Armed militant Ammon Bundy of Bunkerville, Nevada called for occupying the offices of the Oregon’s Malheur Wildlife National Refuge, to join him in demanding that the US government “release” the public lands it administers. 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 West as 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 sympathy of resistance of a range of militia to Bundy’s elaborately staged event of reclaiming the West was a response to a shifting mental geography of the west: but the extreme violence of reclaiming western lands, as if to restore it to a lost landscape of hunting, trapping, cattle ranching seems a geographic dream so remote from realization to be self-indulgent.
Can 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 mapping California’s disappearing open lands in a more objectively interactive format provide a more clear-eyed ability to track their disappearance? A recent set of interactive maps of The Disappearing West offer the 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 the tools it offers to 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 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.
1. 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 group that lived in the offices of a preserve for birds for month, after intending to occupy the land for a year, evoked 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. Evoking the specters of governmental presence in untarnished lands, Ryan Bundy based his claims to protest the government’s role in the US West in eastern Oregon to “open’ 1.4 million acres of the Malheur National Forest for logging, as if to restore the old rules of the west by exposing an undeveloped forest to forestry, and dismantle the role of National Parks in preserving some more isolated fragments of a once-forested wilderness.
Ammon 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.
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.
2. The diminishing 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 and multiple datasets of different sorts of human activity Conservation Science Partners have analyzed, the Center for American Progress commissioned a striking interactive website of land use, The Disappearing West, as a starting point to 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.
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 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.
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 experiences the loss of a football field of uninhabited lands every 2.5 minutes, and foregrounds a 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. Its flexibility helps viewers take stock of accelerated changes in ways that we have only begun to take stock collectively; indeed, 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. The idolized aspect of a map as a “world/ not of this world” was described affectionately by the Polish poet Wisława Szymborska, which “give no access to the vicious truth,” but the web maps in The Disappearing West expose the degradation created by the scale of its inhabitation–and the vanishing of once open space at a pace equal to the construction of six million superstores in once-Virgin land. Is the Bundy case of the Malheur Refuge a misguided reaction to the disappearance of such once-public lands from the map?
How to map or take measure of the alarmingly rapid shrinking of open lands is difficult and challenging to render. In part, this is only because the scale and rate of their disappearance has been so rapid. The loss of open lands in the region is especially important to map in comparison to the rest of the United States in an era of increased severity of drought–if only to take stock of the shifting patterns of land management that have led to such a massive transformation of the lived landscape. The multiple scales and avenues for exploring and assessing the contraction of open space across the western United States. In the Disappearing West, interactive maps trace the changed landscape from 2001 to 2011 that invite observation at multiple scales. The richly colored web maps try to grasp and appreciate the vast scale at which the conversion of once-open spaces across the western United States over a decade, and the stark remove of the past. The interactive synthesis of levels of development and extra-urban growth help take stock of the tremendous loss of open lands in states, counties, and localities over a decade, each now trackable over time by an interactive slider bar for easy investigation.
The interface with the disappearance of public lands puts one in touch with the departure of the very sort of landscape which motivated Bundy and his friends to imagine they might recover or restore by occupying a wilderness refuge with their guns: sense of navigating an accelerated virtual record of the changing landscape of the west communicates the rapid loss of lands to development traces the extent of lost open spaces difficult to imagine at any scale. They focus not only on land cover, but the disappearance of the open spaces that were once thought of as open lands. Although we can map multiple indices of human impact as being predominantly agricultural, the disappearance of lands to private land development paints a picture of the curtailing of landscapes once thought as innate to the region. The dramatic scope of anthropogenic change is as immense as in the expansion of intrusive sound-levels of human-made noise across lived environment and national parks, or the diminution of sounds of species that remain in what we still call the natural world. The loss of such open spaces are the natural corollary to these anthropogenic shifts–but offer an even more acute register of the loss of once-“natural” habitats in which a range of birds, grazing animals, and insects dwelled, and the transformation of land cover that development has wrought. While strictly analytic as a parsing of a large datasets, the striking color schemes of these web maps raise multiple alarms about the changing land cover of the west and the new landscapes that we increasingly have come to inhabit in a formerly Virgin West.
The change in land cover across the West is challenging to map comprehensively and in adequate detail to convey the change in landscape that has occurred. A compelling visual synthesis of the massive contraction of open spaces over a large area maps the loss of wilderness due to increasing development–largely on private lands–by directing attention to the changing of the landscape of the west, by synthesizing a range of data on the conversion of open lands. The human impact on the lands of western states has so accelerated that the percentages of lost lands have rewritten the landscape over a third of the country, fragmenting open spaces from 2001 to 2011, as the drastic diminution of open lands grew with the expansion on and development of private lands. This development of once-open spaces across the West has mapped a deep transformation present across the memory of a generation.