Leisl Carr Childers’s book appeared at an opportune moment, just as debates over federal management of western lands roiled the national news. The takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, the armed standoff over grazing rights at Cliven Bundy’s Ranch in Nevada, and the ensuing federal criminal prosecutions highlight the larger critique of federal authority in the West. Two-thirds owned by the federal government and perceived as an unpopulated wasteland that defied Congress’s raft of land disposal acts, the Great Basin is, in Carr Childers’s estimation, the “bellwether for federal land management policy” (p. 7). She explores how “multiple use” emerged in the twentieth century as a way to give the nation’s unclaimed public domain a human purpose, utility, and identity separate from its ecology. This book is not just a primer on land management policies—although it certainly provides outstanding coverage of that—but one deeply rooted in cultural and environmental history, using the tools of oral and public history to trace the intersecting activities of people and their different land uses as these federal policies evolved over time.
Multiple-use management begins with the 1934 Taylor Grazing Act that allowed western ranchers to continue their “accustomed use” of the range without purchase. Having already developed their own water sources and rights, the creation of grazing districts legitimized ranchers’ activities and made the surrounding public range their liminal property. Ranchers reluctantly acceded to the political organization and fees, assuming their accustomed use rights would endure as the activity best suited to these arid lands. At the same time, progressive land managers saw grazing as just one of many possibilities, a stop gap until higher uses (or disposal) of the land occurred. Ranchers, then, assumed an unseen risk in a policy world dictated by different visions of their land and a belief in use for the greater good.