Book Review: Visions Upon the Land: Man and Nature on the Western Range by Karl Hess, Jr.

Washington: Island Press, 1992 • 278 pages • $22.00

Dayton Hyde wanted nothing more than to improve the quality of his land. A ranch owner in southwestern Oregon, Hyde believed that through careful stewardship he could promote wildlife conservation on his lands, as well as the adjacent lands owned by the federal government, while still benefiting from the grazing of cattle. Toward this end, he created Operation Stronghold, an association of private landowners dedicated to encouraging wildlife conservation.

Part of Hyde’s plan was to use his grazing permits on nearby public lands for deer and elk, rather than for his cattle. Unfortunately, the federal government had a different idea. While Hyde was entitled to purchase grazing fees on public lands for cows, the Forest Service would not allow those permits to be used for other species. Hyde could graze cattle, or forfeit the right to those permits. That the land would be maintained and the Forest Service would receive the same revenue in either instance was immaterial. Hyde’s idea was simply not part of the Forest Service’s vision for its land.

Dayton Hyde’s dilemma is a microcosm of the major problem facing public lands today: a massive, technocratic public lands bureaucracy that has little interest in encouraging either private stewardship or economic development. As public lands form the backbone of the Western range—spanning a half-billion acres the effects of misguided federal policies reverberate through out the western United States. Until this fundamental fact is changed, the situation is unlikely to improve. This is the message of Karl Hess, Jr.’s provocative Visions Upon the Land: Man and Nature on the Western Range, a book which attempts to reframe the entire debate surrounding public lands and provide for a definitive, if somewhat controversial, solution.

Those urging reform of public land management have traditionally fallen into one of two camps: those who believe the problem is with individual land users compelled by short-sighted self-interest to ignore ecological concerns, and those who believe the problem is one of bureaucratic institutions. While Hess acknowledges that both camps provide valuable insights, he feels both are slightly off the mark. For Hess, the problem, as well as its solution, is to be found in recognizing the role of “landscape visions”—“the perceptions and beliefs held by people of how the western range should look and be”—in shaping land policy. One must understand what landscape vision gave rise to the public lands bureaucracy, and the nature of the visions that have dominated it since.

For Hess, there have been three primary landscape visions over the course of American history. The first of these is the agrarian vision of Jeffersonian democracy. While Jefferson is rightfully regarded as the primary architect of America’s liberal political order, he is also the father of America’s public lands and held a landscape vision that, in the words of Henry Nash Smith, “government should be dedicated to the interests of the freehold farmer.” This policy was pursued through the management of the western range—dividing it into homestead plots too small for grazing or subsistence farming in the arid west, which resulted in a western dependence upon lands still owned by the state. As Hess points out, “for all practical purposes, the making of the tragedy of the commons was the official policy of the United States government.”

The ecological failures wrought by the Jeffersonian vision gave rise to its replacement, the progressive landscape vision. This was “a vision of men and women assuming conscious and purposeful control over nature and directing its uses to the exclusive benefit of humankind.” By these lights, scientific experts could mold the public lands and allow for their optimal utilization by mankind. Yet, as with all such visions of scientific management and social control, this vision similarly failed to protect the western range.

Due to its inherent shortcomings, the progressive vision was overtaken by that of environmentalism. This vision, committed to protecting the western lands as “hallowed ground,” would become the least tolerant and most destructive of all, not only to human needs, but to the environment it sought to serve as well. Lands were no longer to be scientifically managed for man’ s benefit. Now they would be managed for the environment’s sake alone.

The common thread underlying the history of public lands is the problem with a central landscape vision that is coercively imposed upon all lands and those who dwell within them. Notes Hess: “Visions of engineered landscapes and sacred places have deluded progressive and environmental thinkers into believing that nature can be mastered and set on a straight and narrow course as dictated by the will of the state.” Although economic central planning has been a dismal failure, the far more difficult task of centrally planning an ecology is somehow believed to be possible. In the end, “government has elevated its role to that of the visionary state—a sovereign entity empowered to make particular visions the official creed of government.” Whereas America was founded on the ideal of allowing for a multiplicity of personal visions that compete in an open market, in the western range there would only be room for one, and it would be dictated from Washington, D.C.

Hess’ solution is, as one might surmise, to remove public lands from the control of government, and return them to the American people. He calls it “democratization,” though it is simply privatization under another name. By divesting the state of the responsibility of managing these lands, Hess seeks to establish “a market of landscape visions.” Such a system will endow individuals with “the ability to seek landscapes that are intensely personal and that only nature can rule as being ecologically fit or not.” Some may choose to ravage their own lands, but others, such as Dayton Hyde, will be free to engage in responsible stewardship as they see fit.

Whether Hess’ plan for privatization—the distribution of shares to all American citizens that can be used for the purchase of public lands—is the best plan of action is certainly a matter for debate. Any attempts to privatize federal lands are sure to meet with strong political opposition. Nonetheless, the direction that must be taken remains clear: Government control of a half-billion acres of land cannot be allowed to continue. On this point, Hess demonstrates, both ecologist and classical liberal should agree. The next step is making it happen.

Jonathan H. Adler is an environmental policy analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.