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Public Lands and Political Meaning: Ranchers, the Government, and the Property between Them

Karen R. Merrill
Copyright Date: 2002
Pages: 293
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  • Book Info
    Public Lands and Political Meaning
    Book Description:

    The history of the American West is a history of struggles over land, and none has inspired so much passion and misunderstanding as the conflict between ranchers and the federal government over public grazing lands. Drawing upon neglected sources from organized ranchers, this is the first book to provide a historically based explanation for why the relationship between ranchers and the federal government became so embattled long before modern environmentalists became involved in the issue. Reconstructing the increasingly contested interpretations of the meaning of public land administration,Public Lands and Political Meaningtraces the history of the political dynamics between ranchers and federal land agencies, giving us a new look at the relations of power that made the modern West. Although a majority of organized ranchers supported government control of the range at the turn of the century, by midcentury these same organizations often used a virulently antifederal discourse that fueled many a political fight in Washington and that still runs deep in American politics today. In analyzing this shift, Merrill shows how profoundly people's ideas about property wove their way into the political language of the debates surrounding public range policy. As she unravels the meaning of this language, Merrill demonstrates that different ideas about property played a crucial role in perpetuating antagonism on both sides of the fence. In addition to illuminating the origins of the "sagebrush rebellions" in the American West, this book also persuasively argues that political historians must pay more attention to public land management issues as a way of understanding tensions in American state-building.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-92688-2
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xx)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-15)

    Movie producers have long kept a fascinated gaze on the American West, but few films capture the classic drama of the range as well asShanedoes. Set in Wyoming in 1889, with the Grand Tetons looming over nearly every scene, the movie charts both the verbal and physical battles between a group of homesteaders and a pair of cattle ranchers named the Ryker brothers.¹ The Rykers and their disreputable hired hands try every trick in the book to run the homesteaders off the open range, from riding their horses through the settlers’ gardens to violent intimidation. Clearly desperate to...

  6. CHAPTER 1 Policing and Policymaking on the Range
    (pp. 16-36)

    Contemporary accounts of the western “cattle kingdom” of the late nineteenth century were quick to herald its impending demise. Those writers who were enchanted with it, such as Theodore Roosevelt, helped to produce an almost instantaneous nostalgia that would characterize accounts of the range cattle industry ever after. That nostalgia would embrace a number of different things—the cowboys, the horses, the wild animals, the life of adventure, the “open” range. All of these, it was noted time and again, were merely the ephemera of a frontier industry. Other observers were not so nostalgic and saw the “cattle kings” in...

  7. CHAPTER 2 The Properties of the Homebuilder
    (pp. 37-66)

    “I have heard cow men and sheep men stand up and appeal for the rights of the settler, and you would think the settler has no other friend,” groused Sam Cowan in a speech before the convention of western cattlemen in 1907. “You fellows don’t care about the settler. . . . There is no use to mince words, and make false pretenses. What you want is to get as much grass for your stock as you can.”¹ Cowan (that is, SamHoustonCowan) was a Texas attorney who served as legal counsel and lobbyist in Washington for both the...

  8. CHAPTER 3 The Lessons of the Market
    (pp. 67-102)

    The most striking thing about the public land debates of the early 1920s is the absence of the homebuilder, and the obvious reason for this shift was the war. Coming on the heels of the last major homesteading act in America, World War I fundamentally altered the terms of the struggle over the public domain by mobilizing government agencies, businesses, and industries on an enormous scale. After the war, in the homesteader’s wake, western cattle and sheep owners achieved a new legitimacy, which was largely founded upon their relationship to the government in the form of the Forest Service and...

  9. CHAPTER 4 Sovereignty of the State, or the States?
    (pp. 103-134)

    Although the grazing fee fracas of the mid 1920s ostensibly revolved around the issue of money, it became a watershed for a western critique of administrative expansion and federal land ownership, and by the late 1920s, this critique took on the shape of states’ rights, which had become an important national force. But the western states’ rights movement also gained momentum through policy shifts at the very upper reaches in the American state, for the Hoover presidency marked the only time in this century when a president advocated giving the remaining unappropriated public domain to the states. At no time...

  10. CHAPTER 5 The Taylor Grazing Act and the “Vast National Estate”
    (pp. 135-168)

    At any number of levels the passing of the Taylor Grazing Act in 1934 was one of the most significant pieces of legislation for the West in the twentieth century, but historians and other scholars and observers have largely focused on one reason in particular that made it so important: the act effectively closed the era of homesteading, which was a symbolic milestone for the nation and the region. In the words of one observer, the act “represented official admission of the exhaustion of the values which had made the public domain a dynamic force in the building of the...

  11. CHAPTER 6 Property Rights and Political Meaning
    (pp. 169-204)

    In October 1935, a little over a year after he hired Farrington Carpenter to head up the Grazing Division, Harold Ickes sent him an elevenpage letter of stinging criticism. Ickes threw no punches. “I have been disturbed about the administration of the grazing program,” he wrote, before launching into his charges. The first of these was Carpenter’s apparent unwillingness to build a sufficient administrative organization. In Ickes’s opinion, Carpenter never fully used the agencies within the Department of the Interior that could have helped him set up the program—indeed, Ickes complained, “[y]ou have never accepted this principle of organization”—...

  12. Epilogue
    (pp. 205-210)

    Shortly after the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency, a group of mostly conservative scholars, activists, and politicians held a conference in Washington to discuss the future of public land policy. Included in this group was Senator Steven Symms of Idaho, who had been elected to office in 1980 on the wave of the most nationally visible sagebrush rebellion of the century. While in his speech Symms did not support the immediate privatization of public lands (except, he noted, “in certain circumstances”), he did want to see the public lands transferred to the western states at less than market...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 211-256)
  14. Bibliographic Essay
    (pp. 257-262)
  15. Index
    (pp. 263-274)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 275-275)