But in a short time, the mountain men and buffalo hunters and loggers rolled over this alleged vastness.
Now comes a new group of dreamers: the cattle-free movement. It believes sprawl can never conquer the West's million square miles.
The flagship of this movement is a gorgeous coffee-table book, Welfare Ranching, edited by George Wuerthner and Mollie Matteson. The book is filled with essays by various writers, including the late Ed Abbey, but its heart is photo after photo of devastated grassland: gullies and washes that were once narrow and vegetation-lined streams; eroding and slumping hillsides; cobbled and bare land that was once grass-covered. There's a lot of land to take photos of: Eighty-five percent of the federal land managed by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management is grazed. That's 406,000 square miles. Another estimated 170,000 square miles of private rangeland is attached to the public grazing lands. Together, 21,000 public-land ranchers use 576,000 square miles of land.
As this land goes, so will go the 1 million-square-mile West.
This land is going somewhere. Ranchers have been on short rations and hard times since the beginnings of the Anglo West, but never more so than now. They are an aging group, and about half of the public-land ranchers work off the ranch. If they don't come to ranching with a fortune, they usually just squeeze by.
For some, it's the only life they know. But most stick to it because it's a job that is also their play. That is part of what brings them into such fierce conflict with their fellow recreationists: the cattle-free people.
The conflict is bitter. Welfare Ranching may be filled with photos of scraped land, but the cover photo is of a healthy-looking grass-sage meadow, with an overweight rancher riding a four-wheeler away from a herd of cows. A photo of unattractive land has been foregone to show an unattractive person. All is fair in love and class warfare.
The cattle-free movement is small but fierce. Among those pitted against it are reformers, some of whom are ranchers, like the Malpai Borderlands Group, which want its industry to change, and some of whom are environmentalists, like The Nature Conservancy, which believes ranching is better for habitat and wildlife than development.
Welfare Ranching takes on the reformers by showing a few spectacular photos of beat-up Nature Conservancy and Malpai land. TNC and Malpai say the photos are miscaptioned. But correctly labeled or not, photos don't tell much. A denuded stream in the book may be in recovery, or may be getting worse, or may have been created last week by a 100-year flood. The land is complex, changeable, hard to read. A photo series over years, combined with vegetative surveys, tells something. Welfare Ranching's photos are anecdotes - telling stories but not giving a complete picture.
But based largely on photos, the book maintains that no time should be lost in removing livestock from the public's land. Once the cows are gone, the book and the associated cattle-free movement argue, the vegetation and wildlife will come back. The land will "rewild."
The book's essayists are able to believe in "rewilding" because they maintain a tight focus. These romantics don't worry about what other interests might move onto the public land once ranchers are gone. They ignore the fact that ranchers are often environmentalists' only allies in the fight against coalbed methane and off-road vehicles.
Nor do the authors worry about science. They do not cite the only major study that has assessed the health of the West's grazed public land as a whole. In the early 1990s, a scientific panel set up by the National Academy of Sciences surveyed the literature and in 1994 reported that it was impossible to determine whether the range was stable, deteriorating or improving. The studies simply do not exist.
Nor does the book cite the studies that show recreation is more harmful than ranching. Even hiking trails drive off neotropical birds and other sensitive wildlife, leaving us with cowbirds and jays and deer. Recreation creates more threatened and endangered species than ranching.
Finally, the writers do not mention the tide of ecological reform that is moving through the public-land ranching community.
One reason for the single-mindedness of the cattle-free movement is the personal bitterness created by history. For a century, ranchers and the West's elected officials ran the federal lands as if they were privately owned, located in a separate nation called The West. When new people came West, they denied us our rights as citizens. And they used their political power to subvert the laws that should have protected the health of the land. Relicts of that lawless era are not hard to find.
Grazing foe Jon Marvel's Western Watersheds Project just won a legal case against public-land ranchers in Idaho's spectacular Owyhee country, southwest of Boise. The BLM had never required that some of those ranchers even have permits. When environmentalists challenged this, the agency handed out permits as if they were library cards.
Given this sorry history, why should the rest of us care if 21,000 families are bought out or forced off the public land?
We have 170,000 reasons to care. That is the square miles of private land - roughly Utah and Idaho put together - that may become useless as ranchland if cows are forced off the public land. This land was chosen by homesteaders because it has the deepest soils and the most water and biodiversity. It is winter range for wildlife and open space for communities. The land they didn't homestead - what is now the public land - is thin-soiled, high-elevation, arid. Undeveloped private ranchland is what keeps the West from becoming New Jersey with bumps.
Welfare Ranching rejects this argument. It argues that while cows vs. condos may be valid close to metro areas, it is invalid in most of the vast West.
Unfortunately, no matter what the location, once private ranchers have been shorn of their federal grazing allotments, someone will be willing to pay more for their private land than the ranchers can pay to graze cows. Close to urban areas, the buyer may be a subdivider. Farther out, the demand will be for 10-acre ranchettes. And way out, it will be someone looking for 40 acres for a trailer, outbuildings and sheds.
Think of the demand for land. Arizona's population grew in the 1990s by 40 percent, Colorado's and Utah's by 30 percent, and New Mexico's by 20 percent. Land use grew faster. From 1960 to 1990, Colorado's population grew at 3 percent a year, but developed land increased 8 percent. In Idaho, the figures were 1.9 percent and 7.8 percent. Like galaxies in the outer reaches of our universe, sprawl is accelerating.
None of this complexity is in Welfare Ranching. The book simply argues, argues simply, that ranchers are eager to sell, and so they are no protection against sprawl.
That is true. Sprawl can't be stopped by ranchers alone. The protection of wide-open spaces is a job for all of us, from federal-land managers to fire experts to rural planning commissions to land trusts. And finally, it's also up to the cattle-free people, who must become reformers and cooperators and realists before it is too late for the West.