(Re)assembling rangelands

Authors: Katie Epstein*, Montana State University
Topics: Cultural and Political Ecology, Economic Geography, Land Use
Keywords: conservation; high-net-worth; amenity transition; American West; ranching; land ownership
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/6/2019
Start / End Time: 1:10 PM / 2:50 PM
Room: Regency Ballroom, Omni, West
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


In 2014, Dan and Ferris Wilks, fracking tycoons and brothers, became the largest landowners in Montana, amassing over 300,000 acres. The acquisition of large agricultural properties by high net worth (HNW) individuals in the American West is not a new phenomenon. However, pattern and scale of current ownership trends associated with worldwide concentrations of wealth encourage critical geographic inquiry. In this paper, we explore the process of transforming large production-base rangelands into sites of amenity-oriented consumption: recreation, aesthetics, wildlife habitat. Drawing on a set of ethnographic explorations in the Greater Yellowstone, we follow Tania Li’s framework for assembling agricultural properties for global investment and trace the various social relations, economic structures, and inscription devices that assemble or ‘make up’ ranches specifically for HNW acquisition. As properties enter and circulate in new land markets, the agricultural ‘rent gap’ widens and incites significant community conflict. At the same time, local conservation communities celebrate HNW 'green grabbing' as justification for open-space and wildlife habitat preservation. Thus, HNW landowners have become highly influential actors in the contested sustainability transitions playing out in rural places, especially in parts of the world noted for their global conservation value. By engaging intentionally with the assembly requisite to HNW land ownership regimes, our goal is to complicate and extend the ongoing debates over the American West’s so-called amenity transition as well as broaden our understanding of the processes, patterns and definitions of global land grabs in the gilded age.

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