The lack of a vocational environmental movement and how to make it morally robust is, perhaps, Christopher Ketcham’s greatest omission in This Land: How Cowboys, Capitalism and Corruption Are Destroying the American West. In it he gives little direction to the choir who is the primary audience for his public lands hymnal while providing the reader the disservice of a purposefully incomplete account of the current 'grassroots' environmental movement in the American West.
Heroizing those he has accessed throughout his body of work, This Land largely presents their vignettes as victims of capitalism rather than many themselves capitalists exploiting public lands. While his title expresses capitalism is the root of public lands evil - and this is true — he knowingly omits his protagonists, like the federal land management and Big Green bureaucracies that serve as his antagonists, are also captured and reactive to those who possess it.
Through direct payments from extractive industries in the form of legal settlements to not litigate public lands environmental issues, like the Western Watersheds Project, Advocates West and the Oregon Natural Desert Association in 2011 accepting $24 million from a fossil fuel company to not litigate the Ruby natural gas pipeline that drains the Intermountain fracking fields and cuts the heart out of the sagebrush steppe like the Glen Canyon Damn to the Colorado Plateau - now threatening extension to Jordan Cove, OR for climate busting export to Asia. You will not find such information disclosed in Ketcham’s book because he made a conscience decision to not do so, shielding the narrative of his protagonists antagonizing sagebrush steppe compromise with far reaching consequences.
In 2016 during the development of his book, I wrote several pieces regarding the Red Rock Biofuels in Lakeview, Oregon, a Department of Defense deforestation to biofuels project in the sagebrush steppe benefitting from neoliberal sage grouse/wildland fire/rancher/environmental/politico forest collaboration that is destroying the west, only viable due to the Ruby, the project’s $300 million subsidy guise forest restoration and wildfire reduction in the name of sage grouse. Construction is currently underway the summer of 2019, the bomb trains filled with jet fuel scheduled to run on a derailment prone Oregon county owned rail in 2020.
I told Ketcham of my five years worth of conversations with George Wuerthner, a WWP board member appearing in his book who lives in both Oregon and Montana, a frequent editorial contributor on wilderness and wildland fire, a self described Deep Green Foundation Lorax with tremendous street cred supported by the Earth Island Institute that in 2018 had $14 million revenue, again largely from foundations. About how George told me their hands were tied and could not litigate the Red Rock project due to the settlement, one they were forced to make because of the demands of their former major benefactor, made to maintain WWP’s solvency and get AW attorneys paid. In the case of Pew Foundation’s ONDA, they rejected my appeals for assistance so that they may maintain their collaboration with Oregon ranchers and wildfire industry politicians like Ron Wyden.
During this same time, we also spoke of how several other of his book’s characters — Brian and Natalie Ertz of Wildlands Defense in Boise, Idaho who play central roles — once worked for WWP and left to create their own, competing group — in part a result of the ethics of Ruby settlement.
While Ketcham eloquently provides the violence of dryland forest mastication as an unforgettable moment with a dozer and nests, he was given an opportunity to tie it to even larger industries than just old timey refrain of cattle and loggers. He could have tied it to emerging political and bureaucratic inertia associated with capitalizing on every acre of land for every purpose under the sun, like classifying drylands forest biomass on public lands as waste to largely benefit welfare grazers he and they lament.
In the case of DoDs RRB, Ketcham instead chooses to protect this cadre by omitting their own compromise, instead hitting the usual Big Green Nature Conservancy and Wilderness Society strawmen whose foundation support demand it but never letting the reader know his hero small greens remain impotent, relegated to editorials and compromised litigators through the salt peter of settlement and their own foundational limitations - protected through omission.
He could have capitalized upon This Land's release, commenting that his settling protagonists are today in federal court litigating Trump Administration changes to the equally terrible Obama-Jewell era sage grouse management plan, AW's Laird Lucas saying, "Since 2004 scientists have warned that preventing sage grouse from sliding toward extinction requires protecting all its remaining habitats and populations," his WWP associate Erik Molvar adding, "From rolling back protections in sensitive habitats to removing habitat designations entirely, the plans could cause already fragile sage-grouse populations to disappear completely. We need to stop that.”
Stop what? Settling for cash? Compromising public lands, sage grouse, steppe and climate for capitalism while claiming credit protecting it from the hooved maggots?
But, I digress.
Ketcham knowingly chose to omit information relevant for the reader to assess both the character of his characters and breadth of the themes they profess to address (sagebrush steppe, a central book theme), a largely overlooked ethical issue within the profession and academic of Journalism. It is one of which I’ve given great thought, concluding access journalism, making a living, shaping characters, blockheaded single mindedness and a bit of eastern urban naivete are to blame.
How do I know this? Because I’ve come to know Chris as he accessed, as he initially wanted me, my family, to be included as a chapter.
I wrote several pieces, again for Counterpunch, about the Mormon-Koch historical connections and their influence over the Sagebrush Rebellion in late 2015/2016, and shortly after Chris and I were communicating. A few months later we were crying over the phone the night LaVoy Finicum was killed as part of the Malheur occupation.
He wanted to meet and asked if my spouse who is a public lands manager would talk with him (I told him to ask himself and afterward she wouldn’t). As he was going to be staying in Escalante to research this book and at the time we lived outside of Zion National Park, he finally requested to interview me at Mountain Meadows, the site where Mormons killed over 120 men, women and children, burying them in mass graves, the church covering history. I said no, I don’t want to be your clown.
In 2016 we met along with my kids having an adventure in the now reduced Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, a true highlight a busted shock on my truck (thank you Mark Austin for the tools). During a subsequent walk into a popular slot canyon area I said that it must be hard getting pitches from people like me all the time and told him about my work fighting in Oregon, about his pious protagonists. He responded with a story about not listening to Julian Assange.
Eventually we did go to Mountain Meadows and later out my then back door to Fort Harmony where the massacre was staged.
I understand themes are the purview of the author, so in time when Ketcham decided to not include the Father of the Sagebrush Rebellion, Mormon military surplus empire owners Bert and Kathy Smith, promoters of the natural rights philosophy that is the root of capitalism, the kind destroying the planet and its flora and fauna, the money behind the Bundys, their ilk and the Malheur occupation - primary subjects of my work - I understood.
When he chose to not include the influence of industrial recreation and its Patagonia Conservation Alliance foundation "Dark Money" over the ethos of the entire 'movement' - turning them into cherry picking apologists (see mountain bikes in wilderness) - nor the impact of the industry's unlimited crush of humanity on public lands, extinction and climate equal to or greater than the well beaten enviro-movement grazing, mining and deforestation refrain, I again understood.
But he choosing to not disclose the Ruby settlements of which my steppe-to-biofuels work overlapped and that included the oldest 'forest cooperative' and first grazing association in the nation, I did not. I protested that the case he makes in his book regarding the demise of the steppe and grouse was incomplete given WWP/AW hands continue to be tied regarding litigation and illustrated a trend within the entire bureaucratic environmental movement of which it could learn.
I internalized that only the Mormon theme was his interest - and even that was incomplete - and began to question his vocation and even his place within the profession.
I wrote the Counterpunch piece Journalism and the Cowboy Myth: Bite the Bullet with Chris and others journalists in mind. He helped edit it. While he accepts the central theme, in the end using the much wiser historian Will Bagley to make the point of Mormon influence on public lands, it hurts to think he completely missed the secondary theme and is also captured by the moneygrubbing, gatekeeping editors of the publishing industry. Throughout subsequent time, after reviewing and marking his first draft manuscript and then having heated discussions as a result (more important not being a professional), I have naively come to know it as current truth for an entire cadre. My guess is he would now give you a mea culpa.
So, why am I not in his book? Coupled with the omissions I asked him to remove me because he insisted on referring to me as a journalist, just building a character and not caring about my thoughts on the matter. Instead, I insisted on Homemaker, an unpaid clown without editors.
So, why won’t Counterpunch publish this review? Because senior editor Jeffrey St. Clair wrote a glowing pre-release review while Ketcham acknowledges Counterpunch first in that section, editor Joshua Frank saying, “I’m sure we would agree on more than we disagree, but I do believe the review was a bit petulant and petty.”
I believe Ketcham’s text renders various ‘tagonists with distorted jaggies, obscuring capitalism’s complete influence over not just his antagonists but also his protagonists of public lands. Central themes and characters are purposely omitted entirely while others are promoted to Sainthood without disclosing the abuse allegations, an unacceptable outcome given the prose is largely one of histories from which we hope to learn, especially from our mistakes.
Some on all sides are no doubt grateful for the omissions and I suppose a professional author needs access and seldom controls their own history, as most require bread doled by editors. No doubt Edward Abbey was hungry in his early days. Maybe even Hunter Thompson before the rage. Both seemed to learn as their careers matured and all authors, including Ketcham, have the natural right of content. And, I take solace knowing Ketcham will not digress like fellow Harper’s posthumous DeVoto, who in the end was remorseful for his younger Mormon views, as in this author’s view there is nothing for either to apologize.
I mean Chris no harm and hope he understands one moves from acquaintance to friend by trial through fire, my intent only to correct history to encourage movement vocation. Ketcham’s prose in This Land is wonderful, at times poetic, his research stellar and facts generally balanced. He asks tough questions and knows how to get answers. The reader will both be informed and entertained aside the night light, feeling his tenacity jump from the quick 400+ pages. He is rightfully respected by his peers - will win awards - his voice strong enough to be heard above the throng.
Enough so this clown believes in the power of his work and press him to be more ‘truthful’ in his next book endeavor - hopefully exploring the influence and extraction of industrial wreckreation - in order to promote a renewed uncompromising vocation within the environmental movement. I believe the choir wants to sing, always deserves the entire story, and is ready for a more robust kind of hymnal during the apocalypse.