Living with the Environmental and Social Legacy of U.S. Land Policy in the American West

By Julie Brugger, University of Arizona §

Looking out across the arid, mesquite- and saguaro-studded landscape of the Tonto Basin District of the Tonto National Forest (TNF) in central Arizona, it is not apparent to the untrained eye that there is anything for cattle to eat or drink. The landscape stretches to the horizon without any visible built structures except for the road I drove in on and occasional barbed-wire fences that demarcate grazing allotments and divide them into pastures. The rancher whose grazing allotment we are standing on tells me that cattle here eat “browse”: shrubs like jojoba and ceanothus, beans from the mesquite, and even prickly pear cactus.

We’re not a grass ranch, we’re a browse ranch. And that’s a huge difference. And the Forest Service wants to monitor and grow grass, and this country is not grass country. And I’m not going to get into the argument whether it was overgrazed at some point. I’m sure it was, because they flooded this country with thousands of cattle in the 1800s.  But right now, it’s not overgrazed. The beauty of a browse ranch is it can take a drought, and survive. If you’ve got a grass ranch and you got a drought, you got nothin’.

Drought is a regular occurrence in this mountainous region of highly variable precipitation, and with climate change, temperatures in the region are projected to increase along with more frequent and longer lasting drought conditions (Garfin et al. 2013). I am the social scientist on an interdisciplinary team that includes members with experience in Cooperative Extension, rangeland management, and climatology and I am interviewing this rancher as part of a project we are working on to help Forest Service staff and ranchers with grazing permits on the TNF to co-develop strategies to achieve better preparation for drought. Relations between the two groups deteriorated in 2002 when, during the worst drought in the region since record keeping began, the Forest Supervisor ordered all livestock removed from the Forest, regardless of the condition of individual allotments. This decision created great hardship for many ranchers and put some out of business. It will take those remaining decades to rebuild herds that can do well in this rugged country.

Federal and Indian lands in the United States

This vast landscape is part of the system of federally owned land held in trust for the American people and managed by federal land management agencies, referred to as the public lands. They include national parks, national recreation areas, national monuments, national forests, national wildlife refuges, wilderness areas, and land without any special designation: nearly 30% of national territory, the highest percentage of land owned by the central government among developed countries except for Canada (Starrs 1999). Most of the public lands are in the West, where this percentage closer to 50, and are managed for sustainable multiple use by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service. Livestock grazing is an extensive natural resource use on these lands, and the management decisions of those with permits to graze them are subject to agency regulations and policy, while agency decisions are subject to environmental impact analysis and public scrutiny as mandated by the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The environmental impact of livestock grazing on the arid to semi-arid Western rangelands has long been debated (Stauder 2015) and in the 1990s, environmental groups mounted a campaign to end livestock grazing on the public lands.  This has severely impacted the ability of the agencies and ranchers with permits to graze livestock on these lands to manage them effectively.

Both the immensity of the system of public lands, available for the enjoyment and recreation of all Americans, and not just for the use of private owners, and the ongoing controversy over livestock grazing on these lands can be seen as unintended and enduring consequences of the type of settler colonialism that emerged from U.S. land policy in the arid lands west of the 100th meridian.


Tragedy of the Open Range

When the federal government was created in 1781, it initially aimed to convert all of the public domain lands to private ownership.  Public domain is the name given to territory acquired by the federal government through cession by the original thirteen colonies, or subsequently from foreign powers or native peoples. Nearly all of U.S. territory outside the original thirteen states was once part of the public domain. U.S. land policy was unique among other colonizing nations in that it was dedicated to “parting with land, as opposed to acquiring or reserving it for government or monarch” (Starrs 1999: 41). The view of land as private property underlying this policy was also radically different from that of Native American and Hispanic cultures already inhabiting the continent.

Among the first laws the new federal government passed were Land Ordinances that promoted the orderly inventory, administration, and sale of public domain lands. As U.S. territory grew, subsequent laws attempted to make it even easier to acquire land: for example, the 1862 Homestead Act made it possible for settlers to acquire title to 160 acres simply by living on the land, farming it for five years, and paying a small filing fee. In addition to facilitating disposal of the public domain, these laws were shaped by a desire to avoid any vestige of English feudalism and create instead the Jeffersonian ideal of a nation of independent, small farmers. This ideal was based on Easterners’ experience of climate and landscape: for example, the Homestead Act specified an amount of land Eastern legislators believed workable by a single family. This helps to explain the persistence of this policy in the face of the advice of Colorado River explorer and early anthropologist John Wesley Powell, who became the second director of the U.S. Geological Survey and the first director of the Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian Institution (Starrs 1999). In his 1879 Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States, Powell warned that the arid West was not suitable for agricultural development and suggested policies that promoted conservation instead. Applied to Western landscapes, U.S. land policy had disastrous effects.

When settlers west of 100th meridian found the land too dry for farming, they turned to livestock-raising for their livelihoods. It took many acres to support a cow in this dry land and settlers were often unaware that the perennial grasses that covered the landscape were affected by wide variations in annual rainfall and the recurrence of drought. They typically homesteaded 160 acres near water and ran their livestock on the surrounding unregulated public domain land, which was effectively “open range.” This set up the conditions for what Garrett Hardin (1968) called the “tragedy of the commons.” Anthropologists and others (e.g. McCabe 1990) have pointed out that this tragedy is misnamed because most pastoral communities have agreed upon rules for the use of their commons. The tragedy of the open range unfolded over different time periods in different arid and semi-arid regions of the Western “cattle-ranching frontier” (Jordan 1993). Anthropologists Nathan Sayre (1999, 2002), Tom Sheridan (1995), and Jack Stauder (2015) have documented how it played out in what is now Arizona. In what follows I draw on these sources and augment them with what I have learned from our project on the TNF and from my dissertation research on the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM) in southern Utah (Brugger 2009, 2015).

After the Civil War, a confluence of factors contributed to a “cattle boom” in Arizona. These included: almost “free” cattle in the southern states that were left to run wild and multiply while their owners had been away fighting; the arrival of the railroad which provided access to markets; and an abundance of speculative capital from the Eastern U.S. and Great Britain. In Arizona Territory, while there were less than 40,000 cattle in 1870, in 1891 there were over a million and a half. In the Tonto region, by 1891 most of the grass was short or had been replaced by annuals and shrubs, the ground was trampled hard, gullies had started forming, and the creeks were little more than gravel bars (Croxen 1926). When severe drought eventually occurred, it resulted in ecological collapse of the overstocked rangelands and the decimation of cattle herds.  Although most of the damage to the open range was done between 1880 and 1920, the landscape still shows the effects of events and uses that occurred over a century ago (Sayre et al. 2012). And ranchers today continue to be blamed for those effects.

In 1890, the Census Bureau declared the frontier officially closed because most areas of the West had been settled and the region had achieved a population density of more than two people per square mile. This coincided with rising concern over deforestation, water, and overgrazing, and a shift in federal land policy to one of withdrawing some lands from the public domain to be retained and managed in federal ownership. Land withdrawn in these ways became the public lands and necessitated the creation of bureaucracies, such as the U.S. Forest Service, to manage them. The Progressive Movement, which arose during the same period, promoted the idea that the federal government could achieve rational and scientific management of resources on these lands in order to provide, in the words of the first chief of the Forest Service Gifford Pinchot, “the greatest good for the greatest number” (Hays 1999).  When Congress finally ended the policy of disposal in 1976, as a result of Western settlers’ adaptation of that policy, most of the arid and semi-arid land in the contiguous Western states still remained in the public domain, and became public land.


From Managing to Co-Managing the Public Rangelands

To manage livestock grazing on the public lands, the federal land management agencies turned to the emerging science of range management, which had its roots in the ecological disaster that occurred at the end of the 19th century. It had coalesced around the paradigm of plant succession developed by Frederick Clements early in the 20th century, giving rise to the Range Succession Model (Sayre et al. 2012). This paradigm assumed that plant communities were in equilibrium with static soil and climate conditions unless disturbed by exogenous drivers, such as livestock grazing. When a disturbance was removed, plant communities would resume a predictable progression to recovery to their pre-disturbed condition. Based on this paradigm, range science attempted to develop general principles for rangeland management that could be used to restore rangelands to their pre-settlement condition, provide scientific authority for federal land management agency policies, and be applied throughout the nation. Even with greatly reduced livestock numbers and new management techniques, however, the public rangelands were slow to recover.

The rise of the environmental movement in the 1960s led to the passage of environmental legislation, such as NEPA, which provided environmental organizations with legal processes they could use to influence public lands management. In the 1990s, anti-grazing environmental groups began to use these processes to further their goal of eliminating livestock from the public lands. The Range Succession model supported their claim that the public rangelands could return to their pre-settlement condition if livestock were removed. Their arguments often relied on “cherry-picking” science that supported their views and ignoring other studies. For example, anti-grazing groups maintain that livestock grazing threatens endangered species.  However, when the Buenos Aires Ranch in southern Arizona was converted to a Wildlife Refuge to restore the masked bobwhite, although livestock were removed, refuge biologists did not succeed in establishing a self-sustaining population (Sayre 2002). Anti-grazing arguments also play on the perceptions of Americans from wetter regions of the U.S. where cows graze on green pastures. And they cast aspersions on today’s public lands ranchers by harking back to the damage done by ranching at the turn of the 19th century.

Spring roundup on a ranch in central Arizona.

These groups have had an enormous impact on public perceptions of livestock grazing on the public lands, on the federal land management agencies, and on public lands ranchers. With respect to the agencies, the legal actions of these groups have diverted funding and personnel time and made it difficult to complete the analysis and decision processes required for sustainable management of public lands livestock grazing. The agencies are mandated to protect the livelihoods of ranchers dependent on the public lands; however, some agency personnel display an anti-grazing bias (Brugger 2009; Stauder 2015). Evidence was for this was provided during a hearing with the Interior Department Office of Hearings and Appeals related to the retirement of grazing permits on creating the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM) in 2005.  Although the Proclamation explicitly states that grazing would continue on the Monument (Clinton 1996), a BLM employee testified that, while waiting outside the Monument Manager’s office, he overheard a conversation between the Manager and another staff member about “how they would go about getting rid of grazing on the Monument” (Brugger 2009: 177). Public lands ranchers have also had to contend with negative public perceptions and agency actions that threaten their livelihoods. In the 1990s along the Blue River in the Apache-Sitgreaves NF in eastern Arizona, for example, the Forest Service reduced livestock numbers so much that ranching families could no longer make a living, in order to forestall the threat that grazing permit renewals would be challenged in court (Stauder 2015).

The arguments of anti-grazing environmental organizations have been undermined by the emergence of a new paradigm of rangeland ecology beginning in the 1980s, which has given rise to the State and Transition Model. In this non-equilibrium paradigm, rangeland systems are seen as highly variable due to extreme rainfall variability, drought, and low soil fertility, and disturbances can cause transitions between states that are not easily reversible (Sayre et al. 2012). Thus, rangelands cannot necessarily be returned to a former state simply by removing livestock; there can be no general set of principles for managing them; and management may require answering the value-laden question of which of several possible states is the desired state. In addition, socio-ecological systems theory proposes that one of the key variables of grazing management is “the managers themselves, their perceptions, knowledge, and ongoing decision making” (Briske et al. 2011: 328). In the 21st century, rangeland ecology is turning to “collaborative adaptive management” to achieve sustainable management of the public rangelands. It is an iterative, collaborative “learning by doing” approach, in which ranchers, agency personnel, and other interested parties work together to develop goals and management actions designed to attain them, monitor outcomes, and then adapt management actions and goals based on outcomes. This approach recognizes that the Western landscape has been forever changed by settler colonialism and it cannot be restored to an idealized pre-settlement condition. Ranchers, agency personnel, environmentalists, and other interested parties will have to overcome the antagonism generated by the legacy of settler colonialism in order to envision and manage healthy public rangelands together.


Engaging with the Legacy of Settler Colonialism

The work of the anthropologists cited in this post illustrates a variety of ways that anthropologists are engaging with the environmental and social legacy of settler colonialism in the American West as it shapes public lands ranching. Jack Stauder’s research on ranching along the Blue River strives to “give the ranchers and their supporters full opportunity to voice their opinions and point of view. To do so is important, because their voice is not frequently heard, either in the media or academia” (Stauder 2015: xii). Thomas Sheridan’s work highlights the importance of conserving Western working landscapes (Sheridan 2001, 2007), and he is deeply involved in land use politics in Arizona and the Southwest in order to further that goal. Nathan Sayre’s work on the genesis and development of rangeland ecology and management and the transformations of Western rangelands under the influence of livestock production, range science, urbanization, and conservation demonstrate a commitment to the integration of ecological and social science to address “the range problem” and to working and publishing interdisciplinarily with rangeland ecologists (e.g. Briske et al. 2011; Sayre et al.2012).

Our project on the TNF illustrates another mode of engagement: working directly with public land ranchers and federal land managers to help them collaboratively address what I have described here as the environmental and social legacy of settler colonialism in the American West.  With funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, we developed a series of workshops that bought ranchers with permits and Forest Service rangeland managers on the TNF together to co-develop strategies to achieve better preparation for drought.  Our preliminary survey and interviews indicated that while both groups saw drought as a risk for managing livestock grazing on the TNF, they saw each other as the greatest risk.  Given the levels of tension and mistrust between the groups, our challenge was to design workshop activities that would provide opportunities for meaningful interactions in structured and comfortable settings in order to improve relationships and trust and avoid exacerbating existing tensions.  We expected that activities that could simulate actual decision making situations during drought would provide an “experiential learning space” in which both parties could share knowledge and learn together (Bartels et al. 2012), as well as practice how they could work together during a real drought.  We developed a Microsoft Excel-based social-ecological model of a hypothetical, but realistic, allotment which could be used to explore the impacts of different scenarios of drought severity and Forest Service policy constraints and the effectiveness of different practices for addressing the impacts.  Small groups of rancher and Forest Service participants collaboratively developed solutions to scenarios we provided and explored the flexibility available to implement them in the Forest Service decision process.  Participants agreed that the scenario planning exercises were extremely valuable, especially for improving relationships, and many planned to use this approach in their next meeting between ranchers and Forest Service range managers to develop Annual Operating Instructions.  We are following up this project with one to design effective rain gauges for grazing allotments and an application for recording and accessing rain gauge data, which will not only provide local data for assessing local drought conditions, but also help maintain these collaborative working relationships.

Works Cited

Bartels, Wendy-Lin, Carrie A. Furman, David C. Diehl, Fred S. Royce, Daniel R. Dourte, Brenda V. Ortiz, David F. Zierden, Tracy A. Irani, Clyde W. Fraisse, and James W. Jones. 2012. Warming up to climate change: a participatory approach to engaging with agricultural stakeholders in the Southeast US. Regional Environmental Change 13(Suppl 1): S45-S55.
Briske, D. D., Nathan F, Sayre, L. Huntsinger, M. Fernander-Gimenez, B.Budd, and J. D. Derner. 2011. Origin, Persistence, and Resolution of the Rotational Grazing Debate: Integrating Human Dimensions into Rangeland Research. Rangeland Ecology and Management 64(4):325-334.
Brugger, Julie. 2009. Public Land and American Democratic Imaginaries: A Case Study of Conflict over the Management of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. PhD Dissertation, University of Washington.
Brugger, Julie. 2015. “Storytelling” Natural Resource Use on U.S. Public Lands. Paper given at the Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, Denver CO, November 18-22.
Clinton, William J. 1996. Establishment of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Proclamation 6920, Federal Register, v.61, pp. 50223. (September 18, 1996)
Croxen, Fred W. 1926. History of Grazing on Tonto National Forest. Paper presented at the Tonto Grazing Conference in Phoenix, AZ, November 4-5. URL:
Garfin, Gregg, Angela Jardine, Robert Meridith, Mary Black, and Sarah LeRoy, eds. 2013. Assessment of Climate Change in the Southwest United States: A Report Prepared for the National Climate Assessment. Southwest Climate Alliance. Washington, DC: Island Press.
Hardin, Garrett. 1968. The Tragedy of the Commons. Science 162(3859): 1243-1248.
Hays, Samuel P. 1999. Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency: The Progressive Conservation Movement, 1820-1920 (1959). Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.
Jordan, Terry G. 1993. North American Cattle-Ranching frontiers: Origins, Diffusion, and Differentiation. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
McCabe, Terence J. 1990. Turkana pastoralism: a case against the tragedy of the commons. Human Ecology 18: 81–103.
Sayre, Nathan. 1999. The Cattle Boom in Southern Arizona Towards a Critical Political Ecology. Journal of the Southwest 41(2): 239-271.
Sayre, Nathan. 2002. Ranching, Endangered species, and Urbanization in the Southwest: Species of Capital. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
Sayre, Nathan F., William deBuys, Brandon T. Bestelmeyer, and Kris M. Havstad 2012. ‘The Range Problem’ After a Century of Rangeland Science: New Research Themes for Altered Landscapes. Rangeland Ecology and Management 65: 545-552.
Sheridan, Thomas E. 1995. Arizona: A History. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
Sheridan, Thomas E. 2001. Cows, Condos, and the Contested Commons: The Political Ecology of Ranching on the Arizona-Sonora Borderlands. Human Organization 60(2): 141-152.
Sheridan, Thomas E. 2007. Embattled Ranchers, Endangered Species, and Urban Sprawl: The Political Ecology of the New American West. Annual Review of Anthropology 36: 121-138.
Starrs, Paul F. 1999. Let the Cowboy Ride: Cattle Ranching in the American West. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Stauder, Jack 2015. The Blue and the Green: A Cultural Ecological History of an Arizona Ranching Community. Reno: University of Nevada Press.

Julie Brugger is a Research Scientist in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment at the University of Arizona and affiliated with Climate Assessment for the Southwest and the Center for Climate Adaption Science and Solutions. Her research lies at the intersection between environmental and political anthropology and focuses on public lands, natural resource management, and rural communities in the American West. She works on projects with interdisciplinary teams who collaborate with different types of stakeholders to address issues related to climate variability and change in the Southwest. Her role is to help design and implement effective collaboration and evaluation processes by using systematic qualitative research and multiple methods to enhance the reliability and legitimacy of results.

This post is part of our thematic series: Life on the Frontier: The Environmental Anthropology of Settler Colonialism