Saturday, September 19, 2020

James R. Skillen's "This Land is My Land"

James R. Skillen is Associate Professor of Environmental Studies at Calvin University. He teaches at the intersection of environmental history, law, and science, including regular field courses on federal lands in California, Nevada, and Oregon. He is author of The Nation's Largest Landlord: The Bureau of Land Management in the American West and Federal Ecosystem Management: Its Rise, Fall, and Afterlife.

Skillen applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, This Land is My Land: Rebellion in the West, and reported the following:
When readers turn to page 99 in This Land Is My Land: Rebellion in the West, they find a map of federal lands in Catron County, New Mexico. The county is 4.5 million acres, roughly the size of New Jersey, with a current population of around 3,500. The federal government owns and manages about three quarters of the county and pays no property tax, so federal management decisions about logging and grazing are critical to the county’s economy.

The test works remarkably well in this case. Page 99 has one of eight maps that I included in the book, and these maps capture fully half of book’s broader story.

Geographer John Wright once wrote that land tenure is the spatial musculature of the American West, “and places are best seen as shifting stages where the exercise of power and resistance to it vie for dominance.” The distinctive character of the West stems from the fact that the federal government owns roughly half of all land in the eleven western states and Alaska, which means that land use decisions are public and overtly political. Legal title to these lands may be clear, but the meaning of federal ownership and management is hotly contested, particularly by those who have mixed their labor with the land. This Land Is My Land tells the story of public land conflicts over the last forty years, as older claims to these lands have been challenged by new public values.

What page 99 does not capture, though, is the broader context of these conflicts. I explain how “sagebrush rebellions” shifted from regional protests, waged by westerners with a material interest in federal lands, to a national protest against federal authority itself, waged by a growing infrastructure of conservative think tanks, foundations, law firms, and politicians. And that shift is a microcosm of the politics that elected Donald Trump president in 2016 and may reelect him in 2020.
Learn more about This Land is My Land at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue