by Steve Miller
copyright © 1996, Electric Nevada
|Over 100 years ago, when what are now called national forests were first formed, the very first thing federal land managers did was attack the range rights of Westerners.|
| In its
first official policy statement on April 14, 1894, the
Department of Agriculture announced a total curtailment
of grazing on the forest reserves (later to be named
Prohibited was the "driving, feeding, grazing, pasturing, or herding of cattle, sheep, or other livestock" on the forest lands, as were lumbering and mining and all forms of "trespass."
Whatever property rights the western states thought they had on their resource lands were, for the next several years, summarily denied them, notes rancher-author Wayne Hage.
Hage, who began studying the history of the range-rights conflict that has raged over the West for the last 130 years when he himself began running into problems with Forest Service administrators in Nevada, eventually, in 1989, wrote a book on the topic.
Titled Storm Over Rangelands, the study relies on earlier work by sectionalist historians to chronicle the post-Civil War domination of the American West and South by a newly powerful bloc of Northeast financiers and industrialists.
Wielding great financial and political clout, the alliance used its dominion over national government to not only impose exploitive tariffs and railroad fees on the people of the West and South, but also to try to block grazing on the western lands, says Hage.
"Grazing was the single use that could block eastern dominance" over western resources, he says. That was because, under the prior appropriation doctrine upheld in 1891 by the Supreme Court (Buford V. Houtz), it was through grazing that ranchers could establish private property rights on the public domain land of the West.
It was at that point that Eastern capitalists stumbled upon a strange charismatic genius who, because of his personal history in Scotland, had an antipathy for grazing even exceeding theirs.
John Muir, who would later cofound the Sierra Club, had spent years in the Yosemite area as sheepherder, guide and sawmill operator.
"His memory of large sheep corporations disenfranchising the small sheep owners of their grazing lands in his native Scotland left him with little sympathy for large corporate interests, especially if they were sheep graziers," wrote Hage.
Add to that Muir's ability to "speak and write in glowing poetic phrases about the wonders of the natural world," and the Scottish immigrant "was an ideal candidate to help promote anti-grazing rhetoric."
After just two articles in Robert Underwood Johnson's Century magazine, celebrating Yosemite and promoting it for a park, Muir's usefulness in drowning out the objections of people who held prior appropriation rights in the West had been demonstrated.
"A sidelight of the Yosemite campaign has been lost to those who regard Muir as a folk hero," writes Hage. "He was allied with and in the pay of railroad magnate Edward H. Harriman" who "obtained a monopoly for the railroad route to Yosemite."
Harriman, of New York, and of the Union Pacific and Southern Pacific railroads, was one of the preeminent capitalists of the day.
"He provided Muir with extensive prepaid scientific expeditions, free rail fare throughout the nation and in 1902, a free round-the-world trip," says Hage.
"Harriman and his northern core political interests kept Muir in their service by generous red carpet treatment. Muir's obvious and sometimes embarrassing eccentricities were explained away as the mark of genius."
After 1902, however, when the newly instituted forest reserves had escaped repeal for 11 years, says Hage, Muir and the Sierra Club were of decreasing importance to the bloc of Northeast financiers and industrialists.
Western rage over the forest reserves and the denial of rancher range rights had forced Gifford Pinchot, federal forests chief from 1898 to 1910, to spend most of his federal career trying to save the reserves from repeal.
Pinchot, jettisoning Muir, succeeding in saving the reserves by defusing the potentially disastrous opposition of western ranchers. He granted grazing permits based on pre-existing rancher range rights and started a policy of employing westerners to oversee the new grazing program on the forest reserves.
But the long-term alliance between Northeast financial interests and the Muir/Sierra
Club/preservationist side of the conservation
movement, still exists today, says Hage.
Want to share your opinion? Electric Nevada's comment page is open!
Back to Electric Nevada's front Page