The right-wing effort to privatize or obliterate many of the institutions of our public life—from public education to public broadcasting to public libraries to public health care—includes, not surprisingly, an unrelenting attack on a particularly distinctive tradition: the vast complex of public lands that date back more than a century and constitute an essential part of our national character. Donald Trump dramatically shrank the size of two newly created national monuments (Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah) to allow more oil and gas drilling; his administration has also opened the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the oil industry in a particularly spectacular act of vandalism now being challenged in court. The GOP platform in recent years has called for either privatizing public lands or handing them over to state governments, which are, especially in the West, typically dominated by the resource extraction industries.
John Taliaferro’s Grinnell and John Clayton’s Natural Rivals tell the story of the birth of this remarkable experiment. It’s a story Americans need to know and appreciate. Urban and suburban dwellers often know only about the national parks, which are a fairly small subset of the public lands archipelago. The much larger lands of the United States Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management are sometimes less charismatic, but they are at least as ecologically important and often just as beautiful. I’ve spent much of my life sharing a property boundary with the Forest Service, but I knew little of the complex behind-the-scenes machinations and the public appeals that produced this unlikely wonder. I’m struck, reading these accounts, how useful the history is for the present moment. They prompt the important recollection that Americans have at times demanded that our prosperity protect the public good, not just private interests.
George Bird Grinnell, one of the most prominent early American conservationists, is one of those figures who remind us that nineteenth-century America was a fairly small place, especially at its upper reaches. A descendant of settlers who came over on the Mayflower, Grinnell grew up on an estate in what is now upper Manhattan, tutored by the widow of John James Audubon. After a sojourn at Yale, he traveled west to help a professor with geological research and immediately ran into Buffalo Bill Cody, the most famous plainsman of his day. Stopping in Salt Lake City, he met Brigham Young and “flirted with twenty-two [of his] daughters in a box at the theatre.” He became, among other things, a magazine writer and editor, and when young Teddy Roosevelt didn’t like a review of one of his books that Grinnell had written, the future president stormed red-faced into his office at Forest and Stream in New York—but Grinnell won…
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