The Great Western Land Grab: Ad Nauseum and Funded by You

Which of these things is not like the other?

1) “The ultimate objective…is to liquidate all public ownership of grazing land and forest land in the United States…The immediate objectives make this attempt one of the biggest land grabs in American history…The plan is to get rid of public lands altogether, turning them over to the states, which can be coerced as the federal government cannot be, and eventually to private ownership. This is your land we are talking about.”

2) “The West as a whole is guilty of inexplicable crimes against the land.”

3) “Since its inception in 2012, the [American Lands Council] has been working with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative front group backed by the oil and gas industry and billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, to pass state-level legislation demanding that the federal government turn over federally owned national forests and public lands to Western states.”

Answer: though they all sound ripped from today’s headlines,  only the last one is from this century.

ugly drilling land

The first quote appeared in Harper’s nearly 70 years ago. For twenty years, writer, historian, critic, activist Bernard DeVoto wrote a column, The Easy Chair, for the venerable magazine, and by the time this passage from “The West Against Itself” was published in 1947, DeVoto had already played an instrumental role in converting a land-grab fever into the 1946 formation of the Bureau of Land Management, thus preventing a potential sell-off of the West. It wasn’t the first time ranchers, energy interests, and developers had demanded private ownership of public lands, and it wouldn’t be the last.

The second statement is from an essay written for The Atlantic Monthly nearly thirty years later by DeVoto’s protege, Wallace Stegner, who spent his long and distinguished career writing about America and advocating for the protection of the West. His “Wilderness Letter” of 1960 ranks with works by John Muir and Henry David Thoreau in the conservation canon and was used to introduce the 1964 Wilderness Act in Congress. Despite his successful influence in establishing one of the most effective conservation laws in America, Stegner remained frustrated with the culture, practices, and mythos of West, and in this 1964 article, “Born a Square,” Stegner exhorted the West to “take a hard look at itself and acknowledge some things that the myths have consistently obscured”: it is politically reactionary, ruthless, and exploitative. True fifty years ago and true today.

This last frightening scenario was reported last week by Matt Lee-Ashley, a former communications director for the Department of the Interior who now follows public lands, energy, and environmental policy for the Center for American Progress. Lee-Ashley points out that the recent attention on public lands policy in the wake of Cliven Bundy’s refusal to obey court orders to remove his cattle from sensitive public lands is only the latest episode in the the West’s ongoing conflict about what wild lands are for. But the funding mechanisms behind today’s campaign to turn over federal lands to states or the highest bidders–which ultimately amount to the same thing–are staggeringly insidious, powerful, and frightening. The Koch brothers and ALEC have helped the American Lands Council extract more than $200,000 in taxpayer money from 42 mostly rural counties in nine Western states to “advance an aggressive and coordinated campaign to seize America’s public lands and national forests for drilling, mining, and logging,” Lee-Ashley asserts at ThinkProgress.org. Of course, the state of Utah is adding even more taxpayer funding to the extractor-fueled greed: the Republican legislature has already spent more than $500,000 to study a proposed takeover of federal land and has set aside an another $3 million to fight the federal government in court.

The crusade by special interests to wrest public wild lands from public ownership is as old as American statehood in the West. What’s new is that Western taxpayers are helping to pay for this effort to enrich the few at the cost of the many. Somehow, I don’t think DeVoto or Stegner would be surprised.

Am*zon’s Calling. Who’s Answering?

Can Am*zon slay Hachette with a phone? While independent booksellers and publishers wait to see if the multinational publishing house can keep the monopsonistic retailer from fully plundering publishing, the book industry and merchants of all kinds are watching nervously to find out if Am*zon’s new phone will indeed, as The New York Times suggests, “close any remaining gap between the impulse to buy and the completed act.” But Wall Street’s not anxious about Am*zon’s announcement today.As Am*zon customers propel the retail giant ever closer to the exclusive $100 million revenues club, investors ignore Am*zon’s barely measurable profits, giving Jeff Bezos unprecedented financing to take over the world. Bezos is undaunted by formidable challenges such as, say, breaking into the cell phone market where Blackberry is a footnote and Apple and Samsung dominate decisively, at least for now. Will his new phone spread seductive one-click shopping to every house and hand? Stay tuned for more.

Whole Foods and the Flat-Earthers

Are you a scientist? During last week’s commencement address, President Barack Obama derided Republicans who demure “I’m not a scientist” as they deny climate change. “I’m not a scientist either,” the President confessed, “but we’ve got some good ones at NASA,” and apparently their overwhelming agreement that climate change is occurring, anthropogenic, and alarming is convincing enough for him. It’s not for climate deniers, of course, and POTUS is hardly alone in his contempt for those who dismiss the scientific evidence of climate change. And the climate deniers are often the same folks who question evolution and think school curriculum ought to include creationism, which seems an awful lot like saying we should teach kids the world is flat. Who wouldn’t disdain such backwards, destructive thinking? And yet.

Thanks to science, medicine, and the socialist horror that is Obamacare, or, as I like to call it, the Affordable Care Act, my co-publisher and husband, Mark Bailey, got a shiny new hip yesterday. Because of Big Pharma and those cut- and pill-happy doctors, Mark got a groovy metal joint with only minimal anesthesia, and walked down a hall on it a mere six hours after surgery. He had the same procedure on his other hip five years ago, but this time he gets to benefit from some pharmaceutical breakthroughs and improved best practices. After decades as the go-to post-operative blood-thinner, coumadin is stepping aside for a new generation of drugs that require no monitoring or diet restrictions. Decades and dollars of research means Mark will take the super-cool Xarelto every day for three weeks, eating all the spinach salads he’d like, and since he won’t need to have any home health visits to check his blood, we’ll probably head to Torrey sometime next week for some desert convalescing. New evidence has shown that some of the strict movement restrictions he had to observe five years ago don’t improve outcomes, so we won’t need to freak out if he bends his leg beyond 90 degrees when he gets out of a chair or a car. These improvements in care don’t happen by themselves; they happen because of SCIENCE: developing and testing a research question by gathering data and analyzing it to produce evidence. Brilliant.

So who, besides those heads-in-the-sand climate deniers, could possibly eschew the life- and limb-saving evidence brought to you by SCIENCE? Only right wing nuts are closed-minded enough to reject SCIENCE. And yet…My local Whole Foods has an entire “pharmacy” section full of pseudo-medicine: pills, powders, and potions that are devoid of evidence of safety or efficacy. If you need, say, pain or allergy relief, you can forget about finding real over-the-counter medicines like ibuprofen or loratadine (Claritin), drugs that though easily available have been scientifically proven to work. Of course, you’ll also find just what you don’t need even if you’re not suffering from an illness or medical condition. With enticing labeling and Big Organic marketing power, Whole Foods has convinced millions of otherwise reasonable and educated people that “organic” means healthier and “gluten free” means good for them despite the utter lack of evidence or whether or not they are among the up to two percent of the population with celiac disease or the up to six percent  who have an actual allergy or sensitivity to the ubiquitous, harmless, and deliciousness-making protein. And feeling relief at finding a store full of GMO-free foods, really means relieving oneself of understanding what GMO means (altering a genome using genetic engineering techniques rather than cross-breeding plants or animals, which is the genome altering we have been doing for 10,000 years), what the benefits are (say, alleviating blindness and death due to vitamin A deficiency in the developing world), and what the health risks are (none).

Of course, shopping at Whole Foods seems a harmless albeit expensive privilege, as demonstrated in this short, astute clip: No victim here but the happy willing! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2UFc1pr2yUU  And yet…The clamor for Whole Foods chic, for what is considered “natural,” helps fuel baseless, expensive taxpayer-funded research into useless treatments, which often result in people foregoing or postponing real medicine in favor of woo. Though his early death was unquestionably tragic, Steve Jobs actually won the pancreatic cancer lottery when he was diagnosed with a rare form with a high cure rate. But he rejected prompt medical treatment in favor of veganism and supplements until his cancer was advanced and deadly. In far too many states, measles and pertussis (whooping cough) are making horrible comebacks as people avoid a perceived though unfounded threat, thanks in part to arguments that really reduce to this:

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Whole Foods, beloved of upper-income lefties across the country, promotes science denying, flat-earth thinking that betrays the privilege of its customers and only faintly separates them from the science deniers they condemn. Unless the moon landing really was a hoax, the word’s not benefiting from either flat-earth camp.

Who Will Save Publishing?

Utah towns designate June 30-July 4 Independents Week. A Grand Junction public radio station cancels its Am*zonSmile donation campaign after an independent bookseller suggested the station would get more donations from local businesses than through the Am*zonSmile program if it didn’t promote its relationship with their biggest competitor. A survey sponsored by UPS finds that the number of consumers who are willing to go out of their way to shop at small, local businesses, even if it costs more, has increased in the last year. Sherman Alexie appears on the Colbert Report to tout an upcoming Hachette title–not one of his–that Am*zon has made unavailable for presale, and Stephen Colbert puts a link on his website to Powell’s Books so folks can order any Hachette title without delay and offers this sticker you can slap on your book (or anything else). The Buy Local First movement that was initiated by independent booksellers and the Indies First campaign–where authors volunteer their bookselling services at independent bookstores–started by Alexie have grown beyond grassroots campaigns. But the fight for survival goes beyond independent booksellers and local businesses. Publishing itself is in peril.

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Am*zon has long been a threat to independent booksellers and local merchants of all kinds, but their concerns are getting unprecedented coverage as Am*zon and Hachette continue their negotiations while Am*zon makes Hachette titles less and less available. Nonetheless, the Goliath of merchandising still commands over 40 percent of all new books sold, and an astonishing 65 percent of all books sold online, including print and ebooks. As it works over Hachette, Am*aon is using its giant market share to force publishers to bear some of the brunt of its unprecedented discounting. Am*zon apparently doesn’t want to be the only one taking a loss as it sells books below cost. Now, Hachette is one of the biggest companies in publishing–it’s a huge, international conglomerate with dozens of imprints. With bated breath, publishers big and small are waiting to see if CEO Michael Pietsch can hold the line and insist that Hachette be compensated for the curating, editing, and marketing that it invests in every title it takes on. Am*zon contends that gatekeepers like publishers are an unnecessary nuisance, an expensive impediment blocking a fluid stream flowing from content producers to customers in brown boxes with smiles. But publishers and published authors argue that pages with text between two covers do not a book make, that publishers add important value that makes the product what it is by the time a happy reader takes in a first line. Blockbuster YA author John Green–who is NOT published by Hachette–puts it bluntly: “What’s ultimately at stake is whether Amazon is going to be able to freely and permanently bully publishers into eventual nonexistence,” adding that ”the breadth of American literature and the quality of American literature is in no small part due to the work that publishers do, and it’s very unfortunate, in my opinion, to see Amazon refuse to acknowledge the importance of that partnership.”

Ultimately, the future of books comes down to the delicate dance between culture and economics. Literature–like strong investigative journalism–by and large has never paid for itself. Big publishing houses depend on income from blockbuster celebrity books and the occasional literary hit to finance the risks they take on lesser known or unknown authors of literary fiction and creative nonfiction. At Torrey House Press, we’re still taking the financial risks out of pocket. And like everybody else in publishing, we make less per book on every copy Am*zon sells compared to sales to libraries and independent booksellers because Am*zon squeezes Consortium, our distributor, who depends on Am*zon for upwards of 30 percent of its total sales. While Am*zon represents a much smaller percentage of our sales thanks in large part to indie booksellers, what happens between Am*zon and Hachette could hold the line at the uncomfortable but probably bearable status quo or erode publishing with potentially devastating and lasting consequences, even for little us. If Hachette gets its legs cut off, I don’t know if even the indies can save publishing.

Am*zon: The Smooth Brome Grass of Your Local Economy

Have you seen your favorite nonprofits urging you to join Am*zon Smiles: You Shop Am*zon Gives program? Sign up, and your favorite public radio station, environmental organization, homeless shelter, you-name-it will receive a percentage of every purchase you make at Am*zon, at no additional cost to you. Seems pretty win-win. And so feel-good. But don’t let the smile fool you: here be dragons.

First of all, the contribution the selected nonprofits get is small. Tiny, really. It sounds great to have a portion of your next order of printer paper going to your favorite children’s hospital, but only 0.5 percent of each purchase goes to the designated nonprofit. That means if you wanted to give $50, you’d have to spend $10,000 through Am*zonSmile. Which means $10,000 to Am*zon, $50 to your charity. Who’s the winner here?

Second, the donations are made by the Am*zonSmile Foundation, not you, so one of the biggest companies on earth gets a tax deduction rather than you. Now, that may not be the worst thing in the world. Tax deductions aren’t the most important reason people give, and big isn’t by definition always bad. I certainly don’t begrudge Bill and Melinda Gates their tax benefits that result from their education and public health efforts around the globe. But Am*zon’s market share is so big in some sectors that it is changing local and industry landscapes, which comes with its own consequences.

Third, while signing up for the program can give would-be givers a charitable, warm fuzzy feeling, doing so may actually reduce overall giving. Researchers at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business found that “if people are able to declare support for a charity publicly in social media it can actually make them less likely to donate to the cause later on.” While this study focused on social media, the similarity between a “like” and choosing a charity through Am*zonSmile is not insignificant. While the program may help people be more charitable in theory, it may make folks less charitable in reality.

Finally, nonprofits promoting Am*zonSmile can inadvertently end up hurting their own communities. For instance, this week, a public radio station in Grand Junction, Colorado, urged listeners to sign up for the program, thus giving free advertizing to its local businesses’ biggest–and most dangerous–competitor. Grand Junction is fortunate to have some terrific bookstores including Grand Valley Books and Out West Books, and independent stores like these are on the front lines of Am*zon’s march toward being, indeed, The Everything Store. By steering business away from these hometown businesses, the public radio station manages to both injure important friends in the community and deprive itself of donations from local business owners who depend on their local customer base. Seems much more effective to ask those stores for a $50 donation rather than wait for $10,000 in designated Am*zonSmile sales. That’s win-win.

Salt Lake City, Grand Junction, Durango, Reno, Prescott–like other cities Mark and I love, these all have thriving independent bookstores, which invigorate the cultures and economies of their lucky communities. Booksellers at Maria’s Bookshop, Sundance Music and Books, and Peregrine Book Company are terrific champions of Torrey House Press books, and we The Salt Lake City area boasts a half-dozen indie bookstores, each with a slightly different focus and often different customers. The stores employ well over a hundred employees between them, adding to local economic activity in numerous ways, and authors from near and far come to read, sharing ideas and stories that stimulate intellectual life. Without these bookstores, Salt Lake’s economy would be flatter, its cultural landscape less diverse. It would be a much less vibrant and attractive place to live.

There’s no question that Am*zon has mastered delivering just about anything faster and more cheaply than anyone. It has invested staggering amounts of money and astonishing engineering talent to do so. Fast and cheap is expensive, but it’s good customer service, and Am*zon is committed to that. So good that it can be hard to see the harm. But single-minded efficiency often comes at a cost we might not be willing to pay if we could see all its outcomes. For example, back in the 1880s, the West was introduced to one of its best growing, most productive grasses, one that state and federal land managers still plant in forests and deserts around the West to benefit public lands livestock growers. Much like the Kentucky bluegrass gracing front yards everywhere, smooth brome grass has a strong and elegant rhizomatous root system and a prolific seed cycle that easily take over plant communities that once boasted a variety of native bunch grasses and wildflowers, with pollinators buzzing about, stimulating the food chain. But smooth brome is a great forage producer, and a big meadow of it hardly looks like a smokey factory or dull, forgettable strip mall. Alas, in the arid and semi-arid West, what it really is, though, is a biodiversity destroyer, a horticultural monopolizer. Where you could have this: Image you eventually end up with what is essentially a single-species monopoly, like a Kentucky bluegrass lawn. I like lawn just fine, but I’d hate to have it everywhere, and I don’t want to be responsible for helping it take over the landscape.

Where the Wild Lands Are

SAMSUNGI’m giving my feet a chance to recover. After a week in New York visiting friends, meeting with media, and walking as much as time and rain allowed, and THEN hiking 20 miles in a day and a half at Bryce Canyon with my son, Matt, I’m putting my feet up and thinking about wild lands while looking out the windows in Torrey. These last two months have offered a lot to ponder: Cliven Bundy and his militias defending his 20 years as a law-breaker, Bundy’s son riling up a crowd to trash Recapture Canyon on off road vehicles, the Garfield County Commission passing a resolution declaring the cowboy a cultural resource. There appears no reverence for wildness among those who call themselves locals, which I think means having at least five generations living and extracting resources in the same area. Of course, it’s not a new story, this insistence on the cowboy myth, this denial of destruction by hoof and road, and neither is the effort to recognize and reverse the normalized degradation of the last open spaces in America. Decades ago, Wallace Stegner, the dean of Western letters, declared that “the West is politically reactionary and exploitative: admit it. The West as a whole is guilty of inexplicable crimes against the land: admit that, too.”

It’s tremendous to live in the West, to hike spectacular mountains and deserts, drive miles on back roads without passing another car, explore the past and present cultures that have been shaped by wild lands. It’s also damn discouraging to have state legislatures handing laws and tax dollars to wolf killers and extractors of all kinds, who are unwilling to bear their own production costs. Manifest destiny is no longer a societal value, and we know that sage steppes and riparian areas cannot withstand the pressure of miners, drillers, and grazers. But policy and practice lag far, far behind society’s current understanding and values. So, at Torrey House Press, we publish books that tell the stories about land issues and the wonders of wilderness, and Mark and I serve on the board at Wild Utah Project. And to keep myself feeling I have a handle on something real, I’m on a continual quest for truth as demonstrated through science–you know: research, data, evidence. As long as successful publishing and wild lands conservation remain elusive goals, you can find me thinking about books and wilderness and doing small research projects on this and that, and writing about it all here. Happy reads & happy trails!

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