It is May of 2018, in the Egan Range of Nevada, and a machine called a Bull Hog is approaching. Its engine roars. It runs on treads like a bulldozer, and affixed at its front is a spinning bladed cylinder. It has one use and one use only—the destruction of the forest in which I stand, a forest of pinyon and juniper that the United States Bureau of Land Management oversees on behalf of the American people. These are ancient trees, gnarled with age, short and squat with fattened trunks and curling bark, maybe 20 feet at their crowns, a pygmy forest, derisively called a woodland, and found on tens of millions of acres in Utah and Nevada. The pinyon-juniper forest is the great survivor in the aridlands, drought-resistant, adapted to heat, and is deliciously sweet-smelling—these two species, along with the sagebrush, are the perfuming flora of the Great Basin and the Colorado Plateau. But they have no value for logging or wood products, no value that can be measured in money. Therefore they must be wiped out for other enterprises—for cattlemen, I later learn, so that the land in the Egan Range will be "productive" for cows and not wasted.
The Bull Hog, operated and funded by the Department of the Interior—at the American taxpayer's expense—charges through the forest as I stand in a kind of fugue, incredulous at the pace of its destruction. The beautiful old gnarled trees are devoured in the mouth of the mobile mulcher, knocked down and chewed up, defecated out its ass-end in fragments. The howl and whine of the engine and the spinning blades, the torturous toppling of the trees, the cracking and crushing of trunks and limbs, the shattered spitting out of beings alive mere seconds before—it is almost too much to bear. What's left is a flattened, denuded, tread-smashed wasteland, a bombed Dresden of pinyon-juniper. Within 15 minutes the forest that I entered is gone. This is happening, or is planned to happen, in an area roughly the size of Vermont.
I have been darting from side to side as the Bull Hog passes, and now finally I show myself, for there's no tree left to hide behind. The operator throttles down upon seeing me, and then realizes I am no threat. A man with a camera and a notepad, puny. Someone who will do nothing to stop him. He powers back up, the cylinder at the mouth of the machine spins again ferociously, and forward it rages. The cab where he sits is caged and shadowed, to the point that I can see no movement inside, no hint of organic presence at the helm. As if this were a servo-mechanism, a robot, a drone. May is prime nesting season for birds in the pinyon-juniper biome. Kestrels and hawks, mountain chickadees and house wrens, black-throated gray warblers, flickers, gray flycatchers, scrub jays, and pinyon jays live here, and in the soil between the trees nest the poorwills—all that are caught are ground to red mist by the servo-mechanism, for no reason other than to expedite commerce.
I've been wandering the public lands trying to figure out what's left of the wild in the West. Utah, Nevada, Idaho, Oregon, Wyoming, the states with the most public land, the big wide-open, what Woody Guthrie was talking about when he sang of your land. It's a gigantic experiment in socialism out West—who could have imagined it in the most capitalistic country on Earth?—where everyone can say they own hundreds of millions of acres but no single person can claim it for themselves alone. This makes for high living. You can camp pretty much anywhere in some of the world's loveliest places, at the bottoms of canyons and on the tops of mountains. Wherever you please, come along. Just don't wreck it for the next person.
In the West, in the lands that were never privatized, in the country of the pronghorn, the cougar, the grizzly, the bison, the sage grouse, the wild horse, and the wolf, where there's not enough water for the madding crowd but just enough for the wild things, you are so free in your aloneness that you might not see another human being for weeks on end, maybe months if you have the genius for hiding high in the crags like the anchorites of old. I interviewed a guy once who went that route in a canyon near Death Valley, who came west from his overpriced midden of an apartment, leaving behind his useless shiny junk and job, and deserted in the company of the big books (Bible, Koran, Upanishads) to find the truth—all for free, no rent due this month or any other. 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.
You may be asking what exactly these public lands consist of. The national parks are a trivial portion, covering less than 50 million acres. Beautiful as they are, consider them a kind of specialty zoo, heavily funded postage-stamp island ecosystems, overseen for wildlife but mostly for tourists. For our purposes the West is the roughly 450 million acres of grassland, steppe, desert, and forest managed in trust for the American people by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service. These agencies are unsung sisters of the National Park Service, little known and meagerly funded. Here on the BLM and Forest Service lands are glaciers towering in the sky, deep Permian canyons, 10,000-foot plateaus, sagebrush seas, places where herds of big mammals roam unhindered. Here you can hike, fish, hunt for meat, raft, ride horseback, fire a Kalashnikov, sling an arrow, climb a tree, build a hut out of sticks, roam like the aboriginal tribes of the continent, get lost, stay lost for as long as you wish.
It's an American commons, and the chief requirement to enjoy it is some degree of self-reliance. Reliable water supplies, ready-made campsites—you'll find few of these things such as the national parks afford. The roads are often unsigned. They are muddy by turns of the season, or dusty to the point of choking, or rutted so as to threaten with death the struts of your car, or overgrown with vegetation to the point you don't know they're there. Abandon your steel behemoth, strike out from the roads, and you might dip a toe in the landscape. Walk on for a month or so, and you might live like an animal, naked in the dirt, howling at the moon. I've done this on occasion.
That the BLM and Forest Service domain accommodates profit hunters is the crucial difference separating it from the national parks. You can prospect on these lands, extract commodities. Congress has enshrined in law this practice of "multiple use." Look across the public lands and you'll find the myriad uses: oil and gas fields in the deserts and steppe, and coal, copper, silver, and gold mines stabbed into cliffs and mountains. Forests are felled, grasslands overgrazed, wildlife slaughtered, and roads carved for all parties to gain access and exploit public ground for private gain. The BLM and Forest Service are schizoid. With one hand they protect; with the other they ravage. Such is multiple use. William O. Douglas, a backpacker and outdoorsman who happened also to be the longest-serving Supreme Court justice, shared his suspicions about the real meaning of the term in 1961: "'Multiple' use was semantics for making cattlemen, sheepmen, lumbermen, miners the main beneficiaries. After they gutted and razed the forests, then the rest of us could use them—to find campsites among stumps, to look for fish in waters heavy with silt from erosion, to search for game on ridges pounded to dust by sheep."
Little has changed since Douglas was writing. We are not safeguarding our public domain. The government agencies entrusted to oversee it are failing us. Some people want to blame it all on Donald Trump, as if history started from scratch in 2017. Don't be fooled. Consider the vast sage-steppe basin of the Upper Green River valley, in Wyoming's Sublette County, where the BLM manages much of the land. Fracking began there under Bill Clinton, accelerated under George W. Bush, continued under Barack Obama, and will accelerate again under Trump. As one longtime regulator at the BLM told me, "I was there from George Bush Sr. through George Bush Jr. through Clinton and Obama, and I saw no difference in operations. The priority was always the same. To permit wells."
After my encounter with the Bull Hog, I fished out, from the heaped library I keep in the trunk of my car, a copy of Edward Abbey's The Monkey Wrench Gang. It is a rollicking piece of fiction set in southern Utah, and established Abbey as the spokesman for a generation of ecosaboteurs. In the book, a quartet of pissed-off guerilla enviros destroy industrial infrastructure, doing their small part to take out "the world planetary maggot machine." The monkeywrenchers sabotage bulldozers and excavators, utility vehicles, backhoes and graders and scrapers and road reclaimers. They blow up a coal train, derailing it off a bridge into a canyon abyss. Abbey worked as a park ranger in southern Utah during the 1950s, in what would become Arches National Park, and there he drafted in rough his other great work, Desert Solitaire, a book of essays that together formed an anarchist's paean to the last of the wilderness in the Southwest.
Abbey extolled the public lands as refugia for wild things and wild people, the beleaguered creatures, like him, who could no longer accept in good conscience America's "phosphorescent putrefying glory," the sprawl cities, the stupefying burden of technopoly, the spirit-destroying hustle of commerce. He didn't think much of techno-industrial civilization. He regarded its paradigm of permanent economic growth as a permanent crisis, a suicide pact with planet Earth. He advocated direct action to stop the machine. I suppose I clutched at The Monkey Wrench Gang out of a sense of shame that I let that Bull Hog live.
The pain and suffering inflicted on the flora and fauna doesn't ever stop, you see; it only gets modulated and modified in petty ways to reflect the hypocrisy of those turning the screw, those with pretensions of protection and preservation but who at the bottom of their hearts remain wedded to the machine. For the political reality in a society based on economic growth is that the machine must never be dismantled. What administration in recent years—what administration ever—has called for a complete halt to the plunder of the public lands? What candidate for president will put that at the center of their platform?
This story is adapted from This Land: How Cowboys, Capitalism, and Corruption are Ruining the American West, by Christopher Ketcham, forthcoming from Viking in July and available for pre-order now. You can reach the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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