That’s what has happened to my myth about the American West. As a youngster, I believed the mountains, plains and deserts of the West were the last intact remnants of unspoiled America, where the deer and the antelope still played, where the landscape dwarfed human efforts to tame it.
But inch by inch, this myth has eroded. A giant chunk of it slid into the river about eight years ago, when I was working on a story about the spread of a non-native shrub called tamarisk along the West’s waterways. Once I learned how to identify the billowy Eurasian import, I saw it everywhere. Vast forests of tamarisk clogged the Colorado River’s banks. It sprouted along creeks and irrigation canals and in every low spot where water might gather, taking up space usually filled by native cottonwoods and willows. My God, I thought, every river in the entire Southwest is infected with this rash.
A similar scenario played out for me elsewhere in the West. The native grasses and forbs of Colorado’s Front Range were giving way to impoverished monocultures of Russian knapweed and other foreign opportunists.With the help of wildfire, the vast sagebrush-studded Great Basin was turning into brown, fire-prone cheatgrass pastures of little value to a cow, let alone any native herbivore. Every farming community in the Rockies was a breeding ground and launchpad for non-native plants and animals.
Humans, more often than not, sowed the seeds of this invasion. We brought these species with us from other continents; we plowed and overgrazed the land and dammed the rivers, and thus unintentionally created ideal growing conditions. And as this issue’s cover story tells, we sometimes acted deliberately, planting the seeds of exotic species across the land in an attempt to repair the damage caused by mining, logging, grazing and wildfires.
So the world wobbled for me. But I was in good company, and I soon discovered that some people were actually doing something about it. Today, many land managers, public and private, are restoring the West’s native species. Dozens of native-seed companies have sprung up to provide them with the basic building blocks. Government has played an important role: In 1999, President Clinton issued an executive order requiring the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and other agencies to eschew exotic seeds for natives “to the extent practicable” when restoring burned-over, cut-over and mined lands.
This commitment is welcome, but it is still way too small to do the job. In the Great Basin, for instance, a federal initiative to restore cheatgrass stands back to sagebrush, has lagged because of uncertain funding. Even where land managers have cobbled together funds for restoration, they are using native seeds only about 40 percent of the time.
Part of the problem is that old habits die hard. We still know how to grow exotics better than natives, and it is easy for managers to do what they have always done, especially when, by law, they only have to use native seed when “practical.” The other problem is supply. Native-seed companies have little certainty that the seeds they collect or grow will be bought in a given year, thanks to the vagaries of Mother Nature and the year-to-year vacillations of agency budgets.
It’s not unlike the problems American farmers have coping with fluctuating world markets. The government helps farmers by subsidizing their crops. It’s time for Congress to do the same for native-seed growers. With a little help, a new indigenous Western agriculture can thrive. Imagine field after field of native sagebrush and grasses, the seeds of which are used to restore hundreds of millions of acres of public land. Imagine the water savings that would come from growing natives in farm fields, instead of alfalfa and corn.
In the past century, the federal government has spent billions subsidizing the destruction of the West’s natural resources. Now it has a historic opportunity to reverse course. If Congress would step in to guarantee funding for a steady supply of native seed, and mandate federal and state agencies to restore landscapes with native species, it might start blowing away another myth: That it’s impossible for human beings to live sustainably in the American West.