Context — January 8, 2016, 3:26 pm

The Great Republican Land Heist

Ammon Bundy takes over a wildlife refuge in Oregon; Christopher Ketcham traces the history of the Bureau of Land Management

Published in the February 2015 issue of Harper’s Magazine, “The Great Republican Land Heist” tells the story of the Bureau of Land Management, a federal agency that oversees public lands in the United States. Read the full story here.

[Lede]

From a New York Times report, published January 5, 2015, on a group of armed men who took over an Oregon wildlife refuge.

Clad in boots, cowboy hats and camouflage, a small band of antigovernment protesters stood in the snow and subfreezing cold on Monday at a federally owned wildlife sanctuary they have taken over, called themselves defenders of the Constitution, and declared that they were at the vanguard of a national movement to force Washington to release its hold on vast tracts of Western land.

In 1885, William A. J. Sparks, the commissioner of the General Land Office, reported to Congress that “unscrupulous speculation” had resulted in “the worst forms of land monopoly . . . throughout regions dominated by cattle-raising interests.” West of the hundredth meridian, cattle barons had enclosed the best forage along with scarce supplies of water in an arid landscape. They falsified titles using the signatures of cowhands and family members, employed fictitious identities to stake claims, and faked improvements on the land to appear to comply with the law. “Probably most private range land in the western states,” a historian of the industry concluded, “was originally obtained by various degrees of fraud.”

The cattle barons were not cowboys, though they came to veil themselves in the cowboy mythos. They were bankers and lawyers, or mining and timber and railroad tycoons. They dominated territorial legislatures, made governors, kept judges, juries, and lawmen in their pockets. They hired gunmen to terrorize those who dared to encroach on their interests. They drove off small, cash-poor family ranchers by stampeding or rustling their herds, bankrupting them with spurious lawsuits, diverting water courses and springs, fencing off land to monopolize the grass, and, finally, when all else failed, by denouncing the subsistence ranchers as rustlers who should be lynched. By the late nineteenth century, the barons had privatized the most productive grasslands and the riparian corridors, where the soil was especially rich. What remained was the less valuable dry-land forage of the public domain, which by 1918 totaled some 200 million acres spread across the eleven states of the West, and which the barons also dominated by stocking them with huge numbers of cows.

Overgrazed and underregulated, the public rangelands descended into a spiral of degradation, the grass in ruin, the topsoil eroded by rain or lifted off by the wind. Only in the 1920s did Congress take serious notice. Ferdinand Silcox, the chief forester of the U.S. Forest Service, testified in 1934 that unregulated grazing was “a cancer-like growth.” Its necessary end, Silcox said, was “a great interior desert,” a vast dust bowl.

Congress’s answer was the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934. The legislation established fees for grazing rights and created what was to become the U.S. Grazing Service, a regulatory apparatus “to stop injury to the public grazing lands.” From the start, though, the regulators were compromised. “What did the Grazing Service do?” Representative Jed Johnson of Oklahoma asked. “They went out and turned [the land] over to the big cowmen and the big sheepmen of the West. Why, they even put them on the payroll.” It was commonplace to find range regulators who were the sons, grandsons, cousins, or old friends of ranchers they were supposed to regulate — if they weren’t ranchers themselves.

This culture passed seamlessly to the Bureau of Land Management, which was created out of a merger between the Grazing Service and the General Land Office, in 1946. That same year, members of the American National Livestock Association met in Salt Lake City to discuss how best to undermine what few regulations had been placed on them. The Taylor Grazing Act had made grazing permits revocable. The livestock-permit holders wanted this provision overturned, for obvious reasons. But the stockmen’s ambition went further: they wanted the federal government to transfer control of all federal land, including the national parks, to the states.

The historian Bernard DeVoto covered the story for this magazine, cautioning that the livestock industry was attempting “one of the biggest land grabs in American history.” The public lands “are first to be transferred to the states on the fully justified assumption that if there should be a state government not wholly compliant to the desires of stockgrowers, it could be pressured into compliance,” he wrote. “Nothing in history suggests that the states are adequate to protect their own resources, or even want to, or suggests that cattlemen and sheepmen are capable of regulating themselves even for their own benefit, still less the public’s.”

The push for state ownership of public lands was part of a larger ideological struggle, DeVoto concluded, “only one part of an unceasing, many-sided effort to discredit all conservation bureaus of the government, to discredit conservation itself.”

Read the full story here.

Share
Single Page

More from Christopher Ketcham:

Context October 28, 2016, 11:35 am

The Great Republican Land Heist

Seven militants are acquitted in takeover of Oregon Wildlife Refuge; Christopher Ketcham traces the history of the Bureau of Land Management

Context May 6, 2016, 3:42 pm

The Albany Handshake

Sheldon Silver is sentenced to twelve years in prison for fraud; Christopher Ketcham visits New York’s dysfunctional state legislature

From the March 2016 issue

The Rogue Agency

A USDA program that tortures dogs and kills endangered species

Get access to 167 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

December 2017

“I am Here Only for Working”

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Dear Rose

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Year of The Frog

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Dead Ball Situation

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Document of Barbarism

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Destroyer of Worlds

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Destroyer of Worlds·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In February 1947, Harper’s Magazine published Henry L. Stimson’s “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb.” As secretary of war, Stimson had served as the chief military adviser to President Truman, and recommended the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The terms of his unrepentant apologia, an excerpt of which appears on page 35, are now familiar to us: the risk of a dud made a demonstration too risky; the human cost of a land invasion would be too high; nothing short of the bomb’s awesome lethality would compel Japan to surrender. The bomb was the only option. Seventy years later, we find his reasoning unconvincing. Entirely aside from the destruction of the blasts themselves, the decision thrust the world irrevocably into a high-stakes arms race — in which, as Stimson took care to warn, the technology would proliferate, evolve, and quite possibly lead to the end of modern civilization. The first half of that forecast has long since come to pass, and the second feels as plausible as ever. Increasingly, the atmosphere seems to reflect the anxious days of the Cold War, albeit with more juvenile insults and more colorful threats. Terms once consigned to the history books — “madman theory,” “brinkmanship” — have returned to the news cycle with frightening regularity. In the pages that follow, seven writers and experts survey the current nuclear landscape. Our hope is to call attention to the bomb’s ever-present menace and point our way toward a world in which it finally ceases to exist.

Illustration by Darrel Rees. Source photographs: Kim Jong-un © ITAR-TASS Photo Agency/Alamy Stock Photo; Donald Trump © Yuri Gripas/Reuters/Newscom
Article
Crossing Guards·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Ambassador Bridge arcs over the Detroit River, connecting Detroit to Windsor, Ontario, the southernmost city in Canada. Driving in from the Canadian side, where I grew up, is like viewing a panorama of the Motor City’s rise and fall, visible on either side of the bridge’s turquoise steel stanchions. On the right are the tubular glass towers of the Renaissance Center, headquarters of General Motors, and Michigan Central Station, the rail terminal that closed in 1988. On the left is a rusted industrial corridor — fuel tanks, docks, abandoned warehouses. I have taken this route all my life, but one morning this spring, I crossed for the first time in a truck.

Illustration by Richard Mia
Article
“I am Here Only for Working”·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

But the exercise of labor is the worker’s own life-activity, the manifestation of his own life. . . . He works in order to live. He does not even reckon labor as part of his life, it is rather a sacrifice of his life.

— Karl Marx

Photograph from the United Arab Emirates by the author. This page: Ruwais Mall
Article
The Year of The Frog·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

To look at him, Sweet Macho was a beautiful horse, lean and strong with muscles that twitched beneath his shining black coat. A former racehorse, he carried himself with ceremony, prancing the field behind our house as though it were the winner’s circle. When he approached us that day at the edge of the yard, his eyes shone with what might’ve looked like intelligence but was actually a form of insanity. Not that there was any telling our mother’s boyfriend this — he fancied himself a cowboy.

“Horse 1,” by Nine Francois. Courtesy the artist and AgavePrint, Austin, Texas
Article
Dead Ball Situation·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

What We Think About When We Think About Soccer, by Simon Critchley. Penguin Books. 224 pages. $20.

Begin, as Wallace Stevens didn’t quite say, with the idea of it. I so like the idea of Simon Critchley, whose books offer philosophical takes on a variety of subjects: Stevens, David Bowie, suicide, humor, and now football — or soccer, as the US edition has it. (As a matter of principle I shall refer to this sport throughout as football.) “All of us are mysteriously affected by our names,” decides one of Milan Kundera’s characters in Immortality, and I like Critchley because his name would seem to have put him at a vocational disadvantage compared with Martin Heidegger, Søren Kierkegaard, or even, in the Anglophone world, A. J. Ayer or Richard Rorty. (How different philosophy might look today if someone called Nobby Stiles had been appointed as the Wykeham Professor of Logic.)

Tostão, No. 9, and Pelé, No. 10, celebrate Carlos Alberto’s final goal for Brazil in the World Cup final against Italy on June 21, 1970, Mexico City © Heidtmann/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Chances that a gynecologist in Italy refuses to perform abortions for religious reasons:

7 in 10

A newly discovered microsnail can easily pass through the eye of a needle.

Moore’s wife published a letter of support signed by more than 50 pastors, and four of those pastors said they either had never seen the letter or had seen it before Moore was accused of sexual assault and asked to have their names removed.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Report — From the June 2013 issue

How to Make Your Own AR-15

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"Gun owners have long been the hypochondriacs of American politics. Over the past twenty years, the gun-rights movement has won just about every battle it has fought; states have passed at least a hundred laws loosening gun restrictions since President Obama took office. Yet the National Rifle Association has continued to insist that government confiscation of privately owned firearms is nigh. The NRA’s alarmism helped maintain an active membership, but the strategy was risky: sooner or later, gun guys might have realized that they’d been had. Then came the shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, followed swiftly by the nightmare the NRA had been promising for decades: a dedicated push at every level of government for new gun laws. The gun-rights movement was now that most insufferable of species: a hypochondriac taken suddenly, seriously ill."

Subscribe Today