Public lands are one of the defining elements of the American West. They make up nearly half of the land mass of the 11 Western states. And these lands bring westerners together — for recreating, for making a living, for sharing a common landscape and way of life.
The West is a land of wide-open spaces that have long faced a host of issues: water rights, conservation issues, preservation v. development, and many more. And in order to understand the modern issues facing the West, it’s helpful to know how we got here.
Read these 5 books to understand the past, present and future of the American West:
Leave It As It Is: A Journey Through Theodore Roosevelt’s American Wilderness by David Gessner
Theodore Roosevelt had a huge impact on how the United States approaches conservation and public lands, and in a lot of ways spurred the modern-day environmental movement. When he became President in 1901, he established the U.S. Forest Service, 150 national forests, 5 national parks, and 18 national monuments — essentially setting the stage for the modern West we’re familiar with today. But what’s refreshing about this book in particular is that it doesn’t place TR on a pedestal. It looks at his whole legacy, good and bad, how we’re still feeling the effects today, and how his use of the Antiquities Act contrasts to Trump’s use of the Act to reduce Bears Ears and Grand Staircase—Escalante.
Losing Eden: An Environmental History of the American West by Sara Dant
Many of the Western issues taking place today — land use, drought, conservation, market capitalism, etc. — aren’t new issues, they’re ones we’ve been grappling with since American settlers moved West. And understanding the origins of these issues gives us great context for how they’ve evolved into the present day.
This book is worth reading alone for its deconstruction of a popular & persistent American myth: that public lands were set aside to conserve uninhabited, pristine wilderness. In reality, the West has never been an undiscovered “Eden,” but a place where humans have lived, altered, and managed the land for thousands of years. Native Americans were forcibly removed from landscapes when public lands were first designated, and yet the myth of an unspoiled Western paradise continues to be most Americans’ perspective of Western lands.
Downriver: Into the Future of Water in the West by Heather Hansman
John Wesley Powell got it right way back in the 1800s: you can’t talk about the West without talking about aridity. Water issues are some of the most interesting, relevant, and complex problems facing the West today. But here’s the thing: most books about water issues are confusing and make your eyes glaze over. Enter Heather Hansman.
In Downriver, Heather Hansman explains the West’s water issues in a way that’s understandable and entertaining, providing just enough detail to address how complex these problems really are while remaining interesting for readers that aren’t familiar with the topic. As she paddles down the Green River from the Wind River Range of Wyoming to the Colorado River in Canyonlands National Park, Hansman crafts an adventure story rich with different perspectives to water problems. This is a great jumping-off point if you want to understand the future of water in the West.
Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West by Hampton Sides
Here’s the problem with most history books: they’re super dry with too much attention to detail and don’t have enough plot or pacing to keep turning the pages. Blood and Thunder is different. This narrative non-fiction book is both interesting and packed with information all about the settlement of the American West.
The book centers around Kit Carson, a nearly-mythologized, larger-than-life mountain man of the West, but is more broadly about American settlers moving into the Southwest in the mid-1800s. I was surprised how little I knew about this time period and America’s dark history of killing and removing both Native Americans and Mexicans all in the name of the Manifest Destiny.
That Wild Country: An Epic Journey through the Past, Present, and Future of America’s Public Lands by Mark Kenyon
Public lands have suddenly become a top-level issue in American politics. Having a book like this - a deep dive that's fun to read and educational - is super useful. Public land has always been interesting and controversial, and this book is a great primer on their rich history and their contentious, modern-day relevance.
Know of another book that you think should be included in this list? Tell us below in the comments!