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Extremism, Not Journalism

in Cat Urbigkit/Column/Range Writing/Agriculture
Extremism not journalism
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By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

“This Land Was Your Land.” With a headline like that, I should have known that it was click-bait. But I took the bait and clicked on The New York Times opinion piece last weekend, only to see that the author was none other than Christopher Ketcham. His work is currently widespread in anticipation of the release of his book “This Land: How Cowboys, Capitalism, and Corruption Are Ruining the American West.”

Don’t bother to read the NYT piece. It’s largely fiction, the creation of an extremist who only sees ugly if a trace of humankind is evident. The Brooklyn, New York-native Ketcham is billed as an “environmental journalist” but I’d say he’s an environmental extremist with a tendency for getting paid to write bulls**t stories that aren’t fact-checked by editors. If you make use of public lands in any way other than for environmental extremism, you’re probably on his list of vile enemies. Really.

Extremist? Edward Abbey was the guy’s hero. According to a pre-release book review posted to Outside Online (which noted Ketham’s “tendency to follow in Edward Abbey’s footsteps to subject us to a bit of macho bravado”), Ketcham wrote that groups like the Wilderness Society should “either take up the fight armed to the teeth or disband and get out of the way.”

Two years ago, Ketcham wrote about his opposition to killing coyotes with “I walked up the mountain in the howling snow and the drifts and the flashing of the moon behind the clouds, looking for coyote traps to sabotage.”

While the Camp Fire was burning last year – California’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire, killing at least 85 people – Ketcham wrote a Counterpunch column titled Build In A Fire Plain, Get What You Deserve: “I’ve always hated the human infrastructure in California, and so I can’t say this is a bad thing.”

The guy calls for the decommissioning of roads in national parks, an end to public lands grazing, and the use of the Endangered Species Act to “smash the entire exploitative economy on the public lands.”

In March 2016, Ketcham penned “The Rogue Agency: A USDA program that tortures dogs and kills endangered species” – a look at USDA Wildlife Services, the animal damage control experts used by other wildlife agencies to control or kill predators killing livestock, and to keep birds from hitting planes at airports across the country.

Ketcham described the article as detailing “the stupid, cruel, wanton waste of the USDA’s wildlife slaughter program called Wildlife Services.” That Ketcham relied on grossly outdated and inaccurate account didn’t matter, and USDA administrator Kevin Shay responded, “We will not apologize for putting people’s livelihoods and the interests of human safety on equal footing with the noble cause of animal conservation.”

Hatchet jobs are Ketcham’s specialty. In 2015, he wrote for Harper’s Magazine on “The Ruin of the West: How Republicans are plundering our public lands” – another assault on public lands livestock grazing, and, as always, using an anti-grazing activist as his primary source.

Ketcham spreads his vile message to other magazines as well. In its “The Earth Died Screaming Issue” in May 2015, VICE published another Ketcham piece about his lawsuit “against the National Park Service in protest of the government’s brutal and stupid policy of slaughtering wild bison” as they exit Yellowstone National Park and enter Montana.

For those of you who know about the complexities of brucellosis transmission involving elk, bison, and cattle, don’t expect to find a nuanced (or even balanced) discussion of this issue, because what you’ll find is more of Ketcham’s rabid blathering as he explains why he joined the ACLU in suing the National Park Service: “The goal of the ACLU lawsuit was to see, smell, and hear, up close, bison corralled, beaten, whipped, raped, sorted, and moved onto the trucks that carry them to their death.”

Yes, Ketcham claimed that bison were “raped.” Of course they lost the lawsuit, after a federal judge denied their request for an injunction, agreeing that the Park Service had not violated their rights by applying reasonable limitations for watching the culling process.

When wolves in the Northern Rockies were removed from the list of federally protected species, Ketcham wrote in his “Wolves to the Slaughter” piece that “the federal government last year scheduled wolves to be killed in huge numbers across the Northern Rockies.” To Ketcham, removal from federal protection is the same thing as “scheduling wolves to be killed in huge numbers.” Ketcham’s slant is impeccably transparent.

In a May 2014 piece for VICE, Ketcham was at it again, “How to kill a wolf – An undercover report from the Idaho Coyote and Wolf Derby” in which Ketcham and two Idaho activists infiltrated a coyote derby, apparently because, Ketcham wrote, “I wondered whether the residents of Salmon were looking to kill wolves out of spite. They hated these creatures, and I wanted to understand why.” They had to pretend to be hunters, Ketcham wrote, because: “Many pro-wolf activists across the American West, especially those who have publicly opposed the ranching industry, have reported similar threats and acts of aggression — tires slashed, homes vandalized, windows busted out with bricks in the night.” The coyote hunt organizers were so convinced of the Ketcham clan’s authenticity that they helpfully “suggested spots in the surrounding mountains where we could find wolves to shoot illegally.”

Ketcham noted: “The number of cattle and sheep lost to wolves and other predators each year is negligible. In 2010, just 0.23 percent of cattle in the US died from ‘carnivore depredations’ (as wolf attacks on livestock are officially categorized).” No mention that wolf depredations do not occur at the national-herd level, but at the local herd/flock level.

But cattle are despicable, according to Ketcham, “In fact, cows mess up just about everything in the ecosystems of the arid West.”

Of course, no wolves were killed during the two-day coyote derby, despite the “How to kill a wolf” title of the piece. Contempt for those who would kill predators, or graze livestock on federal land, drips throughout Ketcham’s writings – a hallmark of sorts.

Ketcham consistently uses the same sources – sources known for their anti-grazing activism, including Brian and Natalie Ertz of Idaho, the Center for Biological Diversity, and Western Watersheds Project. The result is agenda-driven ranting.

It’s unfortunate that humans in the West are a villain to Ketcham. He’d prefer cow-free, car-free, human-free landscapes. Ketchum can’t see through his own hateful vitriol to the beauty that surrounds him when he visits here.

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily.

Range Writing: Our Public Lands Aren’t Killing Us

in Cat Urbigkit/Column/Range Writing
Your Public Lands Aren't Killing US
A Hereford cow with her newborn calf on private property in Wyoming, with a drilling rig on public land nearby. (Photo credit: Cat Urbigkit)
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By Cat Urbigkit, Range Writing columnist for Cowboy State Daily

I’ve enjoyed several nonfiction books by writer Timothy Egan, including his detailed accounts of the survivors of the Dust Bowl era, and chronicles of the massive wildfire complex that swept through several western states in the early 1900s. Ergo it was with great disappointment that I read his recent New York Times editorial “Your Public Lands Are Killing You.”

I’ve concluded Egan’s opinion piece is an exercise in hyperbole – the deliberate use of extreme exaggeration. It’s unfortunate that naïve members of the public will not recognize Egan’s overuse of literary device and will instead take his assertions literally. As in this case, hyperbole can be used to take a factual grain and twist it into something unrecognizable, whether coming from left-leaning zealots or from right-wing fanatics.

Seattle-based Egan writes of “out in the way beyond” of “a vast kingdom now being used to hasten the demise of the planet.” As a rural resident in Wyoming (our nation’s least populated state), I live in the “way beyond” Egan writes about, but I know that the Big Empty isn’t empty. It is home to thriving human and animal communities. We may have more elk and livestock on the landscape than people, but that’s the way we like it. We are the stewards of America’s public lands.

Public lands: home of national parks and landmarks, forests, mountains, wild rivers, wilderness, historic sites, the sagebrush sea, flowing grasslands, just to name a few characteristics. Some are set aside for protection from development, or place limits on human uses, while others are multiple-use landscapes in which mineral and energy development, logging, and livestock grazing are allowed, along with hiking, biking, camping, hunting, skiing, and other recreational pursuits. This glorious mixture is our national heritage.

The Wind River Mountains serve as the backdrop for a drilling rig on public land in Wyoming.
The Wind River Mountains serve as the backdrop for a drilling rig on public land in Wyoming. (Photo credit: Cat Urbigkit)

The Bureau of Land Management manages one of every 10 acres of land in the United States, including about 30 percent of the nation’s minerals. Public lands provide a quarter of the nation’s domestic supplies of oil and natural gas. Egan asserts that public servants “have been busy giving away drilling rights on your land for next to nothing,” but we know that the BLM’s competitive oil and gas leasing allows the private sector to make deep investments in energy development in oftentimes remote lands that have limited utilization, and that other human use of these areas is not excluded. These investments provide for economic output and employment for local communities and state government budgets, as well as funding to the U.S. Treasury. Public lands are used not just for fossil-fuel energy, but for renewable energy, and non-fuel mineral development.

Competitive oil and gas lease sales are based on lease terms of a minimum of at least $2 per acre. That sounds low, but a review of recent sales in Wyoming shows leases in the $10,000-$12,000 per-acre range. A lease sale in Wyoming last month netted $88 million, according to press accounts, with that revenue split about even between state and federal coffers.

These onshore oil and gas leases are based not just on the annual rental fee that Egan appears to take issue with, but holders of those leases then pay 12.5 percent of production value in royalties, in addition to corporate income taxes and other taxes and fees. That money fuels federal, state and local budgets.

Leases are offered with a variety of restrictions or stipulations and are subject to protests and further environmental analysis before development commences. If exploratory drilling on a lease reveals an economically recoverable field, the cost for preparing an environmental impact statement (which takes years to complete) can be in the range of $3-$8 million before full-field development can proceed. It takes years to develop a lease, and then there are a variety of restrictions, inspections, monitoring, and reclamation that takes place.

A recent US Geologic Survey report (commissioned by the Obama administration) found that fuels produced from federal lands in Wyoming had were responsible for the highest CO2 emissions (57%) from fuels produced on all federal lands, which is no surprise since Wyoming produces so much of the nation’s energy from its federal lands.

Coal-fired power plants are responsible for 60 percent of the nation’s public lands carbon emissions, but since the coal industry has already undergone drastic decline, Egan’s piece focuses instead on the “Trump administration plan to drill till we drop.”

An E&E News piece in Scientific American last fall noted the USGS report “showed emissions peaking around 2009 before decreasing about 6 percent. The Trump administration has overseen a bounce in coal mined on federal lands – but the amount mined in fiscal 2017 was still less than all but one year under Obama .…”

We do need to address global climate change, but hysterical calls that our public lands are killing us create a false narrative. Wyoming is home to what much of the nation holds dear: abundant wildlife populations, breathtaking landscapes, wide open spaces, and places where although the towns may appear to be small, the sense of community is huge. Our public lands are the places outsiders dream about. And it’s these places that also produce energy for our nation.

Productive dialogue, investments and advancements in technology, and addressing energy demand as well as supply are needed. We need to do better in terms of controlling greenhouse gas emissions, and in sustainably utilizing natural resources. We also need energy that people across this nation can afford – being careful that energy policy not further impoverish already underprivileged people.

Egan has joined environmental advocates in calls to halt to oil and gas leasing on federal lands (lest your public lands kill you), but an economical and efficient energy option is not offered in these ploys. Likewise, opposition to David Bernhardt as Interior Secretary sound eerily similar to the “sky is falling” calls when James Watt was appointed to the same position. Egan and his cronies survived Watt, we survived Bruce Babbitt, and I’m confident our western lands, with its Big Empty inhabitants, will survive whatever D.C. throws at us. It’s our nature, as stewards of our heritage.

Cat Urbigkit is an author and rancher who lives on the range in Sublette County, Wyoming. Her column, Range Writing, appears weekly in Cowboy State Daily.

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