If it weren’t 432 pages long—and I’m glad it is—it might someday find a place in the back pockets of militant environmentalists as they chain themselves to bulldozers, road graders, and mining machines. Part reportage, part history, part backcountry travelogue, the book is full of righteous anger and reverence for wild spaces. It is a polemic meant to incite ... Ketcham writes about these landscapes with grace and deep attention ... filled with dense references to federal agencies and environmental policy, but Ketcham skillfully deploys a parade of colorful characters to keep the narrative moving through history, analysis, and the occasional rant ... My least favorite thing about This Land is Ketcham’s occasional tendency to follow in Edward Abbey’s footsteps and subject us to a bit of macho bravado ... I also wish This Land had wrestled more intently with the fact that much of America’s public domain is derived from the violent and illegal theft of indigenous lands ... All in all, though, Ketcham has done a great service for the environmental movement. He bears witness to the terrible scars that disfigure the public lands, he illustrates the ecological and social importance of such lands, and he proposes radical changes.
Christopher Ketcham’s important book...is an urgent cry to expose the greed, stubbornness and neglect that is harming public lands. Journalist and wanderer, Ketcham has written a psalm to nature and a manifesto to stop the forces that are threatening a territory that stretches from Colorado to the Pacific Coast ... Ketcham is a passionate guide. He can be polemical and overheated. But he is righteous and poetic when he writes about places like the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah, where the walls in Paradise Gulch 'rise sheer, cream pink, tall as sky' ... Ketcham embodies the fervor of past environmentalist writers, including Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire and Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. He is itinerant, tracing the tack of rivers and the edges of cliffs. His book forces readers to consider how beauty can be spoiled even in the outreaches of the West. Such violation, he warns, will wound land and soul, and betray a nation’s promise to its citizens.
The truth is, Abbey wrote of the white man’s West, and when Ketcham treats the public lands as a playground where 'a man is so free' and can 'sling an arrow, climb a tree, build a hut out of sticks, roam like the aboriginal tribes of the continent…' he effectively repeats those shortcomings. Public lands have always provided a playground for white men, and the creators of these domains, like John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt, actually sought as much. What’s missing in Ketcham’s story, then, are the tales of dispossession and expulsion of Native peoples, and the conservationist fears about 'vanishing' races that first premised the creation of the public lands in the first place ... Ketcham’s searing, sharp prose, though, still makes This Land one of the best exposes on the public lands in recent memory. Now and in the future, the public needs more books like this one, in part because the federal domain harbors more than just livestock — it contains some of the largest fossil fuels reserves in the world. Ketcham’s focus on big-time ranchers and Wildlife Services misses the opportunity to make the connection between the public lands and the climate crisis, but several candidates in the Democratic primaries, at least, are promising to issue moratoriums on fossil-fuel extraction. This is crucial, because the scandal and corruption in the public lands has been sustained over the years by liberal apathy on 'western' issues.