- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 29, 2004


By Terry L. Anderson and Peter J. Hill

Stanford University Press, $24.95, 250 pages


In 300 years the American West has progressed from wilderness to Wal-Mart. In terms of human history, that short span of fast development could only have been accomplished through much demographic pushing and shoving.

Terry Anderson and Peter Hill’s “The Not So Wild, Wild West: Property Rights on the Frontier” is a good historical primer for dispelling the West’s popular myths, and telling the true story of a region once described by the Western historian Bernard DeVoto as a “plundered province.”

Perhaps the first example of a Western property-rights conflict resulted from the introduction of the horse to the Great Plains from Mexico. As the indigenous tribes became mounted one after another, a continuous intertribal warfare developed that pushed the weaker ones off prime buffalo range.

This “equestrian revolution” of 1680-1750 not only increased nomadism, but also brought relative prosperity, as birthrates rose, teepee sizes doubled due to the availability of buffalo hides, and a dependable food supply was established.

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s explorations at the dawn of the 19th century opened the West to the Fur Trade Era (1807-1840), what Mr. Anderson and Mr. Hill call a “rapacious, short-term exploitation,” one that “suggests that property rights or the lack thereof was the primary cause.”

The territorial “beaver men” (Jim Bridger, Kit Carson, et al.) of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company competed with the British Hudson Bay Company and numerous small-scale entrepreneurs, only in the end to be supplanted by John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company.

By then the trade was in decline as changing fashions in the East rejected fur for silk in the making of men’s hats, and also for the simple reason that Western trappers had brought the beaver to the brink of extinction.

The 1850s California Gold Rush was the first example of the expropriation of Western land on a large scale. Thousands of small mining claims peppered the Sierra Nevada foothills and — gold being gold — resulted in much murder and mayhem.

In a few short years California went from the bucolic sun-kissed paradise of colonial Mexican rule to an American “theater of tragic events,” as the population soared from 14,000 in 1848 to a quarter million by 1853.

Of the latter number, 100,000 were miners. To this day the hillsides of the California “gold country” bear the permanent scars of hydraulic mining, where water was diverted from streams to move massive amounts of earth.

Water has always been a bone of contention among Westerners. Mark Twain famously quipped: “Whiskey’s for drinking; water’s for fighting over.” A simple climatological fact is that mean annual precipitation west of the 100th meridian (a longitudinal line running from North Dakota south to Texas) falls below 20 inches, making conventional agriculture problematic.

We know this thanks to explorer and surveyor John Wesley Powell’s 1879 “Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States.” In this report to the U.S. Congress, Powell recommended that the 1862 Homestead Act should be amended from 160 acres per settler to 2,560 acres (four square miles), the reason being that 160-acre tracts weren’t enough to make a living on, especially in drought years, and many settlers wouldn’t be able to “prove up” (make definite improvements) and eventually hold title to the land.

Powell also recommended that settlers be given more of a say in local water management, and warned against creating large, bureaucratic federal irrigation districts. And he advised that future Western states be created using natural watersheds and mountain ranges as boundaries.

The politically partisan nature of government meant that these warnings wouldn’t be heeded, leaving us with the “colonial” West that we know today.

At any rate, irrigation is necessary to water the West, and therefore water must be impounded in reservoirs, requiring dams, the bane of modern-day Western environmentalists.

The Bureau of Reclamation was inaugurated in 1902, and began a decades-long dam-building program that has left few of the West’s rivers undammed.

Today, approximately 600 dams provide water storage, recreation and hydropower for 65 million Westerners. For example, cities such as Las Vegas and Phoenix would be uninhabited without the Colorado River reservoirs.

Besides water, the other great Western conundrum was the land itself. After the Indian wars, the Great Plains of the 1870s and ‘80s saw the era of the “open range,” with ranchers driving herds of Texas cattle to the railheads in wild “cowtowns” like Abilene and Dodge City, Kan.

Ranches sprang up as far away as Montana, the herds grazing a vast landscape. There was bound to be conflict resulting from the aforementioned passage of the Homestead Act, which encouraged Eastern-style agriculture.

Bloody “range wars” broke out as open-range cattlemen resisted the “sod busters” and their barbed-wire-enclosed farms, which hindered free-roaming cattle. The farmers’ sheer numbers ensured they would eventually prevail.

Today, the West has evolved into America’s most urbanized region, in that the majority of Westerners live in cities surrounded by millions of acres of federal land. It is also the country’s fastest-growing region. The decline of agriculture, ranching and the extractive industries (logging, mining, etc.) has given the West a distinct service economy of lower-wage jobs that caters to its continuing growth, and reliance on tourism.

Such a West is a wreck — politically, culturally and economically — thanks to glacially-operating federal bureaucracies and the legal machinations of radical environmentalists.

In “The Not So Wild, Wild West,” Mr. Anderson and Mr. Hill give us a realistic look at a region that has always captured the American imagination, yet the truth behind it has always been stranger than the fiction.

So much for the myth of the American West.

Bill Croke is a writer in Cody, Wyo.

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