Monthly Archives: May 2016

Disappearing Open Spaces across the American West

In the visualization of land conversion map in the header to this post, cities like Denver, San Francisco, and Salt Lake City haunt the transformation of landcover across the western United States, as the place-names haunt the five-color map that denote the scope of an absence of open space.  From each city, expanses of red leach into the landscape, spreading outwards along patterns of settlement in ways that seem to infect the adjoining counties to register how development cascades to surrounding regions.  The image shows the reduction of once-open spaces with the dramatic pace of extra-urban expansion in most western states, whose absence seems to haunt the region that we once knew as the American West, and are departed from it.

The dynamic maps suggest a poetics of loss, both qualitatively objective and evocative of the disappearance of a landscape that no longer exists.  Increasingly elegant interactive data visualizations help orient viewers to a changed relation to the landscape of the west over the past twenty years, and the disappearance of what was once a notion of wilderness that have so dramatically retreated over increasingly active real estate markets and dynamics of expansion that allowed such pronounced extra-urban growth over a short period of time.  The subject of the maps is not only difficult to process, but complex to navigate over time:  if the use of a slider bar helps orient oneself, it also raises question of the historical implications of such a broad retreat of open spaces across western states.  If the Old West seems a fixed chronotype to some, it may be that mapping the retreat of open spaces can provide a lens to chose our Romantics, or map the nature of our Romantic tie to the retreating spaces of the past and its landscapes.

But how best to read the landscape that lies beneath them, and the changed experience of the landscape they seek to describe?  The stark colors of the data visualization cannot but suggest a romantic relation to place, marked by the disappearance of formerly open lands, and suggestive of a deep change over few years.  The multiple levels of time that the maps of The Disappearing West, a web-based map offering ultiple datasets of different sorts of human activity presented by Conservation Science Partners and the Center for American Progress.   The elegantly interactive website of land use, showing incursions of open spaces in alarmist red, provide a way to take stock of existing changes and the dizzying pace of the disappearance of opens spaces that may even be cognitively helpful, as the scale of such changes are so difficult to process.  The opportunity to examine change on different scales and over time, by use of a slider bar, provide a basis for coming to terms with the increasingly irrevocable rapidity of such changes, and indeed with the inevitable melancholy of the departure of the known world of the past, but provide a deep and irrevocable sense of how our own ability to observe the western landscape is in the process of irrevocable change.

 

1.  Such a sense of irrevocable change was quite violently tried to be stopped when the self-designated cowboy when the out-of-state vigilante Ammon Bundy summoned like-minded ranchers who inhabit another region of the same landscape in Nevada.  He summoned the ranchers who viewed themselves as rightful residents of a faded land so that they could seize public lands in Oregon’s Malheur Wildlife Refuge, without justification, but to assert their imagined rights to open lands.  In garrisoning one outpost of the wildlife sanctuary, without much regards to its use, they sought to stake claims to their rights to a rapidly departing map.  Their reaction–but one of many to the disappearing west–suggest a point of beginning to see how we might better come to terms with the acceleration of the loss of open spaces over time, and the problems of mapping them onto the region’s powerful spatial imaginary.

For in misguidedly hoping to occupy the refuge’s offices until the United States government “release” any claims to the public lands it has long administered, they seemed to act in hopes to reclaim a landscape increasingly fragmented by overdevelopment and forever altered.  As open spaces of the Old West disappear, the staying power of the  mental imaginary of open lands have created a tension palpable enough for Bundy and his followers to view federal protection of pubic lands as unjust, and armed with a sense of reclaiming a lost landscape for hunting, they aggressively reclaimed a myth of a sacred relation to the land that they might experience to use firearms freely without impunity in open spaces, and eager to recast protections of public lands as if they were primarily individual restrains.

As if to stage claims to a disappearing west, Bundy sought to reclaim them for ranching and hunting from a very local point of view, resisting a disappearance of the fabled “open lands” that once defined the imaginary of the West for Ammon Bundy, the son of a Nevada rancher.  Bundy and his fellows railed against the government, invoking hopes to restore the conditions of the west, as if removing governmental presence would let a wilderness reserve to revert to wilderness by liberating it from alleged government control:  his anti-government animus was evident in his earlier defense of the right of his father, Nevada rancher Cliven, to refuse to pay grazing fees of federal lands.  Ammon encouraged a 41-day armed occupation of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in January, 2016 to defend local claims on a national stage–although his anti-government stance was more apparent than his appreciation for the historical loss of open lands across the extent of the western states.

The outpouring of sympathy of resistance of a range of militia to Bundy’s elaborately staged reclaiming the West was a response to a shifting mental geography of the west.  But the bizarrely misplaced response of such extreme violence among the Bundy and their followers in the name of reclaiming western lands seemed to act as if it was possible to restore it to a lost landscape of hunting, trapping, cattle ranching seems a geographic dream.  If the maps were in their heads, it was so remote from realization to be self-indulgent.  Might the interactive format of a web-based map provide a more clear-eyed way of taking account of the rapid decline of open lands across the western United States?  Can interactive data mapping of California’s rapid loss of open lands in an interactive format provide a more clear-eyed ability to track their disappearance?

A recent set of two-decade old change in The Disappearing West offer an opportunity to assemble and investigate data on the drastic reduction of public lands and extent of extra-urban growth across the west that seems particularly timely as a way to chart the rapid pace of landcover change in the West in relation to the Bundy brothers’ ill-conceived attempt to the back a mythic relation to the land.  The graphic tools it offers call attention to the loss of open lands in our national interior.  Indeed, the increased current dangers of dismantling the public custody of remaining open lands may make the website a valuable tool of visualizing and taking stock of the extent of their reduction in recent years–and raise questions about the best ways for preventing their disappearance.

For the dangers to the western lands lie in fact less with the invasiveness of public governments or the extent of government land-holding in western states than the true value of their custodial role in preserving needed habitat and open spaces–the commons of the wilderness, if you will–that are increasingly endangered or lost.  The imagined spatial geography that the Bundy clan sought to defend has long vanished, but Ammon and his brother Ryan held a spatial imaginary nourished in a landscape where federal policy, rather than local development, threatens the landscape of the west. Much as their father, Cliven, had evoked the former freedom of a once open lands of the western states once known as the “public domain,” the retaking of a federal wildlife reserve seemed a theatrical reenactment of federal lands as if a wildlife refuge constituted a last stand for defending his family’s rights.

The vigilante group illegally occupied offices of a preserve for birds for month, after intending to remain for a year.  They did so in their desire to affirm a departed west, but acted somewhere between a costume party and organized terrorism in a poorly conceived defense of the Second Amendment, dressed in cowboy hats and attracting the support of anti-government militias at whose rallies Ammon Bundy and his brother Ryan announced plans to occupy the refuge’s unoccupied offices on the first days of 2016, inviting armed men to sieze them to defend the idea of access to an idea of wilderness long vanished for most.   The range of objects sent to them–many including sex toys that made fun of staging claims to masculinity in an isolated cabin–underscored the futility of hoping for a restoration of a rancher’s sense of the wild, by hopes to “open’ 1.4 million acres of the National Forest for logging, conjuring specters of governmental presence in untarnished lands to protest the government’s role in the US West.  Their bid to renew the old rules of the western lands by exposing an undeveloped forest to forestry, challenging how the National Parks have preserved remaining isolated areas of a once-forested expanse of wilderness, suggest the need to gain purchase on the scale of the expansion of paved landcover and property development across the western United States.

 

 

Screen Shot 2016-10-28 at 11.27.22 AM.pngAmmon and Ryan Bundy/Oregon Public Broadcasting

 

While their protests were misguided, the Bundy brothers seized state facilities as if they were their natural rights,  bulldozing new roads in the refuge, and attracting the attention and support of local libertarian militia until they were arrested as if protesting the death of an earlier rural America and of the once-open west through the issue of federal land-ownership.  But the problems of public management of lands have little to do with the disappearance of open spaces across the western United States, if the Bundys sought to defend their ability to graze animals, hunt, camp and live in open lands increasingly curtailed in most of the United States, and even in the western states where few opens spaces remain, but where residents were long attracted to the freedom of their open space and ready to defend what they saw as the impending encroachment on common lands, and lacked much objective relation to the deep exclusion that they felt.

 

image-1.jpegRick Bowmer/AP

 

2.  The loss of open spaces from Arizona to Oregon are far less the result of government policies than the rapid overdevelopment of western lands, and although the spatial imaginary of the Bundy and his followers directed much of their animus to the United States government, they responded to the rapid contraction of the notion of “public lands” that have changed the very image of open space across the western states, which Bundy seems only to understand–quite misguidedly–in terms of the federal policies of land management.  If the notion of “the commons” has long departed from the American West, the image of those commons and rolling plains has been far more compromised and challenged by the rapidity of land conversion due to public development and the rapidity of extra-urban growth, which Bundy from the perspective of his father’s ranch may not see–and may even only be able to be entertained from a site such as the Wildlife Refuge where he and his followers holed up and presented the demand that the “federal government will relinquish such control” of the national forest it maintains in a role of stewardship, and allow “ranchers . . .  kicked out of the area [to] come back and reclaim their land.”

The imagined intergenerational transmission of property rights in regions never open for ranching could be alleged to be “in accordance with the [U.S.] Constitution, which is the supreme law of the land,” but the desperate vigilante action was a power-play for national attention with little sustainable logic–especially given the scale at which open lands were lost to private development across the west.  Whether the image of the “Oregon Territory” inspired Bundy and his crew, privately held lands (light blue) dominate Oregon far more than the small bits of National Wildlife Refuge (brown) lying in Eastern Oregon–yet Bundy alleged his case lies outside of government jurisdiction, summoning a misguided notion of natural rights to defend his personal right to the land.

 

Oregon.pngLand Ownership in Oregon/Mark Green

 

3.  The accelerated diminishing of green space across much of the Western United States has rapidly rewritten a landscape of once-open lands.  Such rapid curtailing of open spaces, as much as revealing a change in land cover, has deeply altered the local experience of the very landscape and fragmented wildlife habitat in ways challenging to map-so radically have deep changes altered our experience of its landscape on the once-virgin west through the rapid change of once-rural lands.  With over a hundred million acres lost to modification by humans, a decade of satellite imagery of land cover over eleven western states, the interactive maps The Disappearing West offer a starting point to explore, survey and take stock of the scale of massive environmental changes created by an ongoing collective redefinition of how we have come to inhabit the new landscape of the American west.  Indeed the interactive timeline tracking urban expansion and landcover change offers a different ethic relation to how land ownership has led to the dramatic curtailment of formerly open space.

The progressive development of the landscape over a decade is difficult to comprehend.  But the streaming of this data into multiple layers, superimposed on each state, counties, and urban areas allows foregrounded layers of the map to jump out at viewers in particularly effective ways.  They help parse  the eleven western states that fills 165,000 square miles of landscape–a change in land cover equal to the construction of parking lots for six million superstores, and at an annual rate of an area almost as great as the footprint of the entire metropolitan area of Los Angeles–and far greater than the footprint of New York City, according to US Census records of the loss of natural lands used by Conservation Science Partners–to create a virtual profile of land conversion in an area that is increasingly fragmented by road, as once roadless areas are exposed to development.  The rapid nature of such anthropogenic change has been to some overshadowed by intensity of drought and of global warming, but distances the land in a terrifyingly definitive way as the region’s open spaces are increasingly segmented by roads and transportation routes.  But it has brought a fragmentation of open landscapes, driven by the expansion of roadways, overdevelopment and competition for limited resources, that have parcellized whatever protected open lands indeed remain.

 

land conversion

 

The web maps focus on a uniquely revealing index of the human footprint, rather than cities, or jurisdictional lines, to suggest the extent of how we are re-writing a relation to the land.  They aim to comprehend the loss of land over time a region that is reduced by a football field of uninhabited lands every 2.5 minutes.  The map is an attempt to depict the scale of this vanishing landscape, by a detailed record of the scale of the contraction of open lands that one can zoom to local levels, against which cities and regional names float in ghostly way, as if it describes the changes that underly a simple road map of place-names and individual states.

How can we read this record of disappearing space, save as the emergence of a new set of attitudes to the land?  Its flexibility helps take stock of accelerated changes in ways that we have only begun to take stock collectively; the maps force us to come to terms with the scale of recent “development” of open lands in ways that have been rarely so effectively or dramatically synthesized in one site, and our increased power to comprehend and try to come to terms with the disappearance of an older landscape that was the focus of such romantic attachment,–and the rate of the recession of that imagined past.

The visualization that can be examined over time and in such striking local detail affords a basis for imagining the terrifying scale of anthropogenic change across the west, with all its attendant problems of wildlife conservation.

 

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Filed under American West, Conservation Sciences, Czeslaw Miłosz, Mapping California, wilderness