The West Against Itself
Harper’s, January 1947
In Harper’s for August 1934, I called the West “the plundered province.” The phrase has proved so useful to Western writers and orators that it has superseded various phrases which through two generations of Western resentment designated the same thing. We must realize that it does designate a thing; that, whatever the phrases, there is a reality behind them. Economically the West has always been a province of the East and it has always been plundered.
The first wealth produced in the West was furs, mainly beaver furs. It made a good many Easterners rich. Partnerships and corporations sent technical specialists – trappers and Indian traders – into the West to bring out the furs. No producer ever got rich; few were ever even solvent. The wealth they produced — from the West’s natural resources – went east into other hands and stayed there. The absentee owners acted on a simple principle: get the money out. And theirs was an economy of liquidation. They cleaned up and by 1840 they had cleaned the West out. A century later, beaver has not yet come back.
In the early eighteen-forties emigrants began to go west. They leapfrogged over the plains and mountains, which were settled much later, in order to get to Oregon west of the Cascade Mountains and California west of the Sierra. Their settlements were the first permanent local interests in the West and (with Mormon Utah) for decades the only ones. The emigrants expected to stay in the West and expected their descendants to go on living off the country. They made farms and set up local systems of production, trade, export of surpluses, and even manufacture. The interests of these people, the permanent inhabitants, have always been in conflict with those who were liquidating the West’s resources. Their interests have not been in conflict with the East, in fact have been worth more to the East than all other Western sources of wealth put together – so long as the East has been able to control and exploit them, that is from the beginning up to now. The East has always held a mortgage on the permanent West, channeling its wealth eastward, maintaining it in a debtor status, and confining its economic function to that of a mercantilist province.
The development of the mineral West began in 1849. Mining is the type-example of Western exploitation. Almost invariably the first phase was a “rush”; those who participated were practically all Easterners whose sole desire was to wash out of Western soil as much wealth as they could and take it home. Few made a stake. Of those who did practically everyone carried out his original intention and transferred Western wealth to the East. The next and permanent phase was hard-rock mining or mining by placer or dredge on so large a scale that the same necessity held; large outlays of capital were required and the only capital that existed was Eastern. So the mines came into Eastern ownership and control. They have always channeled Western wealth out of the West; the West’s minerals have made the East richer. (The occasional Westerner who fought his way into the system – called a “nabob” in his era – became part of that system, which is to say an enemy of the West.)
Mining is liquidation. You clean out the deposit, exhaust the lode, and move on. Hundreds of ghost towns in the West, and hundreds of more pathetic towns where a little human life lingers on after economic death, signalize this inexorable fact. You clean up and get out – and you don’t give a damn, especially if you are an Eastern stockholder. All mining exhausts the deposit. But if it is placer mining, hydraulic mining, or dredging, it also kills the land. Nothing will come of that land again till after this geological epoch has run out.
In witness of what I said last month about the West’s split personality, consider this: that in the West no rights, privileges, or usurpations are so vociferously defended by the West – against itself – as the miner’s. The miner’s right to exploit transcends all other rights whatsoever. Even the national government is unable to effect enough control over mineral property rights to harmonize them with conflicting or even merely different rights.
Oil and natural gas follow the pattern of the mines. Because their development is comparatively recent the national government is able to exercise some control over them in the common interest, by using the lease system instead of the patents which it must issue to miners. But just because that development is recent, Eastern capital has been able to monopolize oil and gas even more completely than ever it monopolized mining. The wells, pipelines, and refineries belong to Eastern corporations. They pump Western wealth into Eastern treasuries. It is possible for a Western independent to make a mineral discovery, finance it, and maintain his local control in defiance of the absentee system; it has happened occasionally in the East and it happens occasionally now. But the wildcatter in oil, the independent, has no chance at all except to submit to the system. He may find oil without its assistance; in fact the system hopes he will. But he cannot refine or transport or sell oil except to the system, on the system’s terms.
Western psychology prevents him from desiring to do anything else. Last summer I talked with the manager of a small, locally owned refinery which, with much good luck but mostly because the necessities of war had set up exactly the right conditions, had cleared its debts, secured contracts which seemed to guarantee it permanent independence, and built up an impressive surplus and reserve. It was a minute item of fulfillment of the West’s great dream, the dream of economic liberation, of local ownership and control. And what had been done with that surplus and that reserve? They had been invested in Standard Oil of New Jersey. The West does not want to be liberated from the system of exploitation that it has always violently resented. It only wants to buy into it.
So we come to the business which created the West’s most powerful illusion about itself and, though this is not immediately apparent, has done more damage to the West than any other. The stock business. Now there was stock raising along the Pacific Coast before there was American agriculture there, long before there were American settlements. But the cattle business of the West as such has been conducted east of the Cascades and Sierra and in great degree east of the Rockies, and it began when cattle were brought to the open range – first to Wyoming, Montana, and the Dakotas, then elsewhere. Its great era lasted from about 1870 to the terminal winter of 1886-87, which changed its conditions forever. Changed them, I repeat, forever. But the practices, values, and delusions developed in that era, the Cattle Kingdom of romance, dominate the cattle business today.
The cattlemen came from Elsewhere into the empty West. They were always arrogant and always deluded. They thought themselves free men, the freest men who ever lived, but even more than other Westerners they were peons of their Eastern bankers and of the railroads which the bankers owned and the exchanges and stockyards and packing plants which the bankers established to control their business. With the self-deception that runs like a leitmotif through Western business, they wholeheartedly supported their masters against the West and today support the East against the West. They thought of themselves as Westerners and they did live in the West, but they were the enemies of everyone else who lived there. They kept sheepmen, their natural and eventual allies, out of the West wherever and as long as they could, slaughtering herds and frequently herdsmen. They did their utmost to keep the nester – the farmer, the actual settler, the man who could create local and permanent wealth – out of the West and to terrorize or bankrupt him where he could not be kept out. And the big cattlemen squeezed out the little ones wherever possible, grabbing the water rights, foreclosing small holdings, frequently hiring gunmen to murder them. And, being Western individualists and therefore gifted with illusion, the little cattlemen have always fought the big ones’ battles, have adopted and supported their policies to their own disadvantage and to the great hurt of the West.
Two facts about the cattle business have priority over all the rest. First, the Cattle Kingdom never did own more than a minute fraction of one per cent of the range it grazed; it was national domain, it belonged to the people of the United States. Cattlemen do not own the public range now; it belongs to you and me, and since the fees they pay for using public land are much smaller than those they pay for using private land, those fees are in effect one of a number of subsidies we pay them. But they always acted as if they owned the public range and act so now; they convinced themselves that it belonged to them and now believe it does; and they are trying to take title to it. Second, the cattle business does not have to be conducted as liquidation but throughout history its management has always tended to conduct it on that basis.
You have seen the Missouri River at Kansas City, an opaque stream half saturated with silt. A great part of that silt gets into it from the Yellowstone River, above whose mouth the Missouri is, comparatively, clear. The Yellowstone is fed by many stream, of which those from the south carry the most silt, the Tongue, the Rosebud, especially the Powder River, and most especially the Big Horn. Above the mouth of the Big Horn the Yellowstone is comparatively clear. These plains rivers are depressing and rather sinister to look at, and they always have been helping to carry the mountains to the sea. But one reads with amazement descriptions of them written before the Civil War. They were comparatively clear streams, streams whose gradual, geological erosion of the land had not been accelerated – as it was when the cattle business came to Wyoming and Montana. The Cattle Kingdom overgrazed the range so drastically – fed so many more cattle than the range could support without damage – that the processes of nature were disrupted. Since those high and far-off days the range has never been capable of supporting anything like the number of cattle it could have supported if the cattle barons had not maimed it. It never will be capable of supporting a proper number again during the geological epoch in which civilization exists.
That should be, but mostly isn’t, important to the citizens of Wyoming, whose heritage the West’s romantic business in part destroyed. It is directly important to everyone who lives in the lower Missouri Valley or the lower Mississippi Valley, and only a little less directly important to everyone who pays taxes for flood control, relief, or the rehabilitation of depress areas. For when you watch the Missouri sliding greasily past Kansas City you are watching those gallant horsemen out of Owen Wister shovel Wyoming into the Gulf of Mexico. It is even more important that their heirs hope to shovel most of the remaining West into its rivers.
There remains lumbering. It perpetrated greater frauds against the people of the United States than any other Western business — and that is a superlative of cosmic size. It was a business of total liquidation: when a tree is cut, a century or two centuries may be required to grow another one and perhaps another one cannot be grown at all. Also it killed the land. A logged-out forest does not take so much geological time to come back as a place where a gold dredge has worked but during the generations of men it is even more evil. The effects of denuding a forest extend as far as fire may go and beyond that as far as any of the streams on the watershed it belongs to may be used for human purposes or are capable of affecting life, property, or society.
Lumbering, however, shows several deviations from the Western pattern. First, though the greater part of the timber came into Eastern ownership, with the consequent disregard of Western interests and the usual transfer of wealth out of the West, nevertheless an important bulk of it came into the hands of Westerners. Second, the national government got on the job in time to protect vast areas of forest from liquidation – and to protect the heart of the West from geological extinction. Third, a good many of the big operators got the idea in time and it is mainly they who are now trying to maintain privately owned Western forests as a permanent source of wealth, whereas the drive to liquidate all forests comes most vociferously from small operators, who have neither the capital nor the timber reserves for long-term operation. But with lumbering as with the cattle business we see revealed the psychic split that impels the West to join its enemies against itself.
These, then, with power and irrigation which we may skip for the moment, are the businesses founded on the West’s basic natural resources. While these businesses were developing, the rest of the West’s economic structure, the parts which are like similar businesses everywhere, was also developing. There came to be in the West agriculture, transportation, wholesale and retail distribution, all the multifarious activities necessary to society. As I have already said, they are in sum much more important to the East than the basic businesses it owns – so long as it can control them in its own interest.
We lack space to describe the system by which the East maintains the West as an economic fief. It has been described many times and several recent books discuss it in relation to the current Western hope of breaking it up. Mr. A. G. Mezerik’s The Revolt of the South and West is sound but in some contexts emotional rather than factual and commits the fallacy of assuming that the modern Far West can have the same relation to the South that the Middle West had before the Civil War. Mr. Wendell Berge’s Economic Freedom for the West is more analytical and much more realistic. Mr. Ladd Haystead’s If the Prospect Pleases is less comprehensive than either but Mr. Haystead deals with the Western psychology that imperils the Western hope, as Mr. Mezerik and Mr. Berge do not.
The bases of the system are simple. In a striking analogy to eighteenth-century mercantilism, the East imposed economic colonialism on the West. The West is, for the East, a source of raw materials for manufacture and a market for manufactured goods. Like the colonies before the Revolution the West is denied industry. Natural evolution concentrated industry and financial power in the East but the same evolution gave all other sections but the West a sizable amount of both. By the time the development of the West began it was possible to control the evolutionary process – to finance the West in such a way that the growth of locally owned industry became all but prohibited.
The control of capital is, of course, the basic process. There is an amazing spread of interest rates between East and the West. For such purely individual financing as real estate loans the West pays from two to three times as high a rate as the East. For the ordinary conduct of business it pays exactly what the East cares to charge and always enough to constitute a handicap in competition. But also as Western business becomes large enough to compete the Eastern financial network can either dictate to it absolutely or destroy it. This at the simplest level. Above it is the interconnected structure of finance: the monopolies, cartels, inter-industry agreements, control of transportation, and the many other instruments of power.
Take freight rates. They are devised so that the East pays lightly for the transport of Western raw materials but the West pays heavily for the transport of Eastern manufactured goods – and is prevented from manufacturing its own goods. The cowpoke on a ranch fifty miles from Sheridan, Wyoming, does not wear boots made at Sheridan. He wears boots made of leather from hides shipped from Sheridan to Massachusetts, processed and manufactured there, and then shipped back to Sheridan. The businessman of an Oregon town does not buy a desk made where the lumber is made, but in Grand Rapids whither the lumber is shipped and whence the desk is returned to his home town, paying two freight charges where he should pay none at all. The wheat rancher in Washington or Montana has to buy agricultural machinery made not in rational proximity either to his ranch or to Western deposits of iron and coal but in Illinois, Ohio, or Pennsylvania – and is mentioned here because he pays not only that tax to Eastern control of business but another one, the tariff that protects the manufacturer but builds no wall round the wheat-grower. Finally, the businessman who erects an office building in Denver or the county commissioners who build a bridge in northern Utah may indeed use steel produced within a hundred miles of the operation – but they pay on it, for the maintenance of the system, a tax assessed by the “basing point” principle that makes a satisfactory substitute for the outlawed “Pittsburg plus.”
The West is permitted to engage in preliminary operations that reduce the bulk of raw material so that the East can save freight costs in transporting them to the mills where the finishing operations are performed. It is not permitted to perform those finishing operations, to manufacture finished materials into consumers’ goods, or to engage in the basic heavy industries which would give it the power to blow the whole system wide open. So far as the West is industrialized, it has a low-level industry. But there are necessarily loopholes in the system: kinds of industry which cannot be prevented from developing in the West. Such loopholes do not disturb the Eastern masters. Control of credit enables them to buy them out or dictate the terms on which they may be operated. Or they may manipulate patent rights or trade agreements to the same end. Or they establish a branch plant of their own which cuts the throat of the Western-owned plant. Or they merely mention these possibilities and the Western industrialist, a fiery secessionist in his oratory, joins the system.
The result is an economy bound to the industrial system of the East even where it is not in fact owned and managed by that system. That is to say, the West is systematically looted and has always been bankrupt.
There has never been a time when the West did not furiously resent all this nor a time when some elements in the West were not trying to do something about it. All the furious agitations that have boiled out of the West and terrified the Eastern rentiers (but have seldom caused the actual engineers of plunder to turn a hair) have had the sole purpose of securing for the West some fractional control over its economic future. None of them have ever succeeded except when they could perform an ancillary service to the absentee system – like the permanently inflated price of silver, as outrageous a robbery of the American people as any ever devised by the steering committee of a patent pool. At most they have got the West an occasional tip amounting to a nickel or a dime, tossed back out of the millions drained eastward. There was never a chance that they could accomplish more. That is, there was never a chance till recent years. But now there is.
The New Deal began it. New Deal measures slowed the liquidation of resources and substituted measures of permanent yield. They operated to rehabilitate depleted resources, halt and repair erosion, rebuild soil, and restore areas of social decay. They eased credit, opened small gaps in the master system, and created much local prosperity. Such things improved the economic system and more important measures widened its base. Public power and rural electrification dented the power monopoly which I have not touched on here but which is a basic tool of the system. A great expansion of reclamation projects increased agricultural wealth and, what is much more important, made a start toward the production of surplus electric power. Finally, with such enterprises as the Central Valley Project and the stupendous, integrated plans for the development of the Columbia River basin, the New Deal laid the groundwork for a fundamental attack on the system.
The West greeted these measures characteristically: demanding more and more of them, demanding further government help in taking advantage of them, furiously denouncing the government for paternalism, and trying to avoid all regulation. But the measures began to make possible what had not been possible before. They would provide electric power so cheaply and in such quantity that great industrial development must follow in the West. The Western economic structure must be revolutionized and reintegrated – which would imply tremendous changes in the national economic structure. And for the first time the West had a chance to seize control over its own economic destiny.
The war came and the process begun by the New Deal was accelerated. Factories of many kinds sprang up everywhere. (Except in Montana, long the private fief of Anaconda Copper and Montana Power, which succeeded in preventing any serious threat to their control of labor and production.) Mr. Berge has shown how, even in the stress of war, the absentee Eastern masters were able to direct much of this development in the old pattern, to restrain it to plants that performed only preliminary or intermediate processes. But not altogether. The West got airplane plants, shipyards, plants that manufactured such complex things as tanks and landing craft, heavy machinery, packing plants, innumerable processing plants. At Fontana in California and Geneva in Utah it got basic steel production. The war also produced something else the West had never had, a large body of skilled industrial labor. Also, by building landing fields and modern airports everywhere it made at least a fissure in the monopoly of transport and took out of transport much of the handicap of time which the West has always had to carry. Finally, it exhausted the new surplus of electric power and so hastened the already contemplated production of more power.
In short, the West now has an industrial plant and the conditions for its use are favorable – and certain to become more favorable. That is the fact on which the reinvigorated dream of economic liberation rests. The plant is too heavily concentrated along the Columbia, Puget Sound, the Willamette Valley, and the Pacific Coast – more so than it would have been if the development had been more gradual – but it does extend through much of the West. And with the production of, for instance, ingots and rolled steel and aluminum, heavy industrial goods, and many kinds of finished consumers’ goods, and with the certainty that the production of power will increase, the terms are changed forever. The West can at last realistically envision developing a high-level economy with all that that implies: stability, prosperity, rising standard of living, successful competition with other sections, a full participating share in an expanding national economy.
Realization that the dream can be fulfilled has made the West all but drunk. It is looking forward to the future with hope and confidence. I cannot list here the sectional and interstate associations and committees engaged in implementing the dream, the plans they are working out, the measures they are preparing, or any other specific details that have been born of a strange wedlock – the dynamics of boom which any trigger whatever has always been able to release in the West and the unique opportunity which the last few years have brought about. Enough that the West understands the opportunity, understands the possibilities of success and of failure that are inherent in it, and is taking every conceivable measure to avert failure and insure success.
With a conspicuous exception. The West seems unaware of one possibility of failure, the one that is inherent in its historic psychology.
Some doubts will occur to anyone. Thus if the upheaval should merely transfer financial power from Wall Street to Wall Street’s California branch office, the basic system would be changed no more than it was years ago by the entrance of Chicago finance into the Western exploitation that had previously been monopolized by New York and Boston. A coastal dictatorship would merely be substituted for a trans-Mississippi one. Certain assurances will also occur to anyone and of these the principal one is that the Northwest has a better chance of pulling it off than the West as a whole. Its natural resources are more compactly concentrated and have been less impaired. The Northwest is a more self-contained unit with fewer internal frictions and the Columbia system is more uniform and manageable than the Missouri system or any other possible focus of future development. Most important of all, the Northwest seems to have got the idea that sustained use of natural resources – which is to say simply, the future – is incompatible with the liquidation of those resources in the present.
I have described a basic split in the Western psyche. Whether the great dream will fail or be fulfilled depends on how that split works out. Western individualism has always been in part a belief that I stand to make more money from letting my neighbor down than from cooperating with him. Westerners have always tended to hold themselves cheap and to hold one another cheaper. Western resentment of its Eastern enslavement has always tended to be less a dislike of the enslavement than a belief that it could be made to pay.
The oil refinery that invested its surplus in Standard Oil was hardly warring on absentee control and the same thing is to be seen throughout the West. The Wolfville Chamber of Commerce which is campaigning almost rabidly for local investment, local manufactures locally owned, integration of the local commercial system – all surcharged with violence about Wall Street, “foreign” corporations, the freight rates, and the East as such — that Chamber of Commerce is also campaigning by advertisement and paid agents to bring Eastern corporations to Wolfville. At the moment when its rhapsody of insurrection is loudest its agents are spreading out their charts on the desks of Eastern industrial managers. Look, we’ve got this cheap federal power at Wolfville and a labor surplus, too. The unions are feeble in Wolfville and in fact throughout the state – it’s not Paterson, it’s not Akron, it’s a setup. We’ll give you a site free and build your spur. Now as for tax abatement, just what do you need? Just what additional advantages do you need, that is, over the locally owned businesses of Wolfville we are trying to build up in order to break the stranglehold of the East?
The symptoms of the division in the Western mind show more clearly in the Western press, the newspapers, and the specialty journals of mining, lumbering, cattle and sheep growing, engineering. It is, to begin with, an astonishingly reactionary press. The Western radical who occasionally scares the East usually turns out to be advocating on his native plains something a couple of decades earlier than Mark Hanna. An average Democratic newspaper in the West would seem by, say, the advanced liberalism of the Pennsylvania state machine, to be expressing a point of view much too backward for Boies Penrose. A typical Republican editorial page in the West is written out of the economic and social assumptions of avalanche capitalism just after the Civil War. The point is that these conceptions, assumptions, and values are improperly labeled when they are called Democratic or Republican. They are Western.
One image of the West that the East accepts is that of the West not as economic peon but as pensioner of the East, as beggar. The West with its hat held out beseeching the expenditure on its behalf of federal money which must be raised from Eastern corporation and income taxes. Considering how much of that income is plundered from the West, the image is both comic and profoundly ironical. But there are ways in which it is also true. You can hardly find an editorial page in the West that is not demanding as Western right, as compensation for the West, and as assistance toward Western liberation, the expenditure of more federal funds. More government money for public health, hospitals, inspection, treatment; for schools; for service by the Bureau of Mines to the mining industry; for the improvement of Western agriculture, the replenishment of soils, the instruction of farmers; for the instruction and protection of cattle and sheep growers, the improvement of stock and range, quarantine, research; for fire protection in the logging business; for drainage; for reseeding and reforestation of private lands; for roads; for weather service; and always for dams, canals, and the whole program of reclamation.
But at the same time: hands off. The West has been corrupted, its press believes all but unanimously, by a system of paternalism which is collectivist at base and hardly bothers to disguise its intention of delivering the United States over to communism. The second column of the editorial page is sure to be a ringing demand for the government to get out of business, to stop impeding initiative, to break the shackles of regulation with which it has fettered enterprise, to abjure its philosophy of suppressing liberty, and to stop giving money to people who will only store coal in the new bathtub. The editorial is certain to have a few lines about bureaucrats in desk chairs, impractical theorists, probably professors and certainly long-haired, who are destroying the West by interfering with men who know how. Also it is certain to be horrified by the schools, which the bureaucrats are using to debauch our young people with Russian propaganda.
An editorial typical of scores I read this summer begins, “Next to getting over our complex that we have to appease labor and give it more money every Monday a.m., our next task is to go over to the schoolhouse.” It denounces a handful of revolutionary notions, including the dreadful one that “the people should own the water power and the forests,” and goes on to suggest measures, of which the first is, “we would call in the principal, or the president of the university, and quiz him on why do his teachers recommend socialism. And if his answer was dubious we would get a pinch hitter to take his place.”
It shakes down to a platform: get out and give us more money. Much of the dream of economic liberation is dependent upon continuous, continually increasing federal subsidies – subsidies which it also insists shall be made without safeguard or regulation. This is interesting as economic fantasy but it is more interesting because it reveals that the Western mind is interfusing its dream of freedom with the economic cannibalism of the post-Civil-War Stone Age. It is still more interesting as it reveals the West’s attitude toward the federal intervention which alone was powerful enough to save Western natural resources from total control and quick liquidation by the absentee Eastern ownership.
For that preservation the West is grateful to the government. But there was and still is a fundamental defect: federal intervention has also preserved those resources from locally owned liquidation by the West itself. So, at the very moment when the West is blueprinting an economy which must be based on the sustained, permanent use of its natural resources, it is also conducting an assault on those resources with the simple objective of liquidating them. The dissociation of intelligence could go no farther but there it is – and there is the West yesterday, today, and forever. It is the Western mind stripped to the basic split. The West as its own worst enemy. The West committing suicide.
The national parks are composed of lands that were once part of the public domain (plus a few minute areas that had previously passed out of it). Exceedingly small in total area, they are permanently reserved and dedicated to their present uses: the preservation of wilderness areas, the protection of supreme scenic beauties, and the pleasure and recreation of the American people. By the terms of the original dedication and by policy so far kept inviolate they are to be maintained as they are, they are not to be commercially exploited at all. But they contain timber, grazing land, water, and minerals. And that, in the West’s eyes, is what is wrong with them.
The Olympic National Park contains a virgin stand of Sitka spruce, which yields a wood that was once essential for airplanes. During the war a violent agitation was conducted by logging interests (unobtrusively backed by other interests with an eye to natural resources) to open these forests to logging. It presented itself as patriotism and skillfully assimilated itself to the emotions of wartime. There was more than enough Sitka spruce in privately owned and national forests to take care of any demand but no matter: victory depended on our opening the Olympic National Park to logging. The persistence and power of that agitation and its accompanying propaganda (some of it conducted in the public schools, which are supposed to be poisoned with collectivism) would be unbelievable to anyone who had not looked into them.
The National Park Service, backed by conservation associations and by other lumbering interests which have seen the light, was able to hold fast – the Olympic Park was not logged. But immediately the war ended the same interests, augmented by a good many others, began an even more violent campaign of agitation, commercial pressure, and political pressure. We must now house the veterans and clearly we could not do so unless we opened all the national parks to logging.
That onslaught has been held in check and it will not win this time. But it will be repeated many times and the West intends it to win.
This campaign had nothing to do with Sitka spruce, winning the war, or housing veterans. Its purpose was to make a breach in the national parks policy with the aid of war emotions, and to create a precedent. Once that precedent should be set, the rest would follow. Lumber companies could log the parks. Cattle and sheep associations could graze them. Mining companies could get at their mineral deposits. Power companies could build dams in them, water companies could use their lakes and rivers. Each of those objectives has been repeatedly attempted in the past and the sun never sets on the West’s efforts to achieve them. Success would mean not only the destruction of the national parks but, as we shall see, far worse.
The parks are trivial in extent, though the destruction of their forests, many of which have critical locations, would have disproportionately destructive effect on the watersheds – the watersheds which must be preserved if the West is to continue to exist as a society. They are trivial – the main objectives of the Western assault on the natural resources are the remnants of the national domain, the Taylor Act grazing lands, and the national forests.
I have heard this assault called a conspiracy but it is in no way secret or even surreptitious; it is open and enthusiastically supported by many Westerners, by many Western newspapers, and by almost all the Western specialty press. Openly engaged in it are parts of the lumber industry (though other important parts of that industry are opposing it), some water users (though water users would be its first victims), the national associations of cattle and sheep growers and a majority of the state and local associations, large parts of the mining industry, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (some of whose local chambers are in opposition), and those Western members of Congress who represent those interests. Obscure but blandly cooperative in the background are Eastern interests perennially hostile to the West and concerned here because they greatly desire to halt and reduce government regulation and to open additional Western wealth to liquidation – notably the power companies.
Right now the cattlemen and sheepmen are carrying the ball. We must confine ourselves to them and their principal objectives – remembering that the organized assault aims at many other objectives which would benefit other groups. Their limited objectives are:
(1) Conversion of the privilege which cattlemen and sheepmen now have of grazing their stock on Taylor Act and Forest Service lands – a privilege which is now subject to regulation and adjustment for which they pay less than it is worth – into a vested right guaranteed them and subject to only such regulation as they may impose on themselves.
(2) Distribution of all the Taylor Act grazing lands, which is to say practically all the public domain that still exists, to the individual states, as a preliminary to disposing of them by private sale. (At an insignificant price. At an inflammatory meeting of committees of the American National Livestock Association and the National Woolgrowers Association in Salt Lake City in August 1946, the price most commonly suggested was ten cents an acre.)
(3) Reclassification of lands in the national forests and removal from the jurisdiction of the Forest Service of all lands that can be classified as valuable for grazing, so that these lands may be transferred to the states and eventually sold. Immediately in contemplation is the removal of all government regulation of grazing in about 27,000,000 acres of forest lands and their distribution to the states – and to stockmen and woolgrowers as soon thereafter as possible.
These tracts compose the Minidoka and Caribou Forests in Idaho, all the forests in Nevada, most of the forest land in the southern half of Utah, and some ten or twelve million acres in Arizona and New Mexico. But that is just a start: a further objective is to wrest from Forest Service control all lands in all forests that can be grazed. And beyond that is the intention ultimately to confine the Forest Service to the rehabilitation of land which lumbermen and stockmen have made unproductive, under compulsion to transfer it to private ownership as soon as it has been made productive again. The ultimate objective, that is, to liquidate all public ownership of grazing land and forest land in the United States. And the wording of the resolution in which the U.S. Chamber of Commerce came to the support of the program excepted no government land whatever. That represents the desire of most of the leaders of the assault.
The immediate objectives make this attempt one of the biggest landgrabs in American history. The ultimate objectives make it incomparably the biggest. The plan is to get rid of public lands altogether, turning them over to the states, which can be coerced as the federal government cannot be, and eventually to private ownership.
This is your land we are talking about.
The attack has already carried important outposts. Regulation of the use of Taylor Act lands, the vast public range outside the national forests, was vested in the Grazing Service. Over the last few years that service was so systematically reduced in staff and appropriations that some cattlemen have been grazing the public range just as they see fit. Violation of the Taylor Act is widespread, flagrant, systematic, and frequently recommended to their members as policy by various local cattle and sheep associations. The Grazing Service was organized to assist grazers and to protect the public interest. When it took the latter purpose seriously it was emasculated and this year has been killed by Western members of Congress, under the leadership of Senator McCarran of Nevada. But Senator McCarran is by no means so extreme as the majority of the big stockmen whose interests he serves so brilliantly in Washington. His more limited purpose is to get the public lands away from those he calls “the swivel-chair oligarchy,” that is, federal officials who cannot be coerced, and into the hands of the states, that is, officials who can be coerced. His model is his own state government, a small oligarchy dominated by stockmen. At the Salt Lake City meeting I have mentioned he warned the associations that demands for private ownership were premature and might embarrass his efforts, and he is understood to have been furious when, after he had left, the combined committees declared for ultimate private ownership of all public lands.
Senator McCarran has been the ablest representative of cattle and sheep interests in Washington, against the West and the people of the United States. But from time to time he has had the help of more than half the Western delegation in Congress – most surprisingly of Senator Hatch – and especially of Congressman Barrett and Senator Robertson of Wyoming. (New Mexico and Wyoming are the only states whose delegates to the Salt Lake City meeting were unanimous for the program.) Let us look at some of the measures they have proposed.
Senator McCarran has fathered a number of bills aimed at small or large objectives of the program. The one in point, however, is the “McCarran grazing bill” (S 33 in the last Congress) which has now been defeated four times but will certainly be reintroduced in the next Congress. This measure would give present owners of grazing permits in the national forests fee simple property rights in those permits, on the theory that if you have leased an apartment from me (at half price or less) you have become its owner. The purpose was to convert a privilege (and one that is subject to regulation) into a vested right, to confine the use of grazing rights in the national forests to the present holders, and to deny the Forest Service the greater part of its present power to regulate the use of grazing lands.
The Barrett Bill of last session (HR 7638) provided for the sale of disconnected tracts of unorganized Taylor Act grazing land, up to four sections per tract and to the total of over 11,000,000 acres. Priority in purchase was to be granted to present lessees of those tracts. Its purpose was to let present users of public grazing lands, who pay considerably less than a fair rental, buy that land at less than it is worth – and to get public grazing land out of public regulation and control.
But the most revealing bill was last session’s S 1945, introduced by Senator Robertson. The Senator is, it should be noted, the owner of one of the largest and finest sheep and cattle ranches in Wyoming. He holds a grazing permit in his own name in the Shoshone National Forest for 2400 sheep, has a financial interest in an association that grazes 1200 sheep there, and acts in various ways as agent for individuals and associations that graze nearly 8000 more sheep in the same forest. His bill is a sweetheart.
The Robertson bill would transfer to thirteen Western states all unappropriated and unreserved lands, including the minerals in them; all oil and mineral reserves; all minerals, coal, oil, and gas and all rights related to them in the public lands; and all homestead lands that have been forfeited to the United States. It would empower the states to dispose of these lands as they might see fit – that is, to sell them – except that coal, oil, and gas lands must be leased, not sold, and the federal government would retain power to prorate production.
The guts of the bill, however, are the provisions which set up in each state a commission ordered to re-examine every kind of reservation of public land – national forests, national parks and monuments, Carey Act (irrigation district) withdrawals, wildlife reserves, reclamation reserves, power sites, and certain less important ones. The commission’s duty would be to determine whether parts of the national forests in its state are more valuable for grazing and agriculture (practically no Forest Service land can be farmed at all) than for timber production, and if it should decide that any were, to certify them for transfer to the state for sale – that is, the commission is intended to get forest grazing land into private ownership. The commission’s duty in regard to other reservations is to do the same in regard to grazing and agricultural land – and also to determine whether the original purposes of the reserve can be achieved by state ownership or “individual enterprise,” and whether the reserves may not have lost their importance or perhaps do not justify national administration.
The Robertson bill is both transparent and carnivorous. It would liquidate the public lands and end our sixty years of conservation of natural resources. And this single bill would achieve all the main objectives of the whole program of the Western despoilers at one step, except that purely timber lands in the forests would still be protected and would have to be attacked by other means. In some respects it goes beyond anything that had been publicly advocated by the despoilers. Nowhere else, for instance, has it been proposed to turn public power sites or reclamation reserves over to private hands. But it expresses the program.
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. The intention is to free them of all regulation except such as stockgrowers might impose upon themselves. 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. And the regulations immediately to be got rid of are those by which the government has been trying to prevent overgrazing of the public range. Cattlemen and sheepmen, I repeat, want to shovel most of the West into its rivers.
From the states the public lands are to be transferred to private ownership. Present holders of permits are to be constituted a prior and privileged caste, to the exclusion of others except on such terms as they may dictate. They are to be permitted to buy the lands – the public lands, the West’s lands, your lands – at a fraction of what they are worth. And the larger intention is to liquidate all the publicly held resources of the West.
Everyone knows that the timber of the United States is being cut faster than replacements are being grown, that the best efforts of the government and of those private operators who realize the other generations will follow ours have not so far sufficed to balance the growth of saw timber with logging. Everyone knows that regulation of grazing is the only hope of preserving the range. Open the public reserves of timber, the national forests, to private operation without government restriction and not only the Western but the national resources would rapidly disintegrate. (And presently the government, on behalf of our society as a whole, would have to wipe out private property in forests altogether.) Turn the public range over to private ownership, or even private management, and within a generation the range would be exhausted beyond hope of repair.
But that is, by a good deal, the least of it. Most of the fundamental watersheds of the West lie within the boundaries of the Taylor Act lands, the national forests, and the national parks. And overgrazing the range and liquidating the forests destroys the watersheds. In many places in the West today property in land, irrigating systems, and crops is steadily deteriorating because the best efforts of the government to repair damage to watersheds – damage caused by overgrazing the ranges and overcutting the forests – has not been enough.
Stream beds choke with silt and floods spread over the rich fields on the slopes and in the bottoms, always impairing and sometimes destroying them. Dams and canals and reservoirs silt up, decline in efficiency, have to be repaired at great expense, cannot be fully restored. Fields gully, soil blows away. Flash floods kill productive land, kill livestock, kill human beings, sometimes kill communities.
Less than a month before the joint committees met in Salt Lake City this summer, a hundred and twenty-five miles away in the little town of Mount Pleasant, Utah, the annual parade was forming for the celebration of July 24, the greatest Mormon feast day. That parade never got started. A heavy summer storm struck in the hills and gulches above town and what marched down Mount Pleasant’s main street was not a series of decorated floats but a river of thick mud like concrete that, in a town of twenty-five hundred people, did half a million dollars’ worth of damage in ten minutes. The range above the town had been overgrazed an the storm waters which would have been retained by healthy land could not be retained by the sick, exhausted land. They rushed down over Mount Pleasant, bringing gravel, stones, and boulders with them depositing several feet of mud, damaging many buildings and much of the town’s real estate, leaving much of the grazing land above town ruined and much more damaged and dangerous.
The destruction had been predictable – and predicted; in a small way it had happened before. The government had been working for many years to restore that range but had not been able to begin the infinitely slow process soon enough. It knew and had repeatedly said that such a catastrophe might happen just as and where it did happen.
The same thing has happened repeatedly in Utah, in some places more destructively, in others less so. It has happened and goes on happening throughout the West wherever the grazing land of watersheds has been exhausted or their forests overcut. Mud flows and flash floods are dramatic but only occasional, whereas the steady deterioration of the watersheds and the slow destruction of their wealth go on all the time. Overgrazing and overcutting – and fire, the hazard of which is greatly increased by heavy cutting – are responsible. The program which is planned to liquidate the range and forests would destroy the Western watersheds. Which is to say that it would destroy the natural resources of the West, and with them so many rivers, towns, cities, farms, ranches, mines, and power sites that a great part of the West would be obliterated. It would return much of the West, most of the habitable interior West, to the processes of geology. It would make Western life as we now know it, and therefore American life as we now know it, impossible.
There you have it. A few groups of Western interests, so small numerically as to constitute a minute fraction of the West, are hellbent on destroying the West. They are stronger than they would otherwise be because they are skillfully manipulating their support sentiments that have always been powerful in the West – the home rule which means basically that we want federal help without federal regulation, the “individualism” that has always made the small Western operator a handy tool of the big one, and the wild myth that stockgrowers constitute an aristocracy in which all Westerners somehow share. They have managed to line up behind them many Western interests that would perish if they should succeed. And they count on the inevitable postwar reaction against government regulation to put their program over.
To the historian it has the beauty of any historical continuity. It is the Western psychology working within the pattern which its own nature has set. It is the forever recurrent lust to liquidate the West that is so large a part of Western history. The West has always been a society living under the threat of destruction by natural cataclysm and here it is, bright against the sky, inviting such a cataclysm.
But if it has this mad beauty it also has an almost cosmic irony, in that fulfillment of the great dream of the West, mature economic development and local ownership and control, has been made possible by the developments of our age at exactly the same time. That dream envisions the establishment of an economy on the natural resources of the West, developed and integrated to produce a steady, sustained, permanent yield. While the West moves to build that kind of economy, a part of the West is simultaneously moving to destroy the natural resources forever. That paradox is absolutely true to the Western mind and spirit. But the future of the West hinges on whether it can defend itself against itself.
The following notes were appended at the end of the 1955 volume, The Easy Chair, which in addition to “The West Against Itself” included seven other essays about various aspects and phases of the Western landgrab, as DeVoto called the persistent efforts of business interests to remove the American public lands from the national domain.
The articles in this group are arranged in chronological sequence, as those in the other groups are not, and I have made my selection to cover the most important events in the political contest they describe. They constitute more than half of the Harper’s pieces I have written about the persistent attack on the Forest Service; I have not included any that discuss other aspects of the struggle for the public lands. My own and other publishers have occasionally suggested that I bring together in a book everything I have written on the subject, but I have thought it best to cover it by outline here, with these pieces. I am treating the whole subject in a book which I am writing as this one goes to press. [The book, which DeVoto did not live to complete, was about two-thirds finished in draft; it was eventually published by Yale University Press in 2001 as The Western Paradox: A Conservation Reader, which also reprints eleven of DeVoto’s previously published essays.]
The group shows how the kind of journalism practiced in Harper’s can do an essential job that journalism at large leaves undone. Here is a subject of national importance. Yet, as I say in “Number 241,” no newspaper and no other magazine gave it anything like adequate coverage. No other is covering its current aspects now. I may therefore provide some annotation – and may add that I did not embark by original intention or desire on a course that has occupied so much of my time for eight years. My conception of my job required me to.
In 1946 plans for an attack on the Forest Service that had been carefully worked out by parties described in these articles were coming to a head. The immediate objective was to prevent reductions in the size of various grazing permits (not many all told, and not large reductions) in the national forests. Beyond that there were the objectives of discrediting the Forest Service and reducing or destroying its regulatory power. And the ultimate objectives were to destroy the Forest Service and the national forests. To make the Service merely the temporary custodian of cutover timberlands in process of reforestation, and to transfer the national forests, the most valuable of the public lands, to private ownership under forced sale and at bargain-counter prices. These are still the objectives of the same interests, of much more powerful interests that support them, and of their agents in Congress and in the Executive branch.
The decision was to develop a legislative program embodying these objectives, for introduction into Congress. How fast could such a program move? How many stages would be required and how much should be attempted with each step? These questions were debated for over a year. A program for the first stage was finally agreed on at a meeting in Salt Lake City, in August 1946, of the Joint Committee of the two national stock associations which my articles describe. The committee intended to launch it in the next session of Congress, at some date which it presently became my job to determine. They were counting on a Republican victory in the midterm elections, November 1946, and the event was to prove that they had calculated correctly. Their plans were bold; they were, in the literal meaning of the word, revolutionary. But success depended on two conditions: proper timing of the congressional assault and concealment of its specific details till it should be made.
What was planned in general was no secret. Historically, wealthy stockmen have tended to be loud-mouthed, boastful, and arrogant. Those adjectives describe their public utterances and those of their trade press during the spring and summer of 1946, and they talked even more arrogantly in private. Western conservationists therefore knew that something was going on. So did certain Western newspapermen but it is clear to me that they failed to understand its importance. If they had understood it, they would have tried harder to get the story; as I found out, it was not hard to get.
I was a newspaper reporter as a young man and, as other articles in this book also show, I have frequently written as a reporter for magazines. Furthermore, I have long devoted myself to historical research, which requires the same skills. I add that I have been acquainted with the Forest Service ever since I was in high school, though I had had no occasion to study its operations systematically until the events I am relating here. Also, as a historian I had a specialist’s knowledge of the public-lands system, the history of the public reserves,the great land frauds, the conservation movement, and the psychology of the bronzed horseman and his politicians.
I had arranged to spend the summer of 1946 in the West, in order to work in the field on the book that was subsequently published as The Course of Empire. To finance the summer, I got commissions for articles on the West from Life, Fortune, and Collier’s. When I headed west in June I knew nothing about the intended attack on the Forest Service but I began to pick up hints about it as soon as I crossed the Hundredth Meridian. I remember with pleasure that I got my first real tip by listening (I could have avoided listening only by going outside) to a very loud and very drunk cattleman in the Range Riders Café in Miles City. (A fine bar and it has a first-rate restaurant upstairs.) In the next few weeks I talked to a good many boastful and indiscreet stockmen, as well as to many other stockmen, most of them small operators, who bitterly resented the intention of the national associations. None of them of either persuasion knew any specific details. Neither did anyone else I talked to – for I soon realized that something important was being cooked up and I set out to learn what it was. By the first of August I had the whole story, except for the specific details of the legislative program. They were the heart of the matter. I decided that they could be obtained.
I have often been asked how I got them and it is an amusing story but the proper time to tell it has not come. Enough that every newspaperman knows quite positively that if plans are being kept secret, the plot includes at least one conspirator who is a captive, who opposes it but goes along because he is forced to. As a reporter, all I had to do was find this man, and I found him. When I headed east again at the end of August, I knew as much as any member of the Joint Committee about the legislative program. Also, and this is what counts, I had a copy of a document which I will not describe but which no one except the committee and its employees had seen. I have not yet used all of it, which is one reason why the adversaries I promptly acquired have never used against me some measures that they must have wanted to use. But I used enough of it in “The West Against Itself” to reveal to the Joint Committee that I had the facts that counted.
Here the nature of Harper’s is again relevant. I had dug out a news story of national importance. By now, however, it was not a story that any newspaper could make a national story unless the New York Times or the St. Louis Post-Dispatch should assign a correspondent to it and give him his head. I could only assume that both papers had scouted the ground and decided that what they saw above ground did not justify the effort. It could become a national story only by means of a magazine – and what magazine was there? It was the sort of thing that George Horace Lorimer had loved; many times he put such writers as Emerson Hough and Stewart Edward White to work on just such jobs. But his era was over. As I was to find out later, his current successor on the Post would not touch such a subject with a ten-foot pole or anything else.
It was, that is, a Harper’s story; by now, indeed, the danger was that some Western newspaper might get hold of some small part of what I had and publish it. I had certain knowledge that stockmen do get drunk in bars, and if the right one happened to say the right thing, the resulting partial publicity might enable the plotters to amend their strategy successfully. There remained a formidable editorial problem, when to break the story and how to break it most effectively.
Clearly the artificers of the program would keep it quiet till the bills were introduced in Congress. No one, not even the Congressmen and Senators who had agreed to introduce the bills, knew when that would be; they must be timed according to the necessities and opportunities of the coming session, which would begin in January 1947. On the basis of what I knew about Congress, I decided that the bills were not likely to be introduced before April. I also decided that my best timing would be to break the story about three months in advance. That would be roughly the first of January. The annual meetings of the two national stock associations were scheduled to be held in late December. I decided to use the story in the January issue of Harper’s, which would be out in late December.
There were two decisions here. One of them was proved right; I am not sure that the other one was. I decided to tell the story of the landgrab – the word I applied to the operation, which has been used ever since – in the second of two lead articles I proposed to devote to my impressions of the West after spending a summer there for the first time since 1940. That is, I decided to unveil the landgrab in its social and historical setting, rather than treat it by itself in a straight news story. My first article, to be published in the December Harper’s, would be called “The Anxious West.” (It is not reprinted in this book.) The second one would be called “The West Against Itself” and I would make the landgrab the climax of the argument it was to develop. This last is the decision that I now believe to have been mistaken. Publication of the story accomplished all that I had hoped it would, but I believe that it would have had even more impact if I had run it by itself, in its own terms, as news. As it was, we retired one Congressman and one Senator to private life, helped retire another Congressman, and made Praying Indians, for the time being, of the entire cowboy delegation. But we might have got another scalp, and not improbably two more, if I had foreseen the eight years of political maneuvering that followed. I knew enough to foresee them but that fact is that I did not.
I had expected “The West Against Itself” to be published while the first of the two stock association meetings was in session. But at 49 East 33rd Street publication day is a movable feast, and it appeared on the first day of the second meeting. Its disclosure of the plans made for Congress caused great consternation among the plotters, and even greater anger. (I am happy to say that the limited supply of Harper’s in San Francisco forced the newsstand price up to five dollars.) And note this: monthly journalism had scored a news beat of national importance. The story should have been on the wires of all news services from Salt Lake City in the third week of August, but Harper’s had an exclusive in December. Salt Lake Tribune and Ogden Standard-Examiner (edited by my old boss, Darrell Greenwell) please copy.
More to the point, my article fused an explosion. It provided the necessary information, the concrete details of the proposed steal. With that information in their hands, conservationists, Western newspapers, and Eastern news agencies and editorial writers could get to work. They got to work, and long before April, when I had calculated the program would be launched in Congress, they had roused public opinion to the point where it could not be launched at all. Of the bills prepared only one was introduced, the one discussed in “Sacred Cows and Public Lands.” Its sponsors bitterly regretted introducing it and one of them paid for it with his public career; the Joint Committee and the cowboy lobby at large regretted the blunder even more vehemently. The proposed landgrab was stopped cold. The strategy of the attack on the Forest Service and on the public-lands system had to be completely changed. Everything had depended on hurrying the legislation through Congress before Congress itself and the public at large could find out what it was all about. There had been an excellent chance that the effort might succeed. A much better chance than the cowboys have ever had since.
The other articles in this group have been chosen to describe the principal developments from that time on. They analyze the changes in strategy and the crucial episodes in the continuing attack on the Forest Service. I reprint them with satisfaction as what the part title calls them, a treatise on one function of journalism. For they played a part in a decisive action. The reason why the landgrab did not succeed in 1947, and the reason why the continuing attack on the public lands system since then has not succeeded, is that journalism has kept the public informed about what was going on. Harper’s and these articles have shared that public service – they have helped provide one of the reasons why the attack is not going to succeed even now, with a President in the White House who is ignorant of the situation and piously indifferent to it, the landgrabbers in control of the Department of Interior, and the chambers of commerce in control of the Department of Agriculture.