Pope Francis meets ranchers in the West

Stitching the West Back Together: Conservation of Working Landscapes, edited by Susan Charnley, Thomas E. Sheridan, and Gary P. Nabhan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014)

Stitching the WestTwo recent events in Oregon highlight one of the most complex aspects of public affairs in the American West: the use of public lands so that the people and communities that are most closely related and the land itself will be healthy and productive now and into the distant future.

The occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge by a self-declared militia headed by sons of Cliven Bundy is the more widely publicized of these events. At the center of this debate is the struggle between ranchers who demand unlimited control of grazing rights and a governmental agency that sets limits on how the land is used and charges fees for that use.

Legal action by Linn County Oregon against the State of Oregon is the second event. The county claims that the state has mismanaged Oregon Forest Trust Land and as a result has failed to live up to contracts that provide funds to support basic services such as schools. At issue is whether the state must allow logging to go on forever or if it also has “a duty to protect clean water, fish and wildlife habitat, recreational opportunities and other values held closely by Oregonians” (Kristena Hansen).

As an urban dwell in the Pacific Northwest, I have always been inclined favorably toward parks and wilderness areas controlled by governmental and environmental agencies and against the Bundys, logging companies, and other extractive users of the West. I have rarely given much thought to the complex issues involved.

That is why Stitching the West Back Together is such an important book. It can help people on all sides of these issues develop new and equitable ways of resolving the struggles over land use. The book itself is a collaborative project: Thirty-seven contributors including academics, ranchers, and environmentalists have contributed fourteen chapters, with extensive documentation, resulting in 343 pages of readable narrative. Among its major points, these stand out.

  1. It focuses attention on developing economically viable and environmentally responsible ways of using the natural resources of the West.
  2. It cuts across many of the traditional assumptions and practices and proposes effective ways for people and organizations that usually have fought one another to create new, collaborative ways of achieving their purposes.
  3. It provides a necessary foundation in theory, but consists primarily of case studies from all over the West where new ways of cooperating are now operational.
  4. It offers a vision of a new West in which “working landscapes,” wilderness areas, Native American reservations, and governmental agencies are interrelated in ways that can be continued indefinitely into the future.

One of the central ideas in this book carries the title “the radical center.” It was coined in the mid-1990s by Bill McDonald, a New Mexico rancher, “to describe an emerging consensus-based approach to land management challenges in the U.S. West.” Conflict had “balkanized the West and led to gridlock. Very little progress was made on projects that would provide long-term environmental or social benefits to the region. . . .The radical center movement challenged various orthodoxies of the mid-1990s, including the belief that conservation and ranching were part of a zero-sum game where one’s gains equaled another’s losses” (p. 83).

Earlier this season I read and reviewed Pope Francis’ Encyclical on Climate Change and Inequality: On Care for Our Common Home.” He offers a cogent critique of ways that humankind has abused the earth and are causing its decay and desolation. The Pope implores people to repent and change their ways so that nature can thrive once more and human communities can prosper.

Even readers who are convinced that the Pope is right still face the daunting task of figuring out what to do. As I work my way through Stitching the West Back Together, I have come to realize that this book is the logical sequel to the Encyclical, at least for people in the American West.

Stitching is not theological and it is largely non-ideological and apolitical. It focuses on goals similar to those that Pope Francis espouses: a healthy and happy natural world that supports healthy and happy human communities everywhere. Stitching proposes a methodology for actually achieving those goals.

The central term in the Encyclical is “integral ecology,” which is a vision that is capable of taking into account every aspect of the global crisis and clearly respects all of the human and social dimensions along with the health and fullness of every aspect of the world’s natural life.

It may be too late to use the methods of the vital center to solve the Malheur Refuge and Linn County conflicts, but maybe the ideas they contain can help us avoid similar conflicts in the future.

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