A Window into the Corruption of Our Public Lands Management Agencies

Twenty five years ago I was working for the Forest Service, on the Pinedale Ranger District of the Bridger-Teton National Forest in western Wyoming doing Wilderness Rangering. The District had gotten a number of complaints about abusive sheep grazing in the southern end of the Wind River Range (Europe Canyon) and I was assigned to go up there and see what was going on. I documented extensive degradation and permit violations. I wrote up an extensive report documenting the violations and handed it in to the District Ranger. It landed in the proverbial ‘circular file’.

From the top of Europe Peak looking down Europe Canyon, Wind River Range
The top of Europe Peak, looking down Europe Canyon, Wind River Range

This was a major shock for me, as up until that time I still was under the innocent/ignorant concept that our federal land management agencies were basically impartially implementing the requirements they are supposed to work under.

This eye opening event changed the direction of my life. Shortly thereafter I left the Forest Service and started watchdogging the agency. In the 20+ years of doing this work, most of what I do revolves directly around exposing and challenging agency corruption.

We have a vast framework of laws, regulations, policies, manuals and handbooks detailing the requirements under which the federal land management agencies are mandated to follow. They are certainly not perfect, but if the agencies complied with this legal framework our public lands and wildlife would be in dramatically better health than what they are in at this point.

Corruption matters and is the basis for a lot of the degradation of our public lands and wildlife. [Editor’s note: This is one in series on the impact of corruption on our public lands and wildlife]

For clarity, I am not arguing that all agency employees are corrupt, and certainly not corrupt in the sense of pocketing money. What I am arguing, and what my experience has been, with extremely limited exceptions, is that the corporate culture within the federal land management agencies is corrupt and the vast amount of the actions/inactions (errors of omission/commission) violate law, regulation, policy and directives, to the detriment of the land and wildlife.

How I characterize this corruption is the agencies are like a kleptomaniac, but they only steal public resources on behalf of someone else.

The source of the corruption is agency capture. The industries that take our public resources, often paying next to nothing for them, run the agencies. The hiring criteria and reward/promotion incentives elevate the sons and daughters of ranchers and rancher wannabee’s along with those from the oil and gas and mining industries because ‘getting out the cut’ is what gets you promoted and doing anything that gets in the way of ‘getting out the cut’ gets you sidelined and/or demoted.

Chris Ketcham discusses agency capture in his 2017 article. More on the corruption of agency capture can be found here and here

Over the last half century or more, there have been a number of writers who have captured the wildlands and wildlife issues of their era. Leopold, Abbey, Foreman and others come to mind.

In the 21st century, one of the books that has most kicked me is Chris Ketcham’s This Land, which is a gripping account of the capture and corruption of our federal land management agencies..

You can read a more thorough review from the LA Times here. And from Outside here.

You can get it in paper, ebook or audio (read by the author) at Randomhouse or Amazon.

While I have never spent time on-the-ground with Chris, many of the stories he tells are issues I have worked directly on. If there is only one book you read this year, I say it should be this one.






  1. Michael Sauber Avatar
    Michael Sauber

    Mike Hudak’s book “Western Turf Wars” also details a good handfull of interviews with many ex agency personnel detailing the lack of action by the agencies and what happens to those who press the issue.

  2. Ted Chu Avatar
    Ted Chu

    PEER’s rangeland health assessment provides a comprehensive look at the scope of malfeasance by the BLM. https://peer.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/03-14-2022-Rangeland-Fact-Sheet.pdf

  3. Tia Athelas Avatar
    Tia Athelas

    The public needs to

  4. Tia Athelas Avatar
    Tia Athelas

    The public needs to demand our lands back from these billionaire welfare ranchers. Every year millions of wild animals are killed by wildlife services in horrendous ways to make room for more cattle. They have no place to live. It makes me sick that my tax dollars are supporting private enterprise. Cattle should be moved OFF public lands; only 2% of cattle are currently grazing on public lands. They are selling most American beef out of the country anyway. Please, I would invite everyone to investigate veganism. Beef is everything that is wrong with the west.

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Jonathan Ratner

Jonathan Ratner has been in the trenches of public lands conservation for nearly 25 years. He started out doing forest carnivore work for the Forest Service, BLM, and the Inter-agency Grizzly Bear Study Team, with some Wilderness Rangering on the Pinedale Ranger District. That work lead him directly to deal with the gross corruption within the federal agencies' range program.

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Jonathan Ratner