Laboring for the environment

by Paul Larmer

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 environment.

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 coffin.

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.

© High Country News