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Sustainable visions

Kemmis' treatise on the New West misses on key points

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Back when Dan Kemmis was the mayor of Missoula, my first impression of him was that of a kindly, silver-haired, gentleman elder. He often spoke about community at public gatherings, with a warmth I found unusual from a politician. Resolution between disparate sides in community conflicts was a goal he never seemed to tire of speaking about. Dan Kemmis’s book, This Sovereign Land: A New Vision for Governing the West, pays homage, once again, to his seemingly boundless faith in the common citizens’ ability to resolve disputes, no matter how wide the abyss that divides them.

The first half of the book is a history, tracing the development of the governing agencies that manage the public lands of the United States. Kemmis outlines Jefferson’s essentially imperial acquisition, and subsequent exploration, of the Louisiana Territory. He moves on to discuss Theodore Roosevelt’s establishment of the U.S. Forest Service under the direction of Gifford Pinchot, which set in place the centralized, “nationalist” system of land management that we know today. As with Jefferson, Roosevelt’s establishment of the public lands was, essentially, empire building.

This history provides a springboard into the second half of the book: a proposal, and pseudo-justification, for the “devolution” of public lands management, from a highly centralized, “nationalist” structure (represented by the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management), to a decentralized, globally-oriented structure (based in “collaborative, regional decision-making”). To illustrate this, Kemmis builds for the reader his vision of Canaan: heroic “Westerners” living consciously within the mandates of the land itself, managing public lands in harmony with each other, guided by a deep and abiding earth wisdom.

Kemmis’s optimism is undaunted by contradictions on the ground in western communities. Most westerners do not live in deep relation to the land. Most know little of biology, much less how to live in a functionally balanced relationship with diverse biotic communities. Most spend longer hours in front of their television sets and driving to the mall than they do celebrating, with soft footfalls, the deeply resounding rhythms of the planet. Even those with a deep concern for the preservation and defense of our remaining wildlands tend to leave the hard work to advocacy and activist organizations, supporting them with much needed dollars more than with voluntary participation. These elements do not disturb the reverie of Kemmis’ vision, because they are never considered.

Beyond a few scattered examples of “collaborative efforts,” Kemmis justifies his optimism about the future success of “collaborative land management” primarily by laying a philosophical blanket of Jeffersonian democracy over his subject, rather than by a rigorous sifting of present-day facts. If corporations exist in his new-age culture, Kemmis ignores them. He trades scholarly inquiry for tautology, covering omissions of facts with repetitive statements of opinion. Toward the end of the book, Kemmis broaches, for the first time, the subject of corporate chicanery: “It would be naïve to think that corporate exploiters are not still poised to take whatever advantage they can of any devolutionary [land-management] proposal.” Yet in the next sentence, he waves off this newfound concern as insignificant, with a glossed assumption about global economics. “The fact is that the West’s competitive advantage in the global economy does not center on exploitative resource extraction,” he explains. “No place on earth is better positioned than the American West to serve as the world’s classroom in sustainability. And the world will be willing to pay a good price for a good education.” How he expects “the West” to develop or enforce a “regional strategy” while resource extractive corporations (able to create their own self-serving laws under the auspices of the World Trade Organization) are breathing down their necks is difficult to imagine.

Axiomatic reasoning often replaces factual justifications in Kemmis’ holographic dreamscape. The Forest Service is a tired and inefficient agency of “imperial” governance over public lands, he insists. Therefore, it will be replaced by management structures more amenable to the global economy. Westerners continue to raise the issue of local sovereignty over public lands, he states. Their resentments prove they are ready to begin the capable management of the public trust. Kemmis’ new culture manages the quantum leap from gas-guzzling, megaconsumers to new-age yeoman farmers, ranchers and land managers, thanks to the unnamed necessities of “global economic competition.”

It seems that politicians learned a long time ago that there’s no point in telling the people what you’re really planning to do when you can get more cooperation out of them by giving them a rosy dream to hold onto. While this may not be Kemmis’ intention, nonetheless, this book fits nicely in that tradition. I don’t mean to be glib. The fact is, I like and respect Dan Kemmis. I even like his vision of a popularly democratic management of public lands, based on communities, watersheds, landmasses and bioregions. We are a far cry from the vision, and I fear a nightmare precedes it. I believe Kemmis is sincere in his hopes for a bioregionally sustainable future for the people of the west. Nevertheless, I do not trust the politics behind this presentation of his vision. The omission of corporations from the history he relates, his unwillingness to speak openly about the amoral, profit-driven nature of corporate policy-making, and particularly his glossed commentary on the imminent, golden age of globalism, smacks of the booster for 21st century global economy.

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