cultural centers, and other public venues
- Public Programs such as lecture series, walking tours, oral history projects, outreach activity, educational offerings, workshops, etc.
- Written Works such as research, reports, brochures, working papers, etc. or historical fiction (including books), that contribute to larger public history efforts to broaden public history understanding.
Please note that non-fiction books and journal articles are not eligible for this award.
Projects can be self-nominated, nominated by others familiar with the project, or nominated by the award selection committee. Any questions regarding the submission process or the award itself can be directed to the award selection committee chair, Leisl Carr Childers at email@example.com.