[Marxism] This Land Was Your Land

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Aug 25 11:25:03 MDT 2019

NY Times Op-Ed, July 13, 2019
This Land Was Your Land
By Christopher Ketcham

A drilling rig operating for Ultra Petroleum Resources  near Pinedale, 
Wyo.CreditCreditWilliam Campbell/Corbis, via Getty Images
For the past 10 years I’ve been documenting the fate of the least 
protected and most at-risk portion of the national commons: the roughly 
450 million acres across 12 Western states overseen on our behalf by the 
United States Bureau of Land Management and the United States Forest 

It’s an astonishingly diverse landscape of grasslands, steppe, 
mountains, deserts, forests, rivers and watersheds — places of beauty 
and wildness that Woody Guthrie once sang about, where no one person, or 
institution or corporation, is supposed to be privileged above the other.

Both the B.L.M. and the Forest Service operate with a congressional 
mandate for what’s called “multiple use” management. On paper, multiple 
use means exploiting the land for its resources in a way that maintains 
ecosystem health.

In practice, it long amounted to what William O. Douglas, a backpacker, 
outdoorsman and the longest-serving Supreme Court justice, described in 
1961 as “semantics for making cattlemen, sheepmen, lumbermen, miners the 
main beneficiaries.”

Regulation has improved somewhat since that time, thanks to sweeping 
environmental laws passed in the 1960s and ’70s. The Federal Land Policy 
and Management Act of 1976 stipulated that “scientific, scenic, 
historical, ecological, environmental, air and atmospheric, water 
resource and archaeological values” and “the long-term needs of future 
generations” must be taken in account in managing those expanses. But 
the land still suffers, as those laws too often are ignored or soft-pedaled.

Journey across the B.L.M. and Forest Service domain today and you’ll 
find no shortage of uses that look more like abuses. Oil and gas fields 
blight the deserts and steppe. Coal, copper, silver and gold mines stab 
into cliffs and mountains. Forests are felled for timber interests, 
grasslands are overgrazed for the benefit of cattlemen. The result is 
ecological impoverishment, biotic simplification and a widespread 
collapse of biodiversity.

If you’re lucky in your travels, you might end up talking with Mary 
O’Brien, a botanist in southern Utah with the nonprofit Grand Canyon 
Trust. Dr. O’Brien argues that the B.L.M. has permitted so many cattle 
to graze on the fragile desert landscape that native plants have been 
eaten away and the sensitive cryptobiotic soil — which takes a century 
to mature — has been eroded to dust.

“This is what’s happened to the promise we made the American people,” 
Dr. O’Brien told me. “You’ve heard about the banality of evil. This is 
the banality of normalized degradation.”

“The only acid test is,” she said, “‘Is it good for cattle?’”

You might also end up talking with Leslie Hagenstein, a nurse 
practitioner who grew up in Pinedale, Wyo., in the Upper Green River 
Valley, and who practiced there for close to 40 years. I sat in her 
living room in the house she was raised in on a September evening, 
looking out the window at a fracking well a half-mile away that was 
drilled in the final months of the Obama administration.

The drill bit thumped and pounded for close to a year. Her house shook. 
The noise, the tremors and glaring klieg lights left her sleepless. She 
complained. She says the company and the B.L.M. ignored her.

The well sits on an area called the Mesa Breaks, public land. When she 
was a young woman in Pinedale, the B.L.M. designated the Mesa Breaks a 
critical wildlife corridor for wintering mule deer and pronghorn, and 
barred all energy exploration there.

“It’s rape and pillage now,” she told me.

Now? Liberals pathologically allegiant to the Democratic Party want to 
blame Donald Trump for it all, as if history began in 2017. Don’t be 
fooled. Gas drilling in the Upper Green River Valley began under Bill 
Clinton, accelerated under George W. Bush, continued under Barack Obama 
and has accelerated again under President Trump.

The Upper Green River Valley once had some of the cleanest air in the 
country. The energy industry brought its armadas of diesel trucks, 
drilled with abandon, laid its pipelines and dumped the fracked 
wastewater in toxic evaporation pits where once there had been sagebrush 
that was habitat for endangered sage grouse.

The air filled with volatile organic compounds, the contaminants 
associated with fracking and with nitrogen oxides from diesel engines. 
Now the ozone pollution cooked out of that brew by the Wyoming sun forms 
a veil of smog.

It’s your land put to productive use, made hideous with drill pads, 
warehouses, parking lots, cranes, bulldozers, storage tanks, emission 
stacks and roads that lead always to more artifacts of industry.
The public land is behind fences, behind barbed wire. The signs say 
welcome to the “Pinedale Complex, Authorized Persons Only.”

Among the lyrics that never made it to radio when Woody Guthrie released 
“This Land Is Your Land” in 1951 were the ones nakedly socialist in 
message. “There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me,” 
Guthrie sang in his original version that went unheard. “The sign was 
painted, said ‘Private Property’ / But on the backside, it didn’t say 
nothing / This land was made for you and me.”

The high walls today consist of management protocols set by complicit 
federal regulators, who are overseeing public land for its tacit 
privatization — land that we might as well declare public in name only.

But the federal regulators answer to Congress, and Congress answers to 
us, the owners of the land. We need to rise up and speak for the commons 
as a people, collectively. The rabble-rousing Guthrie would have us do 
nothing less.

Christopher Ketcham is a freelance journalist and author of the 
forthcoming book “This Land: How Cowboys, Capitalism, and Corruption Are 
Ruining the American West,” from which this essay is adapted.

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