- Revisiting the Radical Middle (What’s Left of It)
We come together as a historian and a literary scholar to consider one of the most complicated, hopeful, and deeply divisive stories in Western American history: that of the creation and maintenance of the public lands. This topic approached us, rather than we it: First, because our region, the Pacific Northwest, is home to some of the most dramatically beautiful and diverse public lands in the world and, second, because our state, Oregon, became a flashpoint for debates about federal land ownership across the nation after the Bundy occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in January 2016. We each have abiding interests in the American West, and, as faculty at a public university, we have deep investments in the notion of a radically inclusive public good—one that we have seen, firsthand, under attack. The questions of how the public lands were created, whether they will survive the reign of deregulation and privatization that has been in play since the 1980s, and whether it is possible to reconcile their existence with painful histories of colonization and racial exclusion are, we feel, central to the greater—and increasingly fragile—project of democracy. Over the past year we have been engaged in what will be a multiyear oral history to learn how Oregonians feel about public lands and the challenges of comanaging them. Here, in three movements, we offer an introduction to a primary concept that our fieldwork suggests: the collaborative management practice of the Radical Middle. We begin with this genealogy in order to consider what the concept and practices of the Radical Middle might teach us today, when common ground seems especially rare and precious, in the West and all across the country. Getting back to an understanding of a [End Page 1] “public” as a site of transparency, mutual listening, accountability, and trust is the essential work of the Radical Middle. Such work precedes and accompanies the creation and management of public lands.
The Radical Middle: Genealogy
The contemporary concept of the “Radical Middle” first emerged in the United States during the early 1990s. Weary of the polarized environmental politics represented on one side by Earth First!, whose motto proclaimed “No compromise in defense of Mother Earth” (Earth First!), and on the other by Sagebrush Rebels, who raged against federal ownership and control of public lands (Cawley), some Westerners blazed a pragmatic third path. They called it variously the “Radical Center,” the “Radical Middle,” or “Eco-Pragmatism,” but what those labels had in common was a desire to move away from dogma and acrimony toward collaborative solutions (Ruhl). Many advocates were inspired by the writings of ecologist Aldo Leopold, who began his illustrious career in the US–Mexico borderlands at the beginning of the twentieth century. In his most famous philosophical treatise, “The Land Ethic,” Leopold observed that we must recognize the interdependence of all life on Earth and develop an ethical relationship to the land. Significantly, Leopold did not view humans as merely a disruptive force in nature but as fully fledged members of the biotic community, albeit with a special responsibility for stewardship, and he argued that effective conservation required collaboration, not just regulation (Leopold 202–04, 207–10; Weisiger 125–26).
Following Leopold’s lead, those who root themselves in the Radical Middle believe that the best ideas emerge when diverse stake-holders share their knowledge, concerns, and hopes in an effort to discover common ground and develop practical solutions to environmental problems. They believe that they cannot rely on legal or political strategies unless—as environmentalist Dan Dagget has pointed out—they elect the “right” politicians “over and over and over again” (Dagget). They believe that those who make a living from the land possess a local knowledge of their ecosystems and that most of them care deeply about the land, which they call home. [End Page 2] They believe that most of those who manage public lands are truly public servants trying their best to administer the public domain for multiple uses (economic, recreational, and spiritual), protect endangered species, and maintain or restore habitats, while beset by...