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Visions Upon the Land: Man and Nature on the Western Range.

A friend of mine is writing a book about the past, present, and uncertain future of the American forests. It is not, he tells me, a happy task, for what he finds himself writing about, mainly, is death and dying. From the mixed mesophytic forests of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia to the yellow pine forests of the San Bernardino Range in southern California, whole natural systems are suffering an inexorable, perhaps irreversible, decline. It gives him no comfort at all, he says, to realize that for the most part we have no one to blame but ourselves.

It is hardly a secret that the nation's forests have suffered badly from human misuse--as have its rivers, wetlands, grasslands, deserts, and wildlife. It is generally known, too, that many of these lands are part of the American public lands system--nearly a million square miles of national parks, forests, wildlife refuges, and territory administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). What is less commonly understood, perhaps, is the degree to which the damage has been condoned, encouraged, guided, and rewarded by federal land law and by management policies whose roots reach as deeply into the past as their effects will reach into the future.

Both Charles F. Wilkinson's Crossing the Next Meridian and Karl Hess's Visions Upon the Land rest their arguments on that fundament of history. Although the two books meet specifically only on the subject of grazing management (and, ultimately, clash there), Wilkinson, I think, would feel entirely at home with Hess's observation that the key to understanding the fate of the land is "to be found in the landscape visions that people had brought to the western range and in the degree of tolerance people had exercised while pursuing them . . . . |T~heir effect on the land was as lasting and real as the farmer's plow upon a virgin field." Substitute "land" for "western range," above, and you have just about as good a capsule description as can be found of how history and vision combined to produce and perpetuate disaster.

Where the two men differ is in prescription. Wilkinson, Moses Lasky Professor of Law at the University of Colorado and one of the country's leading authorities on western public land law and resource management policy, would make the federal agencies do their duty by the land and the people who depend on it and, where necessary, would turn to the revision of existing law and the creation of new law to ensure the land's health. Hess, an experienced ecologist and range-resource specialist who works as an environmental policy analyst with the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment in Seattle, thinks that there has been altogether too much law and regulation. He believes, further, that the land has been betrayed by arrogant, elitist bureaucrats who refuse to acknowledge humankind's place in nature and who have sought to impose rigid and unrealistic visions of ecological "correctness" on the land and the people of the West. Instead, he seeks refuge in an ecological/economic construct he calls "the market of landscape visions."

Ideas whose time has gone

Of the two books, Crossing the Next Meridian is the more comprehensive, the more satisfying, and, in the end, the more persuasive. Wilkinson devotes most of his attention to five principal areas of concern: hardrock mining, forest management, the management of anadromous fish populations in the Pacific Northwest, western water use, and rangeland management. The laws, regulations, policies, and traditions that have evolved to govern these aspects of natural resource use are, he says, "the lords of yesterday," outworn concepts "that arose under wholly different social and economic conditions but that remain in effect due to inertia, powerful lobbying forces, and lack of public awareness." The oldest and possibly the most pernicious of the "lords of yesterday" is the General Mining Law of 1872, an amalgam of 19th-century frontier traditions, which remains the law of the land. In brief, the law allows for individual mining claims of up to 20 acres in size to be filed anywhere on public lands. Full ownership can be obtained after proving the existence of a valuable mineral deposit on the site and paying the government a token fee. Here are some of the 20th-century drawbacks of this 19th-century law, as Wilkinson sees it:

* No federal agency can deny a mining company the right to mine its claim, even on environmentally fragile sites.

* Claims are often filed for speculative purposes or for non-mining uses, such as building second homes or hunting camps.

* Once purchased at these grotesquely cheap prices, a claim can be used for any legal purpose the owner wants, including ski resorts, real estate developments, and, in at least one case, a bordello.

* No royalty is charged for the private extraction of billions of dollars' worth of public resources.

* Because the law makes no provision for either environmental protection or reclamation, it has left a legacy of pollution throughout much of the West. No one knows how many tens of billions of dollars it is going to take to clean up this mess.

Altogether, Wilkinson concludes, the General Mining Law is an idea whose time has gone. His recommendations for change are based on better law and more stringent regulation: "Federal law ought to provide incentive and stability for serious, diligent mining on those lands deemed appropriate for mining. . . . But there should be no 'right to mine.' Production of minerals . . . should not proceed until there has been a public interest determination that the net public benefits of mining outweigh those of not mining. In no case should a miner receive title to the land. The environment ought to be protected by laws with real teeth in them. The system ought to have no truck with persons seeking to achieve goals other than mining. The public should receive a fair economic return, so long as it is not unduly burdensome on a mining operation."

Wilkinson is similarly incisive when he takes on the U.S. Forest Service. The outmoded concept in this instance is the assumption that the primary use of our 191 million acres of national forest is to provide commercial timber. Over the past 12 years the annual allowable "cut" on the forests has risen ever higher, for reasons that have a good deal more to do with politics than with intelligent forest management.

Wilkinson charges that the annual allowable cut encourages slovenly management practices and precipitous timber sales. Persuade the Congress to cut the cut, he says--clear down to half its current unsustainable level--and the inherent good sense of on-the-ground managers will ensure intelligent policy. There are those (myself among them) who are less confident that the Forest Service can be fully trusted to self-correct without strong direction from above. Nonetheless, it is hard to disagree with his general argument that it is in the enforcement of existing law (of which there is plenty) and the exercise of responsibility (of which there has been precious little) that salvation will be found.

Wilkinson waxes even more optimistic about the prospects of river management to protect salmon and steelhead populations in the Pacific Northwest. The "lord of yesterday" at issue here is the persistent idea that the social and economic benefits of hydropower development constitute a nearly unqualified good. If those big, impressive dams on the Columbia, the Snake, and other streams of the region have been bringing cheap electricity to the people and industries of the Pacific Northwest for nearly three generations, it has been at the cost of the commercial fisheries on which the region also depends--not to mention the less tangible costs associated with species extinction.

Nevertheless, the attitudes of both public agencies and the people of the region are beginning to bend in the direction of preserving the last of the endangered runs. In 1980, the Northwest Power Planning Council was created to reconcile the needs of fish species, local economies and energy consumers, and native fish may yet return.

When he gets into a discussion of western water use in general, Wilkinson ventures into a snarl of complexity, legality, politics, contention, emotionality, myth, and misinterpretation. In truth, there is not a single lord of yesterday to be dealt with here, but many, many, many lords. I will not attempt to outline his treatment in any detail, but having spent considerable time staggering around in the same territory myself, I can say with some quiet authority that no one has done a better job of sorting out the complexities involved than Wilkinson does in this book; his water chapter--"Harvesting the April Rivers"--ought to be required reading for anyone seriously interested in understanding the essential character and unalterable limitations of life in the West. And the solutions he offers up for unraveling the snarl are eminently reasonable--though I have to wonder whether they can ever be instituted in a region in which the politics of venality and shortsightedness has stifled reform for decades.

How the West was eaten

As noted earlier, it is in the area of grazing management that Wilkinson's and Hess's books meet and ultimately diverge. On the face of it, there appears to be no essential conflict. Both conclude that the present condition of the 258 million acres of public rangeland--managed by the Forest Service and the BLM, for the most part--is the legacy of freewheeling 19th-century practices that have been only partially ameliorated by 20th-century efforts. The western livestock industry has a history of overgrazing the land, and the results have been grim, as Hess points out: "By almost every measure, ecological conditions on western public lands are unsatisfactory. Less than half of all Forest Service lands (46 percent) and only one-third of BLM lands (34 percent) are estimated to be in good or excellent condition. In the arid Southwest, a mere 10 percent of Forest Service lands have high ratings."

Both men would agree that the federal agencies have not done their jobs--particularly the BLM, which has jurisdiction over most of the grazing lands at risk. Both feel that the current fees charged for permits to graze public lands amount to an outrageously generous federal subsidy. Both agree that although the overall importance of ranching to the economy of the West is minuscule, it is nonetheless essential for many local communities, and that the ranching culture is worth preserving as an integral part of the western scene.

Finally, both agree that the problems of the public range can be solved--but in this agreement there are powerful elements of discord. Wilkinson, true to form, would turn to existing law and the revision of federal agency attitudes and policies. Current statutes, he writes, "fairly sparkle with the values this modern society expects of government policy involving natural resources." The best chance for change, he adds, lies with the federal agencies that can and must enforce these laws.

Hess, on the other hand, believes just as earnestly that dictatorial federal land-management agencies, buttressed by well-meaning but essentially wrongheaded laws, have conspired (wittingly or otherwise) with the emergence of a mystical conservation movement to perpetuate an irrational vision of the land. The vision of a pristine landscape untainted by human impact, he says, "has enshrined the environmental policies and ecological follies of the open range of the late 1800s in a cathedral built from the living soil of western rangelands, sculpted by federal statutes and judicial decisions, and held together by layers of bureaucracy."

Even if one grants the validity of the argument that the environmental movement and federal agencies have embraced a feeble mysticism that has crippled the land (which I for one do not), the vision Hess moves on to offer is hardly more frabjous than that which he criticizes. The BLM and the Forest Service are "obsolete," he says, "technologies of an age of arrogance, when elitism ruled the politics of public lands." It is time, he insists, "to recognize that nature on the western range is too complex to be orchestrated by mammoth agencies or a handful of special-interest groups . . . . By replacing the disproven technologies of centralized planning with a market of landscape visions, federal lands will reap the economic and ecological benefits of a free society and gain from the diversity of many minds and many visions."

And there lies the essence of his book. If you peer carefully through the thicket of Hess's intellectual landscape, through his sometimes artful discussions of the land ethic, his history of the conservation movement, his intricate analyses of BLM and Forest Service mistakes, his evocative depictions of individual ranchers and their problems and accomplishments, and, above all, his vague and somewhat ponderous outline of the protocols of the market of landscape visions--if you look closely enough through all this, you will discern the same simple argument that free-market economists have been making about public land policy for at least two decades now: Remove the federal bureaucracy and the wilderness of regulation and let the land be managed by those who use it; the forces of supply and demand and enlightened self-interest will combine to ensure the intelligent use of natural resources and the ultimate and permanent health of the land.

I can understand Hess's fascination. It is such an appealing idea, this notion of a market of landscape visions, where human beings, left to their own devices, can be trusted to act in their own best interests to the ultimate benefit of themselves and the land around them. But, as Wilkinson's sweeping study demonstrates over and over again, the weight of all our history suggests that it also is quite insane.

T.H. Watkins, a vice president of the Wilderness Society and editor of its quarterly magazine, Wilderness, is the author of numerous books on public land history and policy, including The Lands No One Knows: America and the Public Domain (with Charles S. Watson, Jr.).
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Author:Watkins, T.H.
Publication:Issues in Science and Technology
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
Words:2310
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