How we risked losing the West

A look back at how range science misled land managers.


Longtime readers of High Country News are familiar with the long debate over grasslands and public-lands grazing in the West. Former publisher Ed Marston came to see these controversies as key to the heart and health of our changing rural communities and landscapes. He guided many of us through tense stories about the sometimes-violent eruptions of the Sagebrush Rebellion in the 1980s and ’90s, along with surprising accounts of the unexpected alliances forming between ranchers and environmentalists. At the same time, he gave us an intimate look at the lives of ranching families
anxious about their uncertain future. All of these stories were ultimately concerned with theories of how the land works and how knowledge of the land is gained. So many questions seem to come down to who knows what, on what authority do they rely, and exactly what does that knowledge and authority empower them to do.

In The Politics of Scale, the first real history of the field, geographer Nathan Sayre argues that the range science at the center of many of the decisions and debates in these controversies was itself a perfect engine of controversy, an algorithm for generating conflict. Its formulas were known to be flawed at best, flat wrong at worst, and misleading in almost all cases. But for many decades they were used to set policies region-wide, to regulate ranching families and corporations using the land, and to manage ecosystems — even when it was obvious that the methods for determining the appropriate “carrying capacity” of public lands were ill-suited to the land in question. Part of the problem was that nobody really knew what “appropriate” land use meant. No wonder there was so much controversy and confusion, anxiety and anger, and hope and futility for High Country News to write about.

A grazing allotment near Steens Mountain in southeast Oregon, where the Bureau of Land Management uses prescribed burns, fencing, water developments and juniper control to maintain rangeland health.
Greg Shine/Bureau of Land Management

“Mistaking the model of reality for reality itself,” Sayre writes, range science “disguised normative abstractions as positive facts and then set about to make reality conform, whether by dictating management to ranchers and pastoralists, applying the brute force of machines and chemicals, or bureaucratic sleight of hand.”

How did this happen? The short answer is that the theory of ecological succession, which sort of worked on the Great Plains, was adopted everywhere by the nascent field of range science in the early 20th century, even as it was being discredited by ecologists. Why? Range science was a crisis discipline, meant to address the real problem of overgrazing, and it needed a theory and a method. And succession did describe some aspects of changing plant communities — except when it didn’t, which was in most places at most times.

Moreover, range science was under pressure to provide numbers that would enable ranchers to take out loans and buy and sell ranching properties. Ranchers had to know what their grazing allotments were worth. So range scientists invented the concept of carrying capacity. To calculate this number, however, they had to exclude other important factors — the role of predators and fire, variation in precipitation, and the behavior of herders.

“What confounded the models,” Sayre writes, “was less the West’s celebrated aridity than its variability.” The formulas that the science provided to manage grazing, measured in “animal unit months,” did not account for variability across the actual scale of grazing over time and space. So nobody is ever happy with the numbers range science generates. Ranchers think they are too low, especially in good wet years. Environmentalists think they are too high. Both sides pressure public-land managers to adjust the numbers to their satisfaction.

Sayre sees hope in an emerging “nonequilibrium” range science that embraces complexity and constant change. This theory recognizes that rangelands may transition between different states — grasslands, shrublands, weedlands — that do not follow a predictable successional path and never exist in a state of equilibrium. This calls for adaptive management. Sayre also believes range science outside the United States taught researchers to understand the deep knowledge and practices of pastoralists. This respect for local knowledge is increasingly embodied in collaborative groups around the West.

Sayre acknowledges that it is not yet clear whether adaptive, collaborative approaches can manage landscapes in the West at the scale required to address the biggest challenges, including climate change. And bringing the factors left out of range science formulas back to the land — predators, fire, and herders with local knowledge — across property lines is proving a formidable challenge. While range scientists have “overthrown the old theory,” Sayre writes, “most rangeland conflicts are still fought in (and on) its terms.”

Sayre hopes his history will help change that, but I came away from it with the depressing feeling that while scientists have fiddled with formulas, and ranchers, environmentalists and land managers have fought over numbers, and publications like High Country News have chronicled their stories, we have all been missing the bigger picture and putting the West we love at risk.

The Politics of Scale: A History of Rangeland Science
Nathan Sayre
288 pages, softcover: $40.
University of Chicago Press, 2017.

Jon Christensen is an adjunct assistant professor and a founder of the Laboratory for Environmental Narrative Strategies at UCLA. He has contributed to High Country News for more than three decades.