It’s always disconcerting to have a myth blown apart — like when you discover that your favorite sports star, whom you always thought to be a nice, upstanding person, cheats on his wife or abuses his kids. The world wobbles; food doesn’t taste as good; you just want to fall asleep and wake up when everything is back to normal.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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