Crossing the Next Meridian

In 1954, two years before I was born, Wallace Stegner’s Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West was published, a book Charles Wilkinson suggests may be the greatest book ever written about the American West. Stegner examines the miners, pioneers, mountain men, and other early explorers from the first era of the U.S. settlement of the West and the second era of populating the lands. In his engaging exploration of laws and land issues, Wilkinson argues that we have another meridian to cross to “move beyond settlement and to achieve resource sustainability, economic stability, and social justice in a great land.” When I first read Beyond in the early nineties I was just beginning to see that the beautiful West I was growing to love was not nearly all that it could be. We are mired in traditions, some of which make up my roots, in a “way of life” that must begin to change, for everyone’s sake. In this excerpt, Wilkinson defines five “Lords of Yesterday” who were right for their time but for whose time has past. -Mark Bailey

From Chapter One
Crossing the Next Meridian by Charles F. Wilkinson

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It is not the point of this book, therefore, to second-guess federal and state programs during the formative years of the American West. Many of those policies had enormously beneficial effects for the nation, or at least for the vastly larger non-Indian population. The homesteading program, with all of its abuses, is justly acclaimed as one of the most progressive land distribution policies ever undertaken by any nation. The almost incomprehensibly large subsidies to railroads may well have been excessive, but it is hard to deny that some extraordinary public incentive was required to achieve the widely held objective of connecting the coasts. Much the same is true with many of the early large-scale reclamation projects. Federal capital was necessary if the West was to be opened for the small family farm.

The fact that the nineteenth-century program may have been right for its own time does not, however, settle the question of whether it is right for these times. I have found five lords of yesterday that fit the needs of the frontier West but that are radical and extreme by modern lights. They exemplify public policy at a moment and a place when there seemed to be no end to nature’s ability to produce still more material goods with few negative consequences. These lords of yesterday in no sense amount to a full listing of natural resource issues in the modern American West. There are pressing questions relating to water and air pollution, land use planning, the greenhouse effect, acid rain, nuclear energy, and toxic wastes. I have not included some of these subjects here because they are not distinctively western issues; that is, those concerns will be approached by a set of principles that by and large are as applicable in, say, Massachusetts and Ohio as in Colorado and Alaska. I also have excluded a few sets of issues that are distinctively western, such as the leasing of onshore and offshore oil, gas, and coal deposits. The central problems in mineral leasing do not trace to decisions made in another era—the mineral leasing laws have been substantially modernized—so the core conceptual issues vary from those presented by the lords of yesterday. Nevertheless, although the laws and policies taken up here do not encompass all western natural resource problems, they have a sweeping and pervasive influence in western society and are properly treated together because of the common themes that they raise. They are the heart of what can be called the law of the American West.

The first lord of yesterday is the Hardrock Mining Law of 1872, which dedicates more than half of all public lands to mining as the preferred use. Individual miners—or, much more often, mining corporations—can enter federal lands and extract hardrock minerals (gold, silver, copper, uranium, and many others) entirely free of charge. Further, this extraordinary law allows successful mining operations to obtain title to the land overlying the deposit; miners can receive as many 2.o-acre parcels as they wish, providing only that they discover valuable minerals under each. The hardrock statute, born of the California gold rush, is the vehicle for an array of health and environmental hazards, fraudulent practices, and land use problems arising from the some 1.1 million hardrock mining claims that blanket the western public lands.

The second and third lords involve the public rangelands and forest-lands. In the nineteenth century, the federal government began the practice of allowing free and unregulated grazing of cows and sheep on the public domain. There is now a modicum of control on the 170 million acres of Bureau of Land Management lands where private grazing is allowed, but grazing fees are set at a fraction of their market value, and poor grazing practices have devastated western rangeland and the rivers that receive millions of tons of eroded soil annually. In the national forests, the Forest Service continues to push into remote, roadless areas such as the Jersey-Jack, still following its turn-of-the-century policy of treating logging as the dominant use of the forests in spite of changed public perceptions of the forests and clear evidence that many current government timber sales are unprofitable.

The final two lords of yesterday relate to water, which figures so prominently in the West. The Jersey-Jack area and Pyramid Lake, in other words, are typical of most western resource conflicts today because they implicate water in substantial ways. The fourth lord involves the dams and other development practices of the Pacific Northwest that have crippled the runs of Pacific salmon and steelhead. During the mid-nineteenth century, we set the stage for our policy toward salmon simply by doing nothing. Unrestricted netting and trapping, even dynamiting, were allowed. Unregulated dams on tributaries of the Columbia River—usually constructed in the name of “cheap” hydropower—destroyed spawning beds and choked off migration routes. Even passable dams with fish ladders account for a loss of about 5 to 13 percent of each run at each dam. Salmon bound for the area near Harold Thomas’s Allison Ranch on the Salmon River, for example, must surmount eight dams and will lose three-quarters of their numbers during the upriver steeplechase. The problems for young fish traveling downstream to the ocean are even more severe. Fish biologists still have not found a reliable bypass system to prevent mortality for juvenile salmon and steelhead on their journeys to the ocean. Further, asserted demand for still more hydropower creates pressure to manage the dams on an even more intensive basis, which will bode even worse for these remarkable fish. In addition to the dams, land management practices such as those proposed in the Jersey-Jack area have cost us dearly in terms of loss of salmon habitat— and, therefore, loss of salmon.

The final lord of yesterday also deals with western water. The prior appropriation doctrine first announced by the California Supreme Court in 1855, along with associated water policies, is perhaps the area in which the law of the American West is most out of kilter. Like the Hardrock Mining Act, the essential notion behind prior appropriation is an exercise in simplicity: water developers have been allowed to tap into any western stream without charge and extract as much water as desired, so long as the water is put to a beneficial use—that is, a domestic purpose or a commercial use such as mining, farming, ranching, manufacturing, or power production. Diverters of water under this system obtain vested property rights that cannot be taken away unless the government pays full compensation. The oldest water rights are absolutely superior to those of all junior users; senior users need not share the resource, as was the law under the riparian doctrine accepted in the eastern states. Under the pure prior appropriation doctrine, western water users can, with impunity, flood deep canyons and literally dry up streams, as has happened with some regularity. Large water development efforts were subsidized by the federal and state governments Until recently, no consideration of any kind was given to the needs of fish, wildlife, or the streams or canyons themselves. Thus, projects such as Newlands and Derby Dam were not only allowed but also actively promoted.

The lack of symmetry between nineteenth-century methods and modern values is compounded by a related problem, the capture by large interests of the laws and policies that comprise the lords of yesterday. It was not intended to be this way. Congress envisaged the westward expansion as a movement for “the little man,” for individual initiative. The Jeffersonian ideal of the small family farm was repeatedly invoked during the nineteenth century as the cornerstone of the westward movement. One problem, however, was that Jefferson conceived his theories on the East Coast; although he plainly grasped the immense potential of the West, as demonstrated by his achieving the Louisiana Purchase and commissioning the Lewis and Clark expedition, the evidence had not yet come in as to whether the small family farm would work in the West. As it turned out, many of Jefferson’s ideas were impractical. For example, in most areas beyond the l00th meridian, the 1860-acre plot envisaged in the Homestead Act of 1860 was larger than needed for a family farm (if irrigated) and too small for ranching. Big interests seized on the land and resource laws in a variety of ways, recounted in more detail throughout this book, and water developers, railroads and their landholding companies, timber companies, corporate ranches, agribusiness, and multinational mining companies took control of the economy of the West. Because of these forces, many of the main players in the western economy are located in urban centers, sometimes outside of the region, and have no concern for or accountability to the rural areas where the resource development occurs. As a result, the West has been imprinted with a lurching, up-and-down economy that cuts against the building of stable, lasting communities and often causes towns to stagnate after the trees, metals, or oil deposits drop in value or are mined out.

Reform has been stalled by several factors, some obvious, some much less so. Of course, to a considerable degree proposed changes are beaten back simply by the political and financial muscle wielded by the interests that have so much to gain by perpetuating the lords of yesterday. Yet we fundamentally misperceive the nature of the problem if we look only to the extractive industries. A larger, and more subtle, force is also at work.

The western economy has settled into the comfort of a unique kind of welfare system subsidized both by direct federal and state action and by the habit of writing off the extraordinary costs imposed on the environment and on dispossessed western communities such as Dixie and the Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation. To be sure, the industries are the direct beneficiaries and their actions drive the system. But there is a trickle-down effect, and the subsidies permeate broad segments of the West’s populace, often whole communities. Most westerners receive cheap water and electricity. Wages from the mills, mines, farms, and ranches—and from construction projects for dams and roads—end up in the markets, restaurants, gas stations, and clothing stores, and in the local school and park budgets, too. Banks pin their investment strategies on the long-settled system; many of their loans depend on it. Land developers and realtors push for one-time profits from the growth spurts stimulated by building another dam, excavating a new ‘ open-pit gold mine, or pushing up the timber cut another notch.

Going with the lords of yesterday has understandably been the accepted way for nearly a century and a half. The elaborate structure, however, cannot remain in place much longer. Government treasuries are at the breaking point. The costs to the lands and waters are coming due: growing numbers of rivers, aquifers, forests, rangelands, and farms are in decline. It is increasingly evident that the traditional reliance on the extractive industries cuts against the promising, emerging western economy based on recreation and tourism; scaled-back resource development; and, critically, light industries that are drawn by the region’s lands, waters, space, and pace of life—and that are now able, through modern communications, to overcome the distance that once made location in the West impractical. Still, final change cannot come until westerners fully perceive the nature and magnitude of the current problems, look beyond their perceived short-term interests, and determine to alter the settled ways.


About Torrey House Press

Torrey House Press is an independent nonprofit publisher promoting environmental conservation through literature.   We believe that culture is changed through conversation and that lively contemporary literature is the cutting edge of social change. By building and engaging community in the conversation of conservation, we make our contribution to, as Wallace Stegner hoped for, a “society to match the scenery." THP books are distributed by Consortium Books Sales and Distribution, a subsidiary of Ingram Content Group.
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