If there's anything everyone can agree on about grazing in the West, it's that livestock's influence on the land has been ubiquitous. Biologists Carl and Jane Bock have spent much of their lives studying the ecology of one of the few exceptions, an 8,000-acre short-grass prairie in southern Arizona. In their thoughtful new book, The View from Bald Hill: Thirty Years in an Arizona Grassland, the Bocks summarize their decades of fieldwork on the Appleton-Whittell Ranch, where no grazing has occurred since the 1960s.
The Bocks' work addresses questions that many Western scientists have spent their careers trying to answer: What is "healthy" grassland? What does rangeland restoration look like? Are livestock really the enemy of the West's natural ecology? Because the Appleton ranch is as close as it gets to a control in what the Bocks call our grazing "experiment," everyone with a stake in rangeland management should take note of what the Bocks have found: that the native, semi-arid grasslands of the Southwest may never return to pre-grazing conditions, but that some native species rare in grazed areas are returning to the sanctuary.
The best thing about The View from Bald Hill, though, is that it's a science text that manages to be understandable and humble at the same time. Above all, the Bocks convey their deep affection for the plants, animals and people of the Sonoita Plain. In the politicized world of natural resource management, where opposing interests constantly invoke science to justify their positions, their perspective is refreshing.
"Certain ranchers and range managers have predicted that grasslands on the Research Ranch will degrade over time without some sort of essential stimulation provided by livestock," they write.
"If the sanctuary eventually becomes as barren as a strip mall parking lot, then our studies will have documented the importance of livestock in sustaining the Southwestern Plains. But don't bet on it."
The View from Bald Hill: Thirty Years in an Arizona Grassland, Carl E. and Jane H. Bock, University of California Press, Berkeley, Calif., 2000. Paperback: $16.95. 197 pages. Hardcover: $45. 221 pages.