This Land: How Cowboys, Capitalism and Corruption are Ruining the American West- Book Review
Updated: May 24
This Land: How Cowboys, Capitalism, and Corruption Are Ruining the American West
2019 ***** Five of Five stars
This book was a real eye-opener. It explores a world that's little known by mainstream America and tells a sad and maddening story of what's been happening in the American West. Ketcham uses both historical perspective and first-hand experience to tell his story, and it was riveting. He interviewed many of the players in the battle for Western resources, and used their words in a powerful way to explain what is happening.
The 100th meridian, which cuts through Texas to North Dakota, marks a dividing line of sorts between the land that was tamed and cultivated, and the land that was too dry for farming and left wild. Much of the land in the West was set aside as public lands if only because the land was too inaccessible, arid, rocky and unexplored.
The National Park system, which most known and most popular, consists of only a small portion of the lands under federal control. Much larger tracts of land are under control of the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Fish and Wildlife Service. These lands are also considered public lands, but in Ketchum's tale they are being grossly mismanaged by the agencies in charge.
The problem, he states, is the constant pressure put on government employees and politicians by private interests who want to make profits off of public lands. The big three industries that rely on public land access are cattle, timber, and energy production. These industries make large profits off of federal lands and give almost nothing back to the public while destroying the lands as they utilize them. This book details the awful affects of exploitation on wildlife in the west, in chapters that are almost too painful to read.
Ketchum saves his biggest anger for the cattle industry. Western cattlemen use public lands on which to graze their cows, which they then turn around and sell for slaughter. Once the lands of the West were emptied of Indians and buffalo, eager cowboys used those new open spaces for their herds. The impact on the land is substantial- water sources are polluted with feces, grasses are consumed to the point where nothing grows back, and predators like wolves and coyotes are hunted with impunity whether or not they pose a real danger to cattle. Entire ecosystems can be destroyed by frequent grazing.
Cattlemen use threats and gold old boy networks to dominate most of the regulatory safeguards that might exist. They rely on the romantic era of cowboys and what they symbolize to get their way. Never mind that they add almost nothing to the local economies and provide at most 2% of all beef products. Ketchum calls them protected welfare queens, making their livings off of government workers, lands and funds while they intimidate any scientist or government employee who even tries to rein them in. Mormons especially are to blame according to the author, as they control the political and religious atmosphere in Utah and surrounding areas.
The book tells the story of the Bundy's- Cliven and Ammand, Mormon cattlemen who refused to recognize the sovereignty of the United States government. They became famous for taking over a federal wildlife refuge and trashing it, and also for ignoring requests from the government to curtail their grazing practices. These thugs got away with crimes because they rallied armed militias to intimidate what little enforcement powers exist in the wild West. Gun culture still rules in the West- with the result that bullies can run the place and laws become meaningless.
Several chapters deal with the US Forest Service, which has the responsibility over the vast acres of trees in the West. According to the author, they are complicit in the removal of millions of trees for the benefit of the lumber industry. The excuse given is to protect from dangers of fires, but Ketchum gives convincing scientific evidence that more harm is done to the forests than from any fires. Not as much space is devoted to energy companies, but the discovery of fracking technologies to get at previously unattainable oil and gas has had adverse effects on public lands as well as private ones. The benzene released by fracking has been shown to cause cancer, and children in these areas are more likely to have breathing problems.
One of the more disturbing revelations of the book was the author's accusations against environmental groups. He goes after the Nature Conservancy and the Wilderness Society especially for having become complicit in working with the industries they once fought against. A new emphasis on collaboration by the government sucked some environmental groups into a system where they got financial rewards for playing along.
Laws passed during the environmental heydays of the 1970's like the Clean Air Act, Endangered Species Act and more gave huge new powers to society to rein in companies threatening the West. Many of these laws aren't being enforced anymore and are repeatedly weakened by congress. Environmental groups and their lawsuits were the last hope for threatened species, and the betrayal of politicians, government employees, and some environmentalists have stopped any progress that was made in the 70's and 80's. Ketchum lays into both Republican and Democratic lawmakers, as many of the policies in question continued under the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations.
Warning- this is a depressing book! Ketchum paints a sad, violent and infuriating portrait of a land and people we barely know. He describes the slaughters of wild horses, Yellowstone buffalo, grizzly bears and grey wolves, all in the name of protecting the business interests of cattlemen and the corporations that own them. The optimist in me want to think that just the mere publishing of this book shows that America is waking up to the damage we've been doing to nature. Ketchum does point out that attitudes in the rest of the country are changing- that more people are becoming environmentally aware and fewer people are out there hunting.
The fires burning the Amazon all are being blamed on cattle too. It almost makes me want to give up beef- which more and more Americans are headed towards anyway. Cows are now among the most destructive forces in nature, from the greenhouse gases they produce to the tons of excrement that wastes everywhere they roam.
I recommend this book highly, though it's a long and tough read. I had a hard time putting it down. It's a world I've never explored and little understood, and I feel better for knowing about it.