This land is our land









                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            IT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE FOR THE COMMON MAN. THAT’S WHAT THOMAS JEFFERSON THOUGHT WHEN he forged the deal that made the 800,000 square miles of Louisiana Territory the property of the United States. “The earth is given as a common stock for man to labor and live on,” he wrote to James Madison in 1785. “The small landowners are the most precious part of a state.”[i]

But even before the Americans bought Louisiana from the French, before the French extorted it from the Spanish, possibly even before the French gave it to the Spanish to keep it out of British hands in 1762, that dream of an agrarian society of small landholders in the West, each independent and beholden to no one but himself, had faded into the distance like the rainbow after a thunderstorm.

It may never have been possible. The geography of the land beyond the Missouri was daunting: canyons a mile deep, mountains two miles high; rivers that roared in the spring, then sank into the sand for the summer. Too much sun, too much sky, and always the wind, punishing the land and the life upon it. Until the arrival of the horse, there were large expanses that not even the Indians could endure. Jefferson’s vision of a rural utopia needed rich soil and enough rain to thrive; it found neither in the interior West.

But if there was ever a time when a man could travel to the Shining Mountains beyond the Missouri and live unfettered by the demands of civilization, it had long since passed by the time Lewis and Clark made their way to the Pacific. The American ideal, the democratic association of free men on free land, stalled in the western wilderness. It took a huge bank account and a focused mission to survive, let alone prosper, on these vast, untamed landscapes, which is why the West was opened, not by a few intrepid settlers, yearning to breathe free, but by a succession of well-funded companies that explored and exploited the northern and western frontiers and eventually stripped them of anything that could be converted to profit.

These days, we celebrate the free trapper as the apotheosis of American liberty. We celebrate a myth. We choose to ignore the far-flung corporate conglomerates that forced their way into the heart of the continent: the Hudson’s Bay Company, incorporated in 1670[ii] and a major force in the trade for more than two centuries afterward; the North West Company, established in 1779[iii] to challenge the Hudson’s Bay traders in the wilderness beyond Lake Athabaska; the Missouri Fur Company from St. Louis, led by Manuel Lisa and backed by the powerful Chouteau family;[iv] William Ashley’s Rocky Mountain Fur Company;[v] and the powerful American and Pacific fur companies, formed and backed by the New York entrepreneur John Jacob Astor.[vi]

Men like John Coulter, Jedediah Smith, and Jim Bridger led the fur brigades, but men like Astor made them possible. When Astor incorporated the American Fur Company in the spring of 1808, he invested a million dollars in the firm. Soon thereafter, he established the Pacific Fur Company to exploit the fur trade between the Columbia River and the Far East,[vii] investing another $400,000 in that plan, which included the purchase of a new ship.[viii] Lisa’s Missouri Fur Company started with an investment of $40,000.[ix] It took money to form the fur brigades, provide their equipment and food, furnish trade goods, and transport furs to the markets in Europe. The fur trade was big business.

It was cutthroat business, too. The contest between the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company lasted almost forty years before the opponents decided that a merger was better business than the effort to annihilate each other. When the Hudson’s Bay Company found out that American fur traders were spilling over the Continental Divide to compete for the trade, the directors of the English company adopted a scorched-earth policy, doing their best to wipe out the beaver and other furbearers south of the Columbia River so that the Americans would have nothing to trap.[x]

The competition between the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, Astor’s American Fur Company, and the Hudson’s Bay Company is the stuff of legend. At times, it may even have transcended harassment and price gouging. Historian John Ewers has described the Hudson’s Bay Company posts along the Saskatchewan River in prairie Canada as “the armories from which Blackfoot warriors obtained their firearms and ammunition.”[xi] It’s likely that British trade guns, powder, and lead claimed the lives of many American trappers.

Smaller operators like Nathaniel Wyeth’s group and Benjamin Bonneville’s brigade were forced out of the trade by the big companies, who had the wherewithal to out-bid the smaller firms, even if it meant taking a loss for the year. It’s been said that the War of 1812, often explained as an American reaction to British interference on the high seas, was at least partly a fight to decide whether American or British companies would have the upper hand in the western fur trade.[xii] The struggle for supremacy among the various factions in the Rockies ebbed and flowed across the decades, but ultimately, another trend decided the future of the industry itself.

The unrelenting pressure on furbearing animals, especially the beaver, had a predictable effect. As early as 1826, naturalist John D. Godman predicted that the beaver was headed for extinction. “A few individuals may, for a time, elude the immediate violence of persecution,” he wrote, but the species would eventually be lost “in the fathomless gulf of avarice.”[xiii] In 1834, the American Journal of Science observed that “the animals are slowly decreasing, from the persevering efforts and the indiscriminate slaughter. . . . They recede before the tide of civilization.”[xiv]

With beaver scarce as timber in the sage, the European market turned to other fibers for the manufacture of hats, and the great beaver hunt in the Rockies came to an end. The last mountain man rendezvous was held on the Green River in 1840, and by all reports, it was little more than a shadow of the great summer gatherings of the early 1830s. As “Doc” Newell, one of the veterans of the fur trade remarked of the affair, “Mr Drips Feab & Bridger from St Louis with goods but times was certainly hard . . . no beaver and everything dull.”[xv]

So ended the first great wave of development on the public domain in the American West. The beaver, whose pelts had built an empire, had been hunted to the brink of extinction. The men who had set the traps were gone, a large proportion of them the victims of violent deaths, the rest fading away on hard-scrabble farms in Missouri or Ohio or Oregon as they mourned the passing of a life they loved and had spent their best years to destroy. The profit from thirty years of toil and danger was in New York and London, in the vaults of the big companies that had run the business. It was a pattern that would become all too familiar over the next century.

The beaver trade died just as American enthusiasm for the elysian fields of Oregon began to take hold. For more than a generation, a handful of land speculators and eastern politicians had sung the praises of the West Coast, and by 1841, the public relations campaign had convinced a handful of restless settlers to emigrate. In 1846, the United States finally settled the long-standing border dispute with Britain, and the boundary between the two nations was set on the 49th parallel. At the same time, the U.S. took almost half of Mexico by force, adding another 500,000 square miles to the public domain.

mule-creek-horizontal-crop-lrWith the question of sovereignty settled, traffic on the Oregon Trail increased through the 1840s, then exploded when James Marshall’s 1848 discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill became public knowledge. California joined the union in 1850; Oregon followed in 1859, and visionaries began to talk about the need to tie the East and West together. Wagons and sailing ships weren’t enough, the thinking went. The solution was at hand, the miracle of the age: the railroad.

But there was a problem— 2,000 miles of unsettled wilderness between the rapidly growing nation east of the Mississippi and the newly minted states on the West Coast. Railroads were in the business of moving freight, and there was practically no freight to be moved between the Sierras and the Great Plains. Men who knew railroading were unwilling to gamble their own money on a transcontinental line, and in the wake of the gigantic expenditures of the Civil War, Congress wasn’t anxious to pay for the project.

At first, Washington tried to interest the railroads by offering them land. Congress was willing to give the builders all the right of way required across the public domain, and just to sweeten the deal, the politicians threw in the deeds to every other section for ten miles on either side of the tracks. The railroads didn’t bite. So Congress offered $50,000,000 of bonds, with the principle and interest guaranteed by the federal government. The details of the repayment of these bonds were so sketchy that they represented another $43,000,000 of largesse for the railroads.[xvi]

Why this outpouring of generosity? Our eighth-grade history books told us that it was a simple commitment to the idea that the nation should be united by rail, and there’s little doubt that a patriotic impulse was one of the motives the railroad magnates shared. Another was sheer greed. The railroaders distributed $250,000 in bonds around Washington, D.C., to congressmen and other key officials who could help sweeten the deal.[xvii] The bonds were worth nothing if the transcontinental line wasn’t built; they were worth plenty if it was.

State and federal governments were even more generous with land grants. The railroads west of the Mississippi were given 131,000,000 acres of land by the federal government and another 44,000,000 acres by the states.[xviii] Combined with the control the railroads had over routes and choices of town sites, this allowed company insiders to reap huge profits in real estate.[xix] It’s been called “speculation,” but for the executives who played the game, it was really a sure thing.

The deals that were made to complete the three great transcontinental rail lines bear an uncanny resemblance to the speculative bubbles built by Enron and the purveyors of collateralized debt obligations in our century. They were “leveraged’ to the hilt, which meant main players borrowed far more than they could pay back— unless the rail project yielded an immense profit— and many of them found ways to evade any personal financial responsibility to investors through limited liability corporations and other means.

The railroads were built. The Union Pacific and Central Pacific lines met at Promontory, Utah, in 1869, forming the first transcontinental link across the country. Construction on the Northern Pacific, from Minneapolis to Seattle, began in 1870. Progress was delayed by financial issues, but the line was completed in 1883. The Southern Pacific link across the Southwest was completed the same year.

The insiders in the investment schemes owned controlling interest in construction companies they made sure were hired to build the railroads. These companies charged exorbitant rates— it’s been estimated that the bill for the western part of the first transcontinental line was twice the actual cost. The profits went back to the principle investors. The key players in just the California part of the shell game that built the Union Pacific transcontinental line came away with $10,000,000 in clear profit.[xx]

The chicanery, bribery, and fraud eventually led to scandals, both in California and in Washington, D.C. The Congressional investigation of the Credit Mobiliér lending and construction firm set off months of public outrage. More than thirty members of Congress had taken gifts of shares from the company, but no one was indicted and only two members of Congress were even censured. The organizers at the California end of the line avoided a similar investigation when all the records of their finance and construction company were mysteriously destroyed in a fire.[xxi]

The lack of adequate capital to back the rampant speculation surrounding the transcontinental railroads was largely to blame for the financial panic of 1873 and the six-year depression that followed.[xxii] As always, the brunt of the downturn fell on people of modest means. More than 18,000 businesses closed their doors;[xxiii] small farms failed, and wages in the railroad sector and elsewhere were slashed.

The trains rolled on steel rails, but in the nineteenth century, the railroads were built with wood. It took more than 2,000 ties to build a mile of track and at least thirty poles to string the telegraph line alongside,[xxiv] timber the forests along the routes supplied. It’s been estimated that between twenty and twenty-five percent of all timber cut in the last third of the nineteenth century found its way into railroads.[xxv]

The demand was so intense that the mountains within thirty miles of the tracks in Wyoming were almost denuded. Since the ties were floated down local streams wherever possible, the beds of these creeks were scoured by the annual run of ties, then smothered with silt from the surrounding hillsides, and since most of the ties were laid without any treatment and, in many cases, lasted only three or four years, the demand for replacements remained strong for decades.

Once again, the common folk shouldered the brunt of the cost of the great project, in money, heartache, and blood. The environment sustained a heavy blow, and a handful of wealthy speculators reaped the profit.

Mining in the West didn’t wait for the railroads. After the California rush of 1849, there were several other major strikes across the West before the golden spike was driven in Utah. The romantic image of those miners is the gray-bearded prospector leading a burro up some lonesome mountain valley, which is no more accurate than our conception of the fur trade. Mineral deposits on the West’s public domain were often discovered by individual prospectors, but the extraction of minerals took equipment and men, commodities the independent operator could seldom afford. Control of the gold, silver, and copper quickly passed into the hands of well-financed companies.

There were two ways to remove precious metals. One was to follow the veins back into the solid rock of the mountains. Mines of this kind required huge quantities of timber to guard against cave-ins. A mining engineer working on the Comstock silver lode in western Nevada invented a new approach to shoring up mines that consumed up to 80,000,000 board feet of lumber per year on the Comstock alone. One historian of the area has written that “the people of the Comstock walk over a forest of underground timbers of enormous dimensions.”[xxvi]

One of the members of the Hayden expedition visited the Front Range of Colorado in 1869 and reported that “the rapid increase in mining operations and population in the mining sections, which are in the heart of the pine regions, is rapidly consuming, for building purposes, fuel, &c., the pines around these points.”[xxvii] He went on to add that “saw-mills are being erected in the interior of the mountain districts, as water-power is easily obtained along the little creeks.”

By 1879, mills were so common in Wyoming that the territorial legislature passed a law to stop the disposal of sawdust “into any river, creek, bay, pond, lake, canal, ditch, or other water course.”[xxviii] It was one of the West’s earliest pollution laws, but without enforcement, it had little effect.

The hunger for wood continued for the next twenty years. In 1897, the General Land Office reported that the steady loss of forest “fully demonstrated the want of wisdom in placing the public timber thus free of cost at the disposal of the public. It is also unjust in granting exceptional privileges to the residents of the States, Territories.”

The problem was that the trees weren’t going to the average citizen. “Large corporations and companies have secured permits at different times to cut many millions of feet,” the 1897 report observed. And sometimes, the big operators didn’t bother with permits. “For illustration, suit was recommended against the Bitter Root Development Company in 1894 for $315,250, the value of 31,525,000 feet of saw logs,” the report added. “This company has been one of the principal factors in supplying timber to the Anaconda Mining Company, being, in fact, an adjunct of the latter.”[xxix]

Placer gold was distributed through large deposits of loose dirt and gravel across the West. How much a company made depended on how fast it could process the mixture, In 1853, Edward Matteson, a California miner, updated an ancient technique to expedite matters— he built dams uphill from his diggings, then brought the water through a ditch and then a hose and nozzle, generating a high-pressure stream that washed tons of gravel into his sluices.[xxx] It was called hydraulic mining, and it was quickly adopted anywhere mine companies had a source of water uphill from their operations.

While the technique had undeniable advantages for the miners, it was disastrous for the watercourses downstream. Tons of silt choked rivers and streams, exacerbating floods and, after particularly heavy runoff, depositing thick layers of mud in the flood plains and crop fields below. Often, the silt carried heavy metals and acids that killed fish and other aquatic life for miles. Once again, the public’s interest suffered while the profit from the public’s land found its way into the coffers of big companies.

Out on the flatlands, the situation wasn’t much better.

laramie-peak-3-panoramaStockmen had been grazing cattle and sheep in parts of the West since Cortez hit the beach. While the conquistadors indulged their obsession with gold and silver, Spanish settlers and their animals brought some measure of stability and permanence to the early colonies. The herds advanced with Spanish settlement, first to the country around Santa Fe, then into the lower Rio Grande valley of Texas, and at last to the missions of California. Farther north, the Hudson’s Bay Company saw the first emigration into Oregon Territory from the fledgling United States in the early 1840s, and officials there expanded their farming operations along the Columbia River, including a thriving herd of beef and dairy cattle, in an effort to solidify the British claim to the region.

The markets for the commodities these early herds produced were mostly local, simply because the transportation systems of the time couldn’t move them from the frontier to population centers. As a result, domestic livestock had little impact on the public domain. That changed suddenly soon after the close of the Civil War.

The biggest change, of course, was the explosive growth of the American rail system, but there were other developments as well. The development of a practical system of refrigeration for railroad cars and ships in the late 1870s allowed producers and processors to move fresh meat thousands of miles without spoiling. And, out on the frontier, the great war machines of the Comanche and Sioux were finally defeated, which made the business of ranching safer on thousands of square miles of western grassland.

Starting a ranch, even a small operation, took some start-up capital. The cattleman needed a good remuda of horseflesh, the tack to saddle them, the money or equipment to keep them shod. He needed to prove up a claim on a piece of land for headquarters— the Homestead Act allowed him 160 acres free of charge, if he occupied them for five continuous years, or he could buy them for $1.25 an acre. The Desert Land Act of 1877 expanded grants to a full section of 640 acres at a price of twenty-five cents an acre.

And he needed some cows. The price of a Texas longhorn at the northern railheads varied between three dollars and eight dollars a head,[xxxi] and that investment wouldn’t begin paying dividends until this spring’s calves had grown into two- to-four-year-old steers. A cattleman, as opposed to a cowboy, was a man of property who might have to wait years to see a return on his investment.

In the years after the Civil War, America’s appetite for beef far outstripped the supply, and the producers who could furnish cattle made quick fortunes. That effect was heightened by the situation in Europe where outbreaks of hoof-and-mouth disease and anthrax in the 1860s took a heavy toll on livestock.[xxxii] There was money to be made with American cattle, and it didn’t take long for investors in Britain and Scotland to take advantage of the situation.

The first British cattle corporation to operate in the United States formed in 1879, raising capital of $350,000 with which it bought up ranches in South Dakota and Wyoming. Over the next twenty years, thirty-six more British corporations invested $34,000,000 in the western cattle business. These were just the offshore investments; at the same time British capitalists were making their presence felt, well-heeled Americans from the East and Midwest were buying into the business. What had been a family-run, hand-to-mouth calling became an industry, and as was the case with most other industries of the time, the big money took complete control.

In the years of the open range on public land, the big conglomerates played the system to gain control of key tracts of land. In 1884, The New York Times reported on the General Land Office’s investigation of illegal claims on the public domain. According to the newspaper, inspectors from the Land Office had found “between 5,000,000 and 6,000,000 acres are now illegally fenced, and that several million acres are fraudulently entered” as claims with the Land Office. One of the officials was quoted as saying, “Cattlemen will employ men to herd their stock and then will give $50 or $100 to each one to make an entry for 160 acres. When he has secured his patent, it is understood that he must transfer it to the person who advanced the money. Many of the cattle dealers will not employ men unless they will agree to make the entries.”[xxxiii]

In 1880, the governor of Wyoming estimated that the ranching operations in the state ran 540,000 head of cattle and about 375,000 head of sheep.[xxxiv] Over the next three years, the number of cattle in the state rose to about 800,000, where it plateaued, and the number of sheep continued to climb, reaching more than 6,000,000 by 1909.[xxxv]

At the turn of the last century, it was clear that the grasslands of the state couldn’t sustain that kind of pressure. In 1900, B.C. Buffam of the University of Wyoming Agricultural Experiment Station wrote: “The natural ranges have greatly deteriorated through over-stocking, which has prevented the best grasses from re-seeding themselves for so long a time that they have run out.”[xxxvi]

The condition of pastureland across the West was essentially the same— thirty years of intense grazing had done damage to grasses and broad-leafed forage plants that would last for decades or even longer. At the same time, invasive plants like cheatgrass had been imported with contaminated seed, which would damage the rangeland in the Great Basin forever. The dreaded cattle disease brucellosis was brought to North America with infected livestock and was probably introduced into Yellowstone bison shortly after 1900 when domestic cows were used to foster young buffalo in an effort to preserve the species.[xxxvii]

s-absarokaAfter less than a century, this is what Jefferson’s dream for his beloved western territory looked like: a land controlled and operated by millionaires and conglomerates, many of whom had stretched the law or simply flouted it to control the economy and politics of the public domain. A land stripped of its pristine promise: the range overgrazed; the forests over-cut; mountainsides raw and bleeding from the pitiless extraction of precious metals; streams polluted; the great herds of game, the beaver, the sage grouse all but extinct.

The entire nation was appalled. Faced with the ruin wrought by an unfettered market and a moneyed elite, a generation of Americans began looking for a different way to realize the democratic ideal in the arid West. It began in 1872 with the creation of the world’s first national park, continued in 1890 with the protection of our first national forest, and culminated in the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, two laws that mandated better management of BLM lands.

The movement proceeded from the notion that our common interest is sometimes best served when we own some things together. The idea of places and resources held in the public trust gained traction with wildlife in the 1840s[xxxviii] and was extended over the next century to the great open spaces of the West’s public domain.

The form and function of the consensus has been hammered out over the last hundred years. It has changed with time, and it will continue to change as the people who care about the public domain change, and as the land itself changes. Finding consensus among 300 million citizens is always a challenge, and it is especially difficult when we look for consensus on managing public land in the West.

But neither history nor recent experience supports the notion that these lands would better serve America if they were in state ownership or private hands. The demands big business continues to make on the public domain in the West haven’t changed, they’ve been held in check only by federal regulations that seek to control the management of national forests and BLM holdings. If these lands were to be given to the states or sold to private interests, these smaller governing entities or owners would not have the power to resist the influence the corporations wield. Even the federal government struggles to resist that influence. Land use would quickly return to the patterns that developed in the nineteenth century. The resources on the public domain, renewable and nonrenewable, would be sacrificed to enhance profits and the public would lose its right to visit what was left.

These days, Americans are dispossessed, confined in our apartments, on our quarter-acre lots, estranged from the land that, in large part, has defined our character as a people and a nation. We are held prisoner by economics. One of the few physical expressions of freedom we have left is the public domain. Together, we can use it without destroying it; we can enjoy it without dividing it.

We should never give it up.

[i] Jefferson, Thomas, 1984. Writings. Letter to James Madison from Fontainebleau, France, October 28, 1785. p. 840. Library of America, Penguin-Putnam.


[ii] DeVoto, Bernard, 1952. The Course of Empire. Houghton Mifflin, New York, NY. p. 126.


[iii] DeVoto, Bernard, 1952. p.302.


[iv] Dolin, Eric Jay, 2010. Fur, Fortune, and Empire. WW. Norton & Company, New York, NY. p. 183.


[v] DeVoto, Bernard, 1947. Across the Wide Missouri. Houghton Mifflin, New York, NY. p. 23.


[vi] Dolin, Eric Jay, 2010. p. 194-196.


[vii] Dolin, 2010. p. 194.


[viii] Dolin, 2010. p. 197.


[ix] Chittenden, Hiram Martin, 1902. The American Fur Trade of the Far West. F.P. Harper Company, New York, NY. p. 140.


[x] Dolin, 2010. p. 285.


[xi] Ewers, John C., 1958. The Blackfeet: Raiders on the Northwestern Plains. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, OK. p.56.


[xii] Dolin, 2010. p. 212.


[xiii] Dolin, 2010. p. 283.


[xiv] Dolin, 2010. pp. 282-283.


[xv] Newell Robert, 1959. Memorandum of Robert Newell’s Travles in the Teritory of Missourie. Champoeg Press, Portland, OR.


[xvi] White, Richard, 2011. Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America. WW. Norton & Company, New York, NY. pp.22-23.


[xvii] White, 2011. p. 22.


[xviii] White, 2011, pp. 24-25.


[xix] White, 2011. p. 156.


[xx] White, 2011. p. 36.


[xxi] Folsom, Burton W., 2010. The Myth of the Robber Barons: A New Look at the Rise of Big Business in America. Young America’s, Herndon, VA. p. 22.


[xxii] Lubetkin, John M., 2006. Jay Cooke’s Gamble: The Northern Pacific Railroad, The Sioux, and the Panic of 1873. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, OK. pp. 276-285.

[xxiii] Public Broadcasting System. The American Experience.


[xxiv] Department of Agriculture Forestry Division, Bulletin No.1, 1887. Report on the Relation of Railroads to Forest Supplies And Forestry. Washington, D.C., Government Printing Office. pp. 14-15.


[xxv] MacCleery, Douglas W., 2011. American Forests: A History of Resiliency and Recovery. Forest History Society, Durham, NC. p.19.


[xxvi] Davis, Samuel, 1913. The History of Nevada. The Elms Publishing Company, Reno, NV and Los Angeles, CA. p. 410.


[xxvii] Thomas, Cyrus in Hayden, F.V., 1869. Preliminary Field Report of the United State Geological Survey of Colorado and New Mexico. Washington: Government Printing Office. p. 151.


[xxviii] Session Laws of Wyoming Territory Passed by the Sixth Legislative Assembly, 1879. Leader Steam Book and Job Print, Cheyenne, WY. p. 117.

[xxix] Report of the Commissioner of the General Land Office, 1897. Washington: Government Printing Office. p. 76.




[xxxi] Brayer, Herbert O., 1949. The influence of British capital on the western range-cattle industry. The Journal of Economic History 9: 85-98 (Supplement: The tasks of economic history)


[xxxii] Brayer, 1949.


[xxxiii] The New York Times, August 24, 1884, p.5. “Millions of acres fenced and fraudulently entered by the cattle kings.”


[xxxiv] Hoyt, John, W., 1880. Report of the Governor of Wyoming Territory, Made to the Secretary of the Interior for the Year 1880. Washington, D.C. Government Printing Office. p. 4.


[xxxv] Larson, T.A., 1965. History of Wyoming. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, NE. p. 367.


[xxxvi] Buffam, B.C. and W.H. Fairfield, 1900. “Forage Plants.” In the Annual Report of the University of Wyoming Agricultural Experiment Station. p.3.


[xxxvii] Meagher, Mary and Meyer, 1994. Origin of brucellosis in bison. Conservation Biology 8 (3): 645-650.


[xxxviii] Martin v. Waddell 41 U.S. 16 Pet. 367 (1842)

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