Renewing a battered land

 

Rewilding the West: Restoration in a Prairie Landscape
Richard Manning
238 pages, hardcover: $24.95.
University of California Press, 2009.

In 1874, when most of the West was still held in common, a simple invention -- barbed wire -- pushed the region toward a long-held national ideal: privatization. With amazing swiftness, ranchers began to enclose their lands and herds; and in just a few decades, millions of acres of formerly open range were fenced in.

But as journalist Richard Manning explains in Rewilding the West, the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression forced Western ranchers to sell that privatized land back to the government. The government then gave the ranchers grazing leases on the land, a system still in place today. Manning argues that this type of cattle grazing "posed the largest threat to the environment of the grassland West."

Before fences appeared, large-scale migration defined life on the tall-grass prairie. When drought or overgrazing hit one area, buffalo and other wildlife moved on to another. This regular movement allowed the grasslands to recover from heavy grazing. In contrast, cattle trapped behind fences loiter in riparian areas, prevent the natural succession of grasses, and compete for resources with native wildlife.

"We have spent down the natural capital (of the grasslands), which was the soil and the roots, the gentle little streams protected by native vegetation, the wildlife that was supported by all of this and in turn supported it," Manning laments. But there is a movement under way to return part of the prairie back to its original state, with native grasses, large game and an unpeopled landscape. The American Prairie Foundation, a private organization, is buying up land in Montana's Missouri Breaks in hopes of creating the American Prairie Reserve. Rewilding the West deftly sets the historical context for the proposed reserve. 

Although Manning is sympathetic to the Prairie Foundation's goal of creating a reserve that functions as a large, unbroken stretch of prairie, he sees privatization as problematic and urges the foundation to transfer its land into the public domain. But he remains optimistic about the prairie, if not about the humans who seek to control it. "Eventually the Breaks will break us," he concludes, and "teach us to live within their rules."