Sacrificial Lands

How the West was one (and why it should be many)


Bruce Babbitt, secretary of the interior, is gunning for environmental change on the nation's public lands. Like television's chivalrous Paladin in Have Gun Will Travel, his sights are set on rescuing the American West from a long history of exploitation. A white-hatted cowboy in what many consider a savaged land, he is determined to right the environmental wrongs of the Reagan-Bush years. He plans to stand the legacy of James Watt on its head, to transform the Department of the Interior from a patsy for natural-resource developers into a staunch defender of arid rangelands and endangered species.

Babbitt's reform proposals include a complete revamping of the National Park Service, more-vigorous protection of endangered species, and a thorough revision of the laws governing mining on federal lands. But these are only the first initiatives in a bold program to recolor the public domain green. Even more sweeping changes on federal lands can be expected as Babbitt takes his crusade to the very heartland of the American West. He has the intent, as well as the authority, to raise the grazing fees charged to the wealthiest public-land ranchers, to give "incentive" credits on grazing fees for land improvements, and to rewrite federal policy to the singular advantage of small stockmen.

Higher fees that are cushioned by "incentive" credits will presumably stem the massive depletion of desert grasslands caused by decades of overgrazing (plus save taxpayers millions of dollars). And policy breaks to small ranchers, which may ironically include lower grazing fees, will supposedly curb the power of large stockmen and make the federal range a more inviting home to the family ranch. All in all, the hopes of an entire environmental generation ride on Babbitt's shoulders. He holds the key to the protection and restoration of the Western range, the bulk of which is owned lock, stock, and barrel by Uncle Sam and which, until the end of World War II, was best known as "the lands that nobody wanted."

The lands that nobody wanted are the hundreds of millions of acres managed by the departments of the Interior and Agri­culture; they include most of America's national forests and all of its desert rangelands. Except where bisected by major highways, they are distant, remote, and unknown to the vast major­ity of citizens. Yet those same lands comprise almost a third of the nation's territory, embracing a resource-rich and beauty-­laden landscape that is almost three times the size of the original 13 colonies. And like the 13 colonies, they are peculiarly emblematic of American freedom and democracy.

Who does not recall Huckleberry Finn's flight from the confines of civilization to the freedom of the Western frontier? And who has forgotten the key role that Western public lands were to play in the making and extension of Thomas Jefferson's virtuous agrarian republic—a republic spacious enough "to employ an infinite number of people in [its] cultivation"? And is there anyone who does not secretly revel in environmentalist Edward Abbey's homage to public lands "as a refuge from authoritarian government [and] political oppression"?

American mythology has made the American West the repository of the nation's most noble sentiments. Sadly, noble sentiments cannot transform public lands into the citadel of freedom they never were or disguise the fact of their century-long abuse. America's emblem of freedom and repository of untouched wilderness has been tarnished and ravaged by a long and tumultuous history of government mismanagement.

During the last 130 years, a series of political agendas have relied on government might to capture and exploit public lands. Sweeping ideologies that I call landscape visions have driven those agendas, prescribing precisely how Western landscapes should look, be used, and be managed. Successful land-policy reform will mean breaking that pattern by replacing a grand, coercive landscape vision with a diversity of visions based on choice and voluntarism.

In one sense, every man and woman who ever settled on the Western range came with visions of how best to mold the land to his or her individual taste and ambition. But the landscape visions that have most affected America's public lands are the handful that successfully hitched the power of the state to their causes. They are the visions of intolerance, the visions that have fed on political power to forcefully spread their agendas across the Western landscape. They became, and in some cases remain or hope to be, state policy. And they explain why public lands are neither citadels of freedom nor monuments to pristine nature, but rather mere prizes—sacrificial lands—in a contest of ideological wills.

The first of a triad of Western landscape visions bears the mark of its spiritual founder, Thomas Jefferson. Agrarian democracy, the religion of the yeoman farmer, sought a West peopled by cultivators. Prosperous farms and virtuous farmers would forge from America's Western wilderness a secular par­adise, a City upon a Hill, where democracy and independence would be the principal harvest. The vision became law in 1862 with the passage of the first of many Homestead Acts.

But 160-acre homestead units (eventually upgraded to 640 acres) were woefully inadequate on lands too arid for crops and too sparsely vegetated to support more than a handful of cows per section. As a result, the landscape vision of a farmer's paradise degenerated into chaos as land-starved settlers fought over the open and unowned range. In the words of Albert F. Potter, first director of the Forest Service's Grazing Section:

"Flocks passed each other on the trails, one rushing in to secure what the other had just abandoned as worthless, feed was deliberately wasted to prevent its utilization by others, the ranges were occupied before the snow had left them. Transient sheep-men roamed the country robbing the resident stockmen of forage that was justly theirs….Class was arrayed against class—the cow-man against the sheepman, the big owner against the little one—and might ruled more often than right."

The chaos of the open range, the effect of making ide­ology law, left two legacies. One was the devastation of hundreds of millions of acres of public lands. The other was the rise of Progressive conservation, the second of three encompassing landscape visions. As seen by its most prominent spokesman, Gifford Pinchot, first chief of the Forest Service, Progressive conservation was the antidote for the chaotic and destructive individualism of agrarian democracy. It would hitch America's best and brightest men and women to the cause of democracy and to the rescue of a nation blemished by self-interest and profligate waste.

Experts in the natural sciences, imbued with the spirit of public service and in step with the nation's will, would manage and exploit the Western range for the good of everyone. An elite cadre of managers and scientists would build a new City upon a Hill, one where the earth and its natural wealth would be the property of all and the common means to attain political equal­ity and social justice. That vision became state policy with the creation of the U.S. Forest Service in 1905 and the Bureau of Land Management in 1946.

Today, Progressive conservation is alive and well on the Western range. Local Forest Service and BLM offices are as commonplace as the post office in most major Western towns. But institutional success is only skin deep. Three-quarters of a century of fire suppression has transformed once vibrant wilderness areas into thickening masses of bramble and trees unfit for man or beast. Below-cost timber sales in the majority of the nation's national forests have depleted natural ecosys­tems and robbed already hard-pressed taxpayers, while at the same time swelling agency coffers. And to harvest that sub­sidized timber, a maze of roads more extensive than the entire federal highway system has been carved out of pristine forests.

But private livestock grazing on public lands illustrates best the dismal environmental legacy of Progressive conservation. Grazing permits, for example, give ranchers informal property rights to numbers of livestock rather than to the land itself. Bought and sold as part of the private ranchlands to which they are attached, grazing permits authorize ranchers to graze fixed numbers of livestock on public lands. As a result, the ranchers' incentive is to pay more attention to preserving the livestock numbers authorized by their permits than to conserving the land that is entrusted to them. Moreover, federal policy actually rewards bad grazing practices. Both the Forest Service and the BLM have spent hundreds of millions of dollars bailing out badly managed and environmentally ailing ranches. Those dollars have kept the worst stockmen in business.

More tragically, federal policy has discouraged caring ranchers from adopting more innovative and ecologically sen­sitive management. For example, stockmen who would like to explore alternative economic uses of streams—such as quality fishing—simply cannot because their grazing permits allow them to use streams and streamsides only for watering holes and livestock feeding grounds. Similarly, ranchers who see greater economic opportunity in using their leased lands for wildlife and endangered species are prevented from doing so by federal laws which mandate that public forage can be used only for livestock production.

Lastly, federal policy has encouraged overgrazing (and will continue to do so under Babbitt's populist plan) by favoring ranching units that are too small to be economically viable. The 60 percent of all public-land ranches that fall in this category cannot practice conservative grazing or spare capital for land restoration. Making matters worse, federal policy has en­shrined the tragedy of the commons on federal rangelands by perpetuating and fostering communal grazing. Is it any wonder, then, that two-thirds of all public grazing lands are in poor condition, that the majority of public-land streams are de­graded, or that cattle and wildlife are locked in mortal combat?

The environmental trespasses of past landscape visions have infused a third vision with energy and passion. Anchored in the preservationist sentiments of John Muir, a nascent environmental landscape vision now seeks meaning and value in public lands beyond production of trees and consumption of grass. It seeks the protection and preservation of Western public lands as spiritual sanctuaries—the last outposts of nature unspoiled by the hand of man. There, amidst the wildness of America's public forests and grasslands, the human spirit can be cleansed, uplifted, and renewed, and a final City upon a Hill built on the ashes of the old. People can rejoice in and benefit from landscapes that belong to each and every American, constant reminders of what earth once looked like and what it might again become.

The environmental vision is rooted in an American tradi­tion that has long envisioned man and nature as implacable foes. Writing shortly after the holocaust of the Civil War, America's first environmentalist, George Marsh, declared that "the earth was not, in its natural condition, completely adapted to the use of man." John Muir, the nation's first preservationist, lambasted homesteaders as "pious destroy­ers [who] waged interminable forest wars."

Frederic Clements, the father of American ecology, gave scientific credibility to the claims of both Marsh and Muir. He made it clear that European settlers were not a welcomed part of the Western range. They came to the arid West, he believed, as disrupters, exploiters, and usurpers of the land's vegetation. Humans were, in his view, alien and invasive barriers to the natural movement, or succession, of vegetation toward its destined end point: the monoclimax.

On Western rangelands, the monoclimax was presumably the vegetative cover that preceded the arrival of home­steaders: tall-and short-grass prairies on the high plains; old-growth forests in the high Rockies; and pristine desert grasslands and shrublands in the intermountain basins.

Those vegetation types—not dryland wheat or overgrazed ranges—embodied the biological potential of the land and stood for the ecological destiny that nature intended for arid landscapes. Whatever prevented or impaired their expression was ecologically wrong, whatever hastened their evolution was necessary, and whatever preserved their physical form was ecologically correct.

Fueled by Clements's ecology, the environmental vision has subsequently embraced a very narrow interpretation of Aldo Leopold's famous ethical dictum: "A thing is right when it preserves the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community [and] wrong when it tends otherwise." By defining right and wrong in Clementsian terms, it has been easy for radical environmentalists such as Paul Watson, cofounder of Greenpeace, to conclude that "our species is the AIDS of the Earth."

It matters little to the environmental vision that modem ecological thought has moved beyond Clements's linear and deterministic world to the more dynamic and indeterminate universe of chaos theory—a universe where disturbance, un­predictability, individualism, and hidden yet spontaneous order are more characteristic of nature than the deliberate and un­changing features of the monoclimax. The environmental vision is unpersuaded by facts; it seeks solace elsewhere. Like the landscape visions of the past, it has hitched its hopes to the rising star of the environmental welfare state.

The environmental vision seeks a communal Western range freed of logging and livestock grazing and dedicated to the ecological destiny revealed by Clements. Above all, it seeks to erase the human handprint from the Western range and to return prairies, mountain ranges, and deserts to the natural care and regulation of nature. Some environmentalists, for example, recommend a "buffalo commons" for the high plains. Cities and towns would be swept away and millions of people relocated from 10 Western states. In their place, the American bison would once again roam vast territories, regulated only by the primal forces of nature.

Sadly, the ecological track record of cleansing the land of men and women has been no better than the legacies of agrarian democracy and Progressive conservation. In Yellowstone National Park, natural regulation is an environmental travesty—catalogued in detail by Alston Chase in his 1986 book Playing God in Yellowstone. Elk are erasing wetlands from the park's northern range, playing havoc with everything from cottonwood trees to grizzly bears. In Rocky Mountain National Park, natural regulation is turning a high-mountain Shangrila into an over-grazed elk pasture where willows, beavers, and aspen are fading into memory. And on Western rangelands, federal policies aimed at protecting or restoring natural conditions are forcing ranchers and loggers out of business, opening the door for massive subdivision of adjacent private lands and the unnatural fractur­ing of once intact ecosystems.

The so-called Wise Use movement is today's reaction to the regulatory excesses and no-use restrictions of the environmen­tal vision. In part a wistful harking back to the halcyon days of Progressive conservation, it seeks government power to slice and dice the public-lands pie more to the liking of ranchers, loggers, and miners. But as a fourth-generation landscape vision and a sibling of the Progressive era, it has a potential for environmental harm that cannot be overstated. Like the visions before it, Wise Use seeks hegemony on the federal range—a monopoly over publicly owned resources.

The Wise Use movement strives to do what nature resists as a matter of ecological principle: to replace diversity with con­formity, more information with less, and local control with centralized direction. Like its sister visions, it perfects what agrarian democracy began: an everlasting tragedy of the commons. Wise Use and no use, and their visionary antecedents, are simply building blocks of a formidable environmental welfare state that has brought more environmental ill than good to the lands that nobody wanted.

Sacrificial lands are the lasting legacy of all-encompass­ing landscape visions. Getting around those visions is the problem now facing President Clinton and his reform-minded interior secretary. Neither man, however, has shown any predilection for real change. Babbitt's righteous crusade to reform public-land grazing—no less visionary than agrarian, Progressive, and environmental causes—translates into more state subsidies and more ecologically unwise state policies.

Babbitt believes that higher grazing fees will encourage better land stewardship. But if his goal was truly to improve land conditions, he would zero in on the myriad laws and policies that discourage stewardship. Instead, he wants to rebate grazing fees to ranchers who meet federal land-conservation targets. Never mind that such "incentive" systems failed miserably in the former Soviet Union or that grazing-fee credits, by whatever name, are still subsidies for private grazing on public lands.

To make matters worse, Babbitt says he wants to exempt small ranchers from higher grazing fees "to make a populist statement that it's good public policy to make sure the small guys stay on the land." Helping the small guys stay on the land, however, has the ominous ring of 1930s New Deal farm policy. It sounds great, and it is certainly warm and fuzzy, but as environmental policy it stinks. It will cast Babbitt as a knight in shining armor to the majority of the 30,000 ranchers who use federal lands to eke out a marginal living on non-sustainable ranches. But to subsidize and coddle thousands of ranchers whose management is a major cause of rangeland depletion will only add to the environmental deficit of a land savaged not by personal greed but by the trespasses of well-intended visionaries.

What is needed today is a new paradigm for public grazing lands. The lands that nobody wanted are now sought and desired by almost everyone. Single visions of the past, so out of step with the ecological needs of the land, are even more out of line with the demands of people for recreation, wildlife, aesthetics, and spiritual relief. A tragic history tells us that public-land policy that seeks more laws, more regulations, more centralized management, and bigger bureaucracies has not and cannot protect the environment of the West or serve the American people.

Constructive land-policy reform should include the follow­ing elements: 1) greater reliance on market forces to allocate and preserve natural resources; 2) termination of subsidies and privileged status for public-land ranchers; 3) expansion of access and opportunity on federal lands to all citizens; 4) increased autonomy and responsibility for individuals, fami­lies, and communities that rely on public lands for their living; 5) replacing disincentives for responsible land use with free-market incentives; 6) maximum decentralization of control; and 7) where possible, transfer of control or ownership of public lands to people whose vested interests lie in the protec­tion and sustainable use of those lands.

In the broadest sense, what I advocate is a market of landscape visions. Such a market is simply a political and social environment where basic beliefs and underlying ideologies are left to the discretion of individuals and communities. It is, in many ways, like the American tradition of religious freedom. Landscape visions, which touch the soul no less than visions of spiritual salvation, are too important and too personal to be left to the vagaries of the state. How one lives with the land, like how one defines his or her relation to the Maker, is properly a question of choice and voluntarism.

At one extreme, a market of landscape visions could entail complete divestiture of the federal estate. In my book Visions upon the Land, I describe a proposal to give every American an equal number of transferable shares in the public lands managed by the Forest Service and the BLM. By establishing clear property rights, this plan would lay the groundwork for a competition among different visions of what the lands should look like and how they should be used. Individuals and groups could acquire or combine shares to create sustainable ranches, wildlife preserves, recreation areas, wilderness parks, or whatever else their personal visions and private means might allow.

Even without assigning actual ownership, the government can transfer power and control over public lands from behemoth bureaucracies to individuals, organizations, and local communities. A first step might be to make grazing permits fully transferable so that individuals other than ranchers could acquire them and use them for purposes other than livestock production. By unleashing market forces, this would be a first step toward making the Western range the province of caring and responsible people rather than the landed empire of empowered visionaries and all-powerful bureaucracies.

A market of landscape visions begins with a simple prem­ise: Traditional markets serve the needs of the environment when government regulation is minimal and when property rights are secure and transferable. Under those condi­tions, incentives channel human action in environmentally desirable directions. In particular, people's sense of responsi­bility toward the land is stronger when they alone bear the financial risks of bad management and assume the potential benefits of superior management. Adam Smith's invisible hand makes choice and voluntarism the unwitting handmaidens of ecological good.

But a market of landscape visions goes one step further. Better incentives to deal kindly with nature are simply inade­quate to correct all the problems that plague the federal estate. They might motivate ranchers to graze public lands more carefully; they might encourage public-land agencies to be more cost effective; and they might inspire citizens to be more conscientious of the public lands they use for recreation. But incentives alone would not unleash the potential that inevitably comes with many landscape visions. To crack the political hegemony that rules the federal range, more than incentives is needed. The answer is diversity.

Many minds and many visions generate the wealth of information that is needed to help keep environments healthy and ecological systems viable. And as long as those minds and visions operate by choice and through voluntary means, the market of landscape visions can become a proving ground. Like the services and products in traditional markets, which come and go according to how well they satisfy consumers, landscape visions will rise and fall to the extent that they meet the environmental and ecological demands of the land. There will be no need for taxpayer bailouts. Unworkable visions—such as subsidized grazing and below-cost timber sales—will cease to exist. Rushing in to fill the vacuum of failed visions will be those that are gentler to the land and more responsive to the needs of people.

For citizens and their communities to become fountainheads of diversity on public lands, power and control must be devolved. In the past, federal policy and land bureaucracy have encroached on local sovereignty and have negated the ecological possibility of many minds—the promise and potential of their creativity, culture, and visions. Laws, regulations, and policies that today require public input into Forest Service and BLM planning have forced land agencies to listen, but they have not made citizens and their communities' masters in their own lands. State-enforced visions still rule uncontested on the federal range.

Information is also vital for a market of landscape visions. The information that is needed to make visions succeed—to building viable wildlife preserves or running sustainable ranches—must be abundant, accessible, and sought after. The abundance of information is a natural outcome of many minds and many visions. To make information accessible and sought after, markets of information must be freed of the distortions that subsidies and political intrusions inevitably bring. People will be more likely to seek out superior information, and should have greater success in ob­taining it, when spared the disincentives of federal handouts and the interference of bureaucratic middlemen.

Expanding the number of active players on the public deserts, grasslands, and forests of the West will do three things. First, it will buffer the environment against ill-ad­vised and all-encompassing visions. Human actions that are detrimental to the land will be limited in space and time. There will no longer be environmental mistakes on the scale of the Homestead Acts, fire suppression, below-cost timber sales, the federal grazing program, and the natural regulation of the nation's wildlands. Second, the possibility that highly desirable landscapes will be preserved or recreated will increase as more minds and visions find and try environmentally superior ideas. Third, the dreams and ambitions of all Americans will have more elbow room.

Arising from the market of landscape visions is one truth: that ecological good as defined by Leopold's ethical dictum is really indeterminant; there is no final answer to what is proper and right. What constitutes ecological good is as much a matter of opinion as it is a subject of science. If a landscape is viable—if a vision "tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community"—then it is, by Leopold's test, right. On the federal range, this means that multiple possibilities rather than single solutions will determine the destiny of the land and its people.

Indeterminacy implies that the form or structure of visions and the landscapes they forge is less important than the way in which they are realized. Process, in the final analysis, is what a market of landscape visions is all about. It entails hardly an iota of ideology except the simple dictum that the affairs of people and nature are best left to their own devices, free from the political intrusions that have for so long forced them down unwelcomed and shortsighted paths.

A market of landscape visions and its ounce of ideology provide the environment of tolerance and freedom where visions can be mixed with the land. They form the tribunal where visions are judged against reality and where visionaries are held accountable to society and nature. The many verdicts passed down by this court drive the process of land­scape visions inexorably in the direction of diversity and environmental excellence.

However pursued, land reform predicated on a market of landscape visions will finally achieve what Jefferson envisioned but the state never allowed. The second American Revolution will complete what the first sought but could not attain: a virtuous republic of independent, caring, and responsible stewards of the Western range—people whose visions will craft from public lands not one but many Cities upon a Hill.

Karl Hess Jr. is author of Visions Upon the Land: Man and Nature on the Western Range (Island Press).