This Land: New Book Exposes the Biggest Threats to the Wild West
By Tara Lohan
If you're a lover of wilderness, wildlife, the American West and the public lands on which they all depend, then journalist Christopher Ketcham's new book is required — if depressing — reading.
In This Land: How Cowboys, Capitalism and Corruption Are Ruining the American West, Ketcham weaves together 10 years of reporting and decades of adventuring in the West into a deeply political and deeply personal call to save the West's public lands.
"It is still possible in this country to find wild, clean, open spaces, where the rhythms of the natural world go on as they should, relatively undisturbed by industrial man," he writes. "I fear the opportunity, though, could disappear in our lifetime."
And the reason is pretty simple: Government agencies tasked with protecting our lands have failed. But how this happened is complex and has taken decades to unfold, as he explains. "The private interests that want the land for profit have planted their teeth in the government," he writes. "The national trend is against the preservation of the commons. Huge stretches are effectively privatized, public in name only."
This is clear in Escalante, Utah — home to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument — a crucial battleground in the fight over public lands. Ketcham writes about the biggest scourge on public lands there and across the West: cattle.
"Grazing is today the most widespread single use of the public domain, occurring on 270 million acres of national forest and BLM land," he writes. The grazing of privately owned cattle on public lands has polluted streams, decimated native plants, and turned a biologically diverse ecosystem into a monoculture of grassland.
But in areas where cows have been removed, wildlife has returned with great abundance. Raptors and songbird populations jumped 350 percent after eight years without cattle, according to one study he cites.
That's only possible if we take drastic steps. "How can you preserve a wild and unspoiled landscape with a ruinous alien bovine on it?" he asks. "You can't. It's an impossibility, an absurdity."
And this gets at one of the book's key points: Government agencies like the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service manage for "multiple uses," which includes logging, mining, grazing and drilling — activities that are at their core incompatible with conservation and wildlife protection. "The BLM and Forest Service are schizoid," Ketcham writes. "With one hand they protect; with the other they ravage."
While grazing gets a lot of ink and ire from Ketcham, he also writes about the harm from roadbuilding. We now have 400,000 miles of roads through our national forests, facilitating the profits of private companies from oil and gas drilling, timber sales and other extractions. "Roading was the means by which all other industrial development could proceed, the crucial first step in the domination of the wild," he writes.
Ketcham also explores the role of Wildlife Services, the USDA program that uses "an arsenal of poisons, traps, and aerial gunships at a cost of tens of millions of dollars annually" to kill wildlife perceived as a threat to ranchers. "During the twentieth century, the agency was probably responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of animals," he writes, "…including twenty species of carnivores and twelve taxa of mammals listed as endangered, threatened, or as candidates for protection under the Endangered Species Act."
It's not just Wildlife Services failing endangered species, of course: Ketcham writes about the government-industry collusion that has betrayed the grizzly bear and sage grouse, among other species.
While the Trump administration's anti-environment agenda has ramped up some threats, including slashing vast amounts of protected public lands, the wheels of this machine were set in motion long ago and supported by both Democratic and Republican administrations. It was Obama's administration, he writes, that "perpetrated the worst offenses, removing protections for some of the most charismatic species in the West, the veritable last vestiges of the wild West. In so doing, it was Democrats who set up for evisceration the Endangered Species Act, a law crucially important for the future of biodiversity on the public lands."
So-called "Big Green" groups, those large national environmental nonprofits that get most of the money and media, also take considerable fire from Ketcham for their willingness to compromise away environmental protections and countless acres of wilderness, like with the 2014 Rocky Mountain Front legislation, which was celebrated for creating 67,000 acres of new wilderness south of Glacier National Park, but opened up 200,000 acres of roadless areas to industry.
If there's any failure in Ketcham's well-researched and engaging prose, it's that it's 400 pages of brutally bad news. And it's hard to know what to do with it all, which he readily admits.
"Sometimes I'm glad my job as an investigative reporter is mainly to lay demolitions under corrupt structures, blow them up, walk away, and let you people deal with the rubble," he writes. "I'm no policy wonk. Frankly I have no idea how to save the public lands from a system that marches on inexorably, not in a way that's politically doable in the near term."
He does have a few thoughts, though, and calls for ending the federal timber sale program, beginning a vast decommissioning of roads, and what he calls the "single most important action we could take for the public lands, for wild plants and wild animals" — evicting cattle.
And while there's no grand plan for how we save our public lands, he does present a clear case for why they're under assault, who's responsible and what's at stake. And there's a rousing call to action.
"What's needed is a campaign for the public lands that is vital, fierce, impassioned, sometimes dangerous, without hypocrisy, that stands against the tyranny of money, coupled with a campaign of public education that explains in the simplest terms what the lands are, the glorious extent of them, the ecosystems they encompass, the wild things that live in them," Ketcham writes. "We need to bring the good news to every citizen, the news that he or she has a say in what happens on the public lands. This land is our land."
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Revelator.
Yet another former Trump administration staffer has come out with an endorsement for former Vice President Joe Biden, this time in response to President Donald Trump's handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
- Trump Denies CDC Director's 2021 Timeline for Coronavirus Vaccine ›
- Trump Orders Hospitals to Stop Sending COVID-19 Data to CDC ... ›
- Two White House Staffers Test Positive for Coronavirus - EcoWatch ›
- Trump Admin to Disband Coronavirus Task Force - EcoWatch ›
- Pence Offers 'Prayers' as Hurricane Laura Hits Gulf Coast While ›
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
Every September for the past 11 years, non-profit the Climate Group has hosted Climate Week NYC, a chance for business, government, activist and community leaders to come together and discuss solutions to the climate crisis.
- Covering the 2020 Elections as a Climate Story - EcoWatch ›
- Coronavirus Delays 2020 Earth Overshoot Day by Three Weeks ... ›
By Elliot Douglas
The coronavirus pandemic has altered economic priorities for governments around the world. But as wildfires tear up the west coast of the United States and Europe reels after one of its hottest summers on record, tackling climate change remains at the forefront of economic policy.
- German Business Leaders Call for Climate Action With COVID-19 ... ›
- Climate Activists Protest Germany's New Datteln 4 Coal Power Plant ... ›
By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.