I took a stroll through our lower pasture the other evening and discovered that April showers had turned it into a riotous weed patch. It wasn’t what my wife and I had planned three years ago, when we bought the badly overgrazed property. Back then, we took the advice of our local cooperative extension agent and rested the land from the hooves and mouths of livestock. It seemed like the ecologically sound thing to do: Remove the animals and let Mother Nature restore the land to its former glory, in this case probably a patch of sagebrush mixed with native bunchgrasses and wildflowers.
Unfortunately, Mother Nature seems to
have other plans for the pasture at this point, namely turning it
into a nursery for exotic knapweed, cheatgrass, chicory and a host
of other still-to-be-identified weeds. As I picked weed seeds out
of my socks and pant legs, it occurred to me that restoring this
pasture might actually take some physical work, just like the
restoration of most of the degraded ecosystems in the West. Letting
nature take its course may make sense in remote and relatively
untouched areas, but for the rest of this region, we may have to
chop, poison, burn, flood and build our way to a healthier
That’s a sobering reality, especially
for those of us who distrust the ability of humans to manage native
ecosystems. But there’s an upside: Ecological restoration, if
done with a sense of humility, offers the promise of reforging an
alliance that has been badly weakened in recent years — the
alliance between environmentalists and blue-collar working people.
As HCN Assistant Editor Laura Paskus writes in this
issue, the ties between greens and blues have all but disintegrated
in a world where working-class jobs are leaving the country faster
than you can say "globalization," and environmental laws and
regulations are often seen by workers as one more nail in their
Fortunately, there are places in the West where
organized labor and environmentalists are finding common ground.
One is at the massive Kennecott copper mine near Salt Lake City,
where a labor union is working alongside environmentalists to
ensure that mining waste isn’t dumped into the Great Salt
Lake. But it is in ecological restoration that labor and
environmentalists should find their natural nexus. There is no
shortage of work: Cleaning up Superfund sites, treating the
millions of acres in the Great Basin and Northern Rockies overrun
by exotic weeds, restoring streams and rivers hammered by poor
livestock-grazing practices and water diversions, are all projects
that will take immense human effort.
Can you imagine the
number of worthy jobs that would be created if the federal
government attacked restoration with the same zeal with which it
built the nation’s dams and highways? A New Deal for the West
based on putting ecosystems back together would create a welcome
alternative to the retiree, subdivision and tourism economy that is
coming to dominate almost every corner of the region. It would give
new purpose to the federal agencies, and reconnect workers to the
Western landscape in a way that neither the extractive industries
nor the service industries can do.
As for me, I plan to
start close to home, restoring my lower pasture. I’m not sure
yet what it will take, but I’m relishing the thought of some
good, hard work.