Garone on Carr Childers, 'The Size of the Risk: Histories of Multiple Use in the Great Basin'

Leisl Carr Childers
Philip Garone

Leisl Carr Childers. The Size of the Risk: Histories of Multiple Use in the Great Basin. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2015. 328 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8061-4927-1.

Reviewed by Philip Garone (California State University, Stanislaus) Published on H-Environment (April, 2016) Commissioned by David T. Benac

Accommodating Multiple Publics on the Public Domain

In The Size of the Risk, Leisl Carr Childers has provided a timely and nuanced interpretation of the struggles over multiple use on the public lands of the Great Basin, centered in Nevada and western Utah. Public lands, managed primarily by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the US Forest Service, compose more than two-thirds of the Great Basin’s territory, and the use and disposal of the public domain in the region has long been contested. Carr Childers elucidates the long-standing grievances of ranchers in the Great Basin who have felt increasingly beleaguered by expanding notions of multiple use that have infringed upon their traditional grazing and water rights. As the author writes in the introduction, this book is “a study in the ways in which local populations influence and resist, create and reshape national trends on public lands and in how the federal government has worked (or not worked) to accommodate local interests” (p. 7). The study is enriched by considerable archival research as well as extensive oral histories of many of the families directly involved in the controversies over the multiple-use concept, which has expanded during the twentieth century to encompass not only grazing, mining, and lumbering, but also nuclear testing, protection of wildlife and wild horses, and outdoor recreation. In seven chapters, the author layers each of these expansions of the multiple-use concept, and portrays this increasingly complicated landscape in several useful maps.

Carr Childers establishes how multiple use arose as a solution for making productive use of lands that were thinly or not yet settled, largely because of their perceived limited economic value. Ranching dominated the Great Basin from the 1880s, commensurate with the removal of part of the Northern Paiute and Western Shoshone tribes to the Pyramid Lake and Duck Valley reservations. During the 1920s, a series of laws and a judicial decision in Nevada established firmer state government control over the range, even while establishing vested water rights for ranchers that suggested an alternative form of land ownership short of outright title. The federal Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, passed during the drought of the early 1930s as a means of regulating public range lands, called for the establishment of grazing districts and required the payment of grazing fees. The act “legitimated public lands ranching until those lands could be settled” (p. 17), but ranchers in the Great Basin resented this intrusion--as they viewed it--into their long-established use of the public domain. By the time the last Nevada grazing district was formed in 1951, the federal government was driven by a different motivation, the protection of its newly established nuclear testing program at the Nevada Proving Ground. For those living from one hundred to three hundred miles from the test site at Frenchman Flat, atomic scientist Enrico Fermi estimated that there was only a 1 percent probability that 1 percent of the population would receive a radiation dose similar to that of the Trinity test. Fermi called this “the size of the risk,” from which the book draws both its title and its framework for assessing the overall cost borne by Great Basin residents as they tried to adapt to a multiple-use framework. Ranchers became concerned when exposure to radioactive fallout caused skin sores and loss of hair in their livestock, and a rift opened between scientific experts and ranchers in the region, many of whom came to believe that every new multiple use would cause them harm.

Ranchers found their “customary use” of the range threatened by the institutionalization of multiple use by the BLM and USFS during the 1960s and 1970s, a concept that would incorporate not only traditional users of the public domain, but also conservation advocates and recreation enthusiasts. A decade-long attempt to establish Great Basin National Park in eastern Nevada pitted recreationists, the White Pine County Chamber of Commerce, and the National Park Service against those who held grazing permits and mining claims in the area. The proposal fell apart in 1966 over the incompatibility of the preservationist mission of the National Park Service with multiple-use requirements, and the park was not established until 1986.

In two fascinating final chapters about the oscillating status of wild horses in the West, Carr Childers clearly lays out how the movement to protect wild horses on the range resulted in another hardship imposed on Great Basin ranchers. Both the BLM and the Forest Service considered wild horses to be the most destructive of the grazing animals and had long sought their removal from public lands; the horses directly competed against cattle, sheep, and wildlife and thus posed a liability to ranchers. Furthermore, wild horses were classified as livestock, and ranchers resented the fact that their presence on the range reduced the size of grazing permits. The dynamics of wild horse removal changed, however, as the public came to object to the often cruel practices used to round up wild horses. Under the leadership of Velma Johnston, and with the support of wild horse protection associations, the movement morphed beyond criticism of inhumane practices to disapproval of removing and killing wild horses in general. The passage of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act in 1971 integrated wild horses into the multiple-use framework, but the BLM has struggled to find a middle ground that satisfies both the ranchers and the horse advocates, and each group has become increasingly entrenched in its position.

The book concludes on a hopeful note that the 2008 designation of the National System of Public Lands by the Department of the Interior may help make more legible the public lands managed by the BLM. By rethinking the identity and utility of public lands, Carr Childers suggests that we can perhaps “take a step toward recalculating the size of the risk” (p. 219). This would surely be an improvement over the current fractious state of affairs on the Western range.

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Citation: Philip Garone. Review of Carr Childers, Leisl, The Size of the Risk: Histories of Multiple Use in the Great Basin. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. April, 2016. URL:

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