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

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

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

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


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 Meaning traces 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.


During the final months of revising the manuscript of this book, I took a short vacation in Provincetown, Massachusetts, as far away as one can imagine in the continental United States from the geography, climate, human culture, and animal populations of the western public grazing lands. While walking down the main street one foggy morning, I was stunned to see a faded sticker on the back of a stop sign reading: free our public lands and end destructive western livestock grazing. I could quickly hazard a guess about when someone must have affixed that sticker—most likely in the early to mid 1990s, when the Clinton administration launched a battle to raise grazing fees, touching off yet another sagebrush rebellion over the public lands. I marveled that someone standing at the very tip of Cape Cod on the eastern coast of the United States had felt so passionately about America’s public grazing land. and after living in the East and the Midwest for years, during which time I had often had to perform great verbal calisthenics to convince people that the public grazing lands were important, I was elated to find traces of someone who had stood on that exact spot and believed those lands were relevant enough to easterners to deface a sign.

But I wondered how other people would read the sticker. Would they know what and where the public lands were? Would they care about public grazing? Whereas in the nineteenth century the existence of an enormous public domain excited great political debate, it now attracts only peripheral national attention. Like others who care about these . . .

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