Western lands

Review of

This Sovereign Land: A New Vision for Governing the West

Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2001, 255 pp

Plundered Promise: Capitalism, Politics, and the Fate of the Federal Lands

Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2001, xiv and 240 pp.

It is a rare event to have one’s mind fundamentally changed by a single book. It is also uncommon to find a work of true political originality, one that cuts through the competing clusters of outworn ideas that so often generate only rank polemics. And it is certainly unusual to encounter an author, much less one who is also a politician, who is courageous enough to risk his credibility with his own constituency by seeking conciliation with the opposition. But I have found such an author in Daniel Kemmis, and having read This Sovereign Land I will no longer view environmental politics as I previously did.

Kemmis, the director of the Center for the Rocky Mountain West at the University of Montana and a former Montana legislator and mayor of Missoula, focuses on the environmental degradation and the governance of public lands in the West, particularly the vast expanses controlled by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). These lands have generated some of this country’s most bitter disputes during the past several decades, pitting resource extractors against environmentalists, and local stakeholders against federal agencies. Kemmis writes from the embattled perspective of an environmental activist and Democratic Party stalwart in a region that has become almost monolithically Republican and that is commonly viewed as resolutely anti-green in its local politics.

Such an uncomfortable position has evidently encouraged a good deal of self-doubt and hardheaded thinking on the part of the author. Kemmis now argues that if the public lands of the West are to be saved from steady ecological deterioration, we must invert the traditional environmentalist position and cede control to local constituencies. Environmentalists, he contends, should cease regarding ranchers and loggers as enemies worthy only of lawsuits and injunctions, and instead should sit down with them to hammer out workable compromises.

The received environmentalist position on the western federal lands is itself suffused with contradiction. For decades, influential eco-radicals have denounced centralized control, contending that in an environmentally enlightened regime every “bioregion,” ideally centered on a watershed, should be fully autonomous. In actuality, however, virtually all environmentalists–from those in the compromising core to those on the most intransigent fringe–have supported the authority of Washington, D.C., fervently opposing any form of devolution. Local government, they argue, is usually controlled by resource extractors and is hence inherently anti-green. Reverting to the rhetoric of nationalism, environmentalists typically argue that because the public lands ultimately belong to all Americans, they must be managed at the federal level, regardless of local opposition.

In order to resolve this contradiction, I previously argued that we should abandon the romantic longing for local, bioregional control and instead realistically accept the fact that only the central government can act as a responsible land steward. Kemmis addresses the dilemma by taking exactly the opposite approach and exploring how local control can actually function. In the long run, I now suspect, his approach will prove to be the more powerful. Kemmis has successfully taken the concepts of localism and bioregionalism out of the realm of environmentalist fantasy and in the process has crafted a subtle, innovative, and mature eco-political philosophy.

Perverse dialectic

Kemmis examines public lands governance through historical analysis. The West has long been caught within a perverse dialectic between national power, which is, he contends, ultimately imperial in disposition, and the assertion of local authority, which has often involved symbolic rebellion against the center. Of overriding significance is the fact that the West is inherently different from the rest of the country simply because so much of its land remains under federal ownership. Every time the federal government has tried to consolidate its control of such lands, western politicians and business leaders have balked. Tensions reached a peak in the late 20th century. Strengthened environmental regulations in the 1970s prompted the “sagebrush rebellion” of ranchers, loggers, and their allies, which was only defused when a self-professed rebel, Ronald Reagan, gained the White House. Public lands were then opened to rampant despoliation, resulting in tighter logging and grazing restrictions when the Democrats regained the presidency. These restrictions threatened a number of small communities, resulting in yet another round of federal government bashing throughout the rural, intermountain West.

By the end of the century, Kemmis contends, the existing system of land management was on the verge of collapse. The federal government no longer had the resources or the will to adequately manage its extensive holdings. Political positions had hardened to such an extent that the Democratic Party essentially abandoned much of the region. Environmental politics was degenerating into endless and often seemingly pointless litigation. And in some communities, mere distaste for environmentalism was yielding to virtual pride in heedless destruction. A bumper sticker that I once saw in a western bar captures this attitude nicely: “Earth First! We’ll log off the other planets later.”

Yet at the same time, Kemmis demonstrates, something new was upwelling across the West: Local environmentalists were meeting with ranchers, loggers, and conservative politicians to forge compromises that would allow continued resource extraction while protecting local ecosystems. Conservative leaders, beginning to realize that they would never have the clout to quash environmentalist demands, came to support negotiation. Besides, contends Kemmis, even the most seemingly anti-green westerners usually love the landscape and thus accept some forms of conservation. Western environmentalists, for their part, also began to realize that compromise could sometimes protect lands more effectively than strident opposition. Besides, many could sympathize with the plight of local timber workers, many of whom had lost their jobs.

The nascent movement for cooperative management soon encountered obstacles in the federal land management agencies as well as the national environmental organizations. Forest Service and BLM bureaucrats could hardly help but see a threat in a movement that could ultimately deprive them of their responsibilities. The big green environmental organizations, for their part, remained deeply suspicious of western conservatives and their allies in the resource-extraction industries, and thus steadfastly upheld national control.

In response to such opposition, Kemmis concludes that collaborative management cannot be pursued under the present land ownership regime. The national forests and BLM lands should therefore be turned over, he argues, to perpetual trusts, ideally organized around watersheds and managed conjointly by all stakeholders within the local communities. Kemmis does not frame such a scenario in utopian terms; quite to the contrary, he thinks that environmental and resource interests will continually struggle against each other, necessitating tedious negotiations. But the evidence does suggest that neighbors–working together in face-to-face settings without excessive legal council–can craft workable, mutually beneficial management plans.

I am not so sure, however, that the federal agencies, as well as the big green organizations, would prove as obdurate as Kemmis thinks they necessarily must be. I also doubt whether all Western conservatives would be so amenable to environmental compromise. Kemmis’s notion that virtually all westerners love the land makes a lot more sense in Missoula than it does in Las Vegas. But such issues are ultimately of little account because Kemmis is far from doctrinaire on these or any other points. His mind is open and his basic stance is one of experimentation. Indeed, Kemmis periodically expresses doubts about his entire thesis–a rare and charming departure from our political culture’s norms of sanctimonious certitude.

There are several issues, nonetheless, on which Kemmis gets carried away with speculation. In Chapter Five, for example, he implies that the federal control of western lands may be doomed anyway, because global economic forces are ripping apart the very fabric of the nation state. The future of North America, he opines, could well be that of a continental federation composed of a handful of polities transcending the obsolete boundaries separating the United States from Canada and Mexico. Although the economic integrity of national territories is indeed weakening under the strains and lures of globalization, nationalism itself is hardly a spent force. Kemmis misses an essential irony here in consistently portraying traditional environmentalists as nationalistic, because of their desire for federal management, and western conservatives as antinationalistic, because of their passion for local control. With respect to land management this may be true, but at a more fundamental, emotional level, it is the western conservatives who are the nationalists, devoted to a gut-level patriotism that most environmentalists find off-putting.

Similarly, Kemmis misleadingly portrays the central issue, as his titles suggests, as one of sovereignty. The West, he argues repeatedly, must have sovereignty over its own territory. The problem is that sovereignty is a notoriously slippery concept, one that allows individual states to proclaim themselves sovereign when in reality they are anything but. Ultimately, the U.S. government could divest itself of all its landholdings without sacrificing any of its sovereignty, which flows not from its role as landlord but rather from its constitutionally invested authority. I think that we can safely expect Washington, D.C., to remain the seat of sovereignty of an indivisible United States for quite some time to come.

To be sure, in the book’s later chapters Kemmis reasonably returns to classical arguments about federalism that stress local autonomy rather than sovereignty. Overall, his handling of the political and economic relationships between the local, national, and global levels of organization is nuanced and sophisticated. Kemmis is particularly adept in placing the West in global context. Business leaders must eventually realize, he argues, that the West’s niche in the global economy depends more on the maintenance of its amenity values than on the unrestricted flow of its resources. He also provides a backbone to the nebulous idea of bioregionalism by coupling it with an intricate conception of urban-regionalism. In these and numerous other instances, Kemmis advances fresh and insightful thinking about environmentalism, politics, and geography. As a potentially path-breaking work, This Sovereign Land should be read not just by everyone interested in public lands but also by those concerned about the ideological logjams that so often prevent us from addressing our most pressing problems

Radical vision

Superficially, Richard W. Behan’s Plundered Promise is remarkably similar to Kemmis’s This Sovereign Land. Behan, a former dean of the School of Forestry at the University of Northern Arizona, is concerned about the environmental degradation of the public lands of the West, advocates devolving power to localized constituencies, and distrusts both the major national environmental organizations and the federal land-management bureaucracy. Behan cites one of Kemmis’s earlier books extensively and, like Kemmis, draws many of his examples from Western Montana. One might conclude that these two Island Press books were conceptualized and published in tandem.

Yet in many areas, Behan departs significantly from Kemmis. His depiction of ecological degradation is far more dramatic and his warnings more dire. And although Behan would like to see more local control, he maintains that federal lands must ultimately remain under national ownership. Indeed, this forms the crux of one of his more intriguing if fanciful arguments: The very idea of full public ownership of these magnificent places, he believes, could help renew our sense of national civic life and responsibility.

What really differentiates the two books, however, is the basic political attitude of the two authors. Kemmis writes as a genuine compromiser and reformer; Behan makes radical arguments for a clean sweep. Public lands can be saved, he thinks, only if we completely reinvent this country’s basic economic and political systems. His call for conciliation thus sometimes seems disingenuous, especially when one examines its specifics. Whereas he claims that “neighbors need to know that they can cut timber or graze livestock on the federal lands … [and that] there can be no power solutions imposed on them,” he also contends that we must “wind down grazing [and] logging…” on these same lands. It is hard to imagine a Western rancher–already infuriated with urban environmentalists who want to “wind down” his way of life– reading these passages and concluding that Behan honestly seeks dialogue.

Behan’s uncompromising radicalism is most clearly evident in his discussion of foundational issues of political economy. Like most eco-radicals, he considers American democracy to be largely a sham. This is partly because the advertisements of corporate interest groups successfully but dishonestly mold public opinion while inculcating a mindless consumerism, but also because the U.S. Constitution itself is irredeemably flawed by the obstacles that it presents to direct majority rule. Whereas the idea that advertisements subvert civic life is a staple of green political theory, Behan’s advocacy of national majoritarian democracy is unusual and intriguing; would-be eco-politicians usually trumpet decentralized, fully participatory democracy. Whether it is cogent is another matter. Behan presents no evidence that a majoritarian system, shorn of the elaborate checks and balances that slow the pace of political change, would be any more environmentally responsible than our current form of governance. I doubt very much that it would.

Behan’s economic proposals are even more extreme. Although he accepts the need for markets, he would essentially abolish corporations by limiting their lifespan and removing their legal standing as quasi-individuals. But such a proposal is a nonstarter, as the vast majority of voters would surely reject any call to return to the legal economic environment of the 18th century. And even if it could be implemented, its repercussions would be devastating; capital would instantly flee the United States, and a severe depression would ensue, forcing political realignment and reassessment. Whereas Kemmis writes from the viewpoint of an intellectually sophisticated politician immersed in the gritty world of negotiation and policy implementation, Behan’s perspective seems more like that of the academic dreamer, all too impressed with his own risk-free radicalism.

The strengths and weaknesses of Plundered Promise are typical of the genre of eco-criticism. The book is long on genuine passion for the land, and many of its stories of corporate greed and plunder are both well told and well worth reading. But Behan’s lack of respect for his political opponents undercuts his own professed devotion to democracy and community. Environmentalists will have difficulty pursuing collaborative approaches to western land management if they regard corporate managers as servants of an irredeemably wicked system and rank-and-file conservatives as stooges, mind-numbed if not brainwashed by advertisements. Utterly convinced of the righteousness of his own cause, Behan gets carried away on waves of quixotic fancy. From his repeated invocation that we must “behold Black Elk” and “listen to [Aldo] Leopold” one might think the author a college freshman who has just discovered environmentalism and alliteration, rather than the seasoned scholar he actually is.

But for all of this, Plundered Promise is most definitely a worthwhile book. Behan makes a number of interesting arguments, and his basic message about the environmental degradation of the public lands ought to be widely disseminated. But I would suggest that anyone interested in this topic read both Plundered Promise and This Sovereign Land, and then contemplate how the authors’ central ideas might actually be implemented.

Cite this Article

Lewis, Martin W. “Western lands.” Issues in Science and Technology 17, no. 4 (Summer 2001).

Vol. XVII, No. 4, Summer 2001