Age has nothing to do with wisdom. Over the last half of my life I have bicycled, walked and crawled tens of thousands of miles across the heartbroken short-grass West. I've been beaten up by the cops, hit-and-run off my bike by ranchers, had my arm broken and my shoulder ripped open, had my life threatened countless times, gone to jail for locking down in the line of fire at a varmint militia-held prairie-dog killing contest, and through it all come to understand first hand the extreme suffering and sadness that remaining Plains wildlife endures every day under the present empire of bristling wires and zero tolerance.
Experientially, this is just the tip of the iceberg. A lot of my friends from the street are not living anymore. In my three decades I've lived more than some people 60 or 70 years old.
I have made more than my share of mistakes, but I have accepted the lessons learned and tried to do better. This is in contrast to the people who rule and ruin our lives out West.
Like it or not, the American West today is defined by hatred, ugliness and greed. We have no elders; we have no leaders. The politicians and the ranchers act like overgrown, mutant children. It is hard enough to comprehend that the people who "settled" this country actually believed that race war against all native wildlife and people was a good thing divined by God.
Future generations will speak of that war in hushed, horrified tones for thousands of years to come. It blows the mind that on the cusp of the new millennium, the land and her native inhabitants still suffer under this 19th-century dominion, as witnessed by last winter's slaughter of Yellowstone's bison, as witnessed by continued government poisoning of the last colonies of wild, black-tailed prairie dogs. Biologists predict the extinction of these fast-diminishing prairie dogs - within 12 to 20 years.
Freedom for the bison and all native wildlife cultures is a social justice issue. It is they who were here before any people, it is they who have suffered the most, it is they who did nothing to deserve any of this persecution.
If people would learn the word "share" instead of "take," if people would allow native wildlife room and connectivity enough to be able to raise their families and live out their respective biological and social destinies in peace, wildlife could give a crap whether their human neighbor was a Republican or a Green.
America is a multicultural nation now. There is room for all of us, including native wildlife. If we can send a gift box of plutonium to Saturn, we certainly can be evolved enough to learn to live with and alongside the others and make sure that everybody is spoken for. The emancipation of the American bison and the great flowing grasslands thus becomes metaphor for our entire civilization as we all learn to take our place on this beautiful planet.
One hundred forty-nine thousand square miles of the dry Western Plains have reverted back to "frontier" conditions of less than two persons per square mile. The remaining people are leaving "America's Empty Quarter" of their own will. Millions of additional acres lie under federal and state jurisdiction. Reform would prioritize the most sensitive of these public lands for native wildlife and clean recreation. Some of the abandoned, blown-out land under private control can be bought outright from willing sellers and restored by private interests such as our new Southern Plains Land Trust.
Thoughtful landowners could connect all or portions of their property to the emerging greater ecosystem through conservation easements, while retaining "ownership" of the land. There are outstanding Indian claims that in the interest of human decency could finally be settled through land buyouts and transfers, and, in some cases, cordial joint management between the United States and sovereign tribes.
Taxpayers are forced to spend nearly $1 billion per year in corporate welfare for the public-lands ranching industry. Some of this money should be used for grassland restoration, which would benefit all Americans. Through a Wildlands Project-type system of wilderness cores, buffer zones and biological corridors, native wildlife could again have the habitat necessary for prosperity. And a Buffalo Commons economy would not only bring diverse groups of citizens together, but would greatly stabilize and enrich remaining local human communities.
It takes a strong and open-hearted person to quit being so damn selfish and petty. The realization of the Buffalo Commons will demand cooperation between the whole cacophonic lot of us. As Albuquerque mayor-elect Jim Baca said recently, "We have to remember that we are just borrowing this land from future generations." The commons is striving for a simple value called community. It is way past time we all grow up and learn respect, responsibility and maturity. We don't even have to like each other, but we can respect each other and agree on the big picture.
I'm in this because I know the sorrow, suffering and intense impoverishment that pervades the American West and our civilization. I wouldn't bother breathing another day without the promise of a time 30 or 40 years from now when great cities and tiny hamlets alike are entirely run with energy from the sun, "minority" is a meaningless word, people can again kneel and drink directly from the lakes and streams, and there is equal opportunity, wellness, community and beauty for everyone, including the mighty-hearted bison survivors, whose brethren and grandchildren will again blacken the yellow grass/prairie dog plains like an epiphany.
Jarid Manos is executive director of the Great Plains Restoration Council, Box 717, Albuquerque, NM 87103.
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