Essay by Ed Marston
If only Sid Goodloe
had confined himself to his six or so square miles of private
property. Then his would be a straightforward story about the
rejuvenation of a piece of exhausted land.
Goodloe doesn't stop at his boundaries. He believes range
restoration should extend to 63 million acres of former grassland
afflicted by piûon-juniper across the Southwest. That is
almost 100,000 square miles - about the size of a typical Western
When Goodloe moves off his land, he runs
into people who are eager to challenge his world view: scientists
who say his work doesn't support the sweeping claims he makes,
environmentalists who see him as seeking grass at the expense of
forest, Native Americans and Hispanics who treasure the piûon
trees he would extirpate, and people who are repelled by the
methods he uses to shove the land back into what he says is its
proper ecological state.
Professor Emeritus Ron
M. Lanner of Utah State University's Forest Resource Department
looks at the same kind of landscape as Goodloe, but instead of an
invasion he sees cattlemen and range scientists stealing woodlands:
"It took me a while to realize that what a
forester regarded as a tree species successfully regenerating in
its native habitat, a range manager considered an invader."
In a paper titled, "What Kind of Woodland Does
the Future Hold?" Lanner argues that piûon-juniper are
despised because they can't be sold to a sawmill. If
piûon-juniper had cash value, the way grass does, Lanner says,
ranchers would be happy to see piûon-juniper trees growing on
Lanner rejects talk of soil and
watersheds lost to invading trees. Those arguments, he writes, were
first floated in 1973 by the U.S. Forest Service in Utah. "There
was not a shred of evidence to support it in 1973, and there is
It is not just the Southwest where
trees battle grass. In the Great Basin of Oregon and Nevada,
juniper has taken over large expanses of former grassland. There is
no disagreement about juniper's expansion. But in a peer-reviewed
paper, A. Joy Belsky, an ecologist with the Oregon Natural
Resources Council, writes that it is impossible to draw any
conclusions about the effects on water, soils or wildlife.
Juniper, she says, has spread to more productive
sites, but so what? Regarding the kind of brush removal work
Goodloe has done, she says, "Most experimental studies showed that
piûon-juniper removal did not increase water yield." Finally,
"Juniper may also have fewer effects on water infiltration and
erosion than livestock, which reduce vegetative cover and disturb
soils with their hooves."
Dick-Peddie, professor emeritus of biology at New Mexico State
University, and author of New Mexico Vegetation: Past, Present and
Future, is even tougher on cows than Belsky.
think juniper follows overgrazing. The site gets opened up. It
causes erosion and gullies." The erosion, he continues,
concentrates what water there is in gullies. So instead of grass
growing over the entire landscape, trees grow in the gullies that
have captured the water.
As far as Dick-Peddie
is concerned, fire plays little or no role in the spread of trees
into former grasslands. "The importance of fire has receded in
scholars' minds," he says.
But Julio Betancourt,
a senior scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey at the
University of Arizona's Desert Laboratory, says, "I disagree that
there's any consensus at all about the unimportance of fire and the
importance of grazing. Ecosystems that have enough grass to carry
fire can carry grazing. Anywhere you can enhance fire, you should
have to do with on-the-ground interactions among livestock grazing,
fire, grass and trees. But talk to the scientists for any length of
time, and you find that the issues broaden wildly, and become
involved with climate change, the effect Indians had on the land,
the rate at which the glaciers receded, and the temperature of the
Questions of landscape health and
change are not tightly defined, or tightly confined. Ecologists,
botanists, hydrologists, range scientists, climatologists,
paleoecologists, archaeologists all have valid views. But each
discipline looks through a different lens. Only rarely can their
separate contributions be added up to reach a conclusion.
Betancourt, for example, is a paleoecologist who
has done extraordinary work analyzing packrat middens and then
painting a picture of the Southwest's changing landscape over the
past 40,000 years. His research tells us that not so long ago the
Sonoran desert was covered by spruce and fir forests that now
survive only as relicts on top of so-called sky islands.
From Betancourt's perspective, the last ice age
is close - only "a few tens of generations away" when measured in
terms of the piûon-juniper trees, which can live 500 years or
more. When he's not studying packrat middens - leaves and needles
and rocks and bones gathered over the last 40,000 years by
generations of packrats and held together by solidified urine -
he's examining how piûon and juniper trees die. The P-J
forests tend to die all at once, catastrophically, as result of
Betancourt draws links between these
sudden declines and the effects of Pacific Ocean temperatures on
the Southwest's climate. If you look at the region through
Betancourt's eyes, Goodloe is fighting immense forces, like the
circulation of the major ocean currents, as he strives to restore
and then maintain his grasslands.
also takes a long view, but hers involves human influence on the
land. She is a Tucson botanist who also works at the Crow Canyon
Archaeological Center at Cortez, Colo. She has visited Goodloe's
ranch and praises him for "bringing back the balance of warm and
cool season plants. He's healing the arroyo. He's doing the right
But whether he is acting rightly or
wrongly in the short term, she is pessimistic about his ultimate
success. She suggests that the damage Goodloe's land suffered goes
way back. "I'm beginning to think that prehistoric people weren't
as conservative as we think they were, and that the land was still
recovering when Anglos came here."
Part of that
ongoing recovery may be piûon-juniper trees taking back land
Indians had cleared of trees. Or, she says, what looks like an
invasion caused by lack of fire may be driven by climate change
that is forcing out grass and encouraging trees.
"There are natural reasons piûon-juniper
move up and down (the landscape), plus there are the past effects
of humans. It's complex." Goodloe is fighting forces so powerful,
she says, that the large-scale chainings of the 1960s protested by
many environmentalists "have done absolutely no good." She is
fatalistic about Goodloe's mix of fire, herbicides and
short-duration grazing to keep back the grass: "Bless his heart. He
can probably do that the rest of his life."
When looked at from the
perspective of climate change, Goodloe and his bulldozers and
matches become insignificant. But Goodloe - who believes that
rising carbon dioxide levels are accelerating tree growth on his
land - doesn't know he's insignificant.
comes to what the landscape should look like, he thinks and acts
big. The West has its land-grant universities and federal land
management agencies and their research stations. But if there is a
long-term scientific experiment in land restoration and
manipulation that comes close to Goodloe's, no one has ballyhooed
In fact, Thaddeus Box, a retired range
professor from Utah State University, says, "Incredibly enough, the
science is relatively primitive. Ranch-size plots like Goodloe's
Instead, the scientists pose, and
answer, narrow questions. In summer 1994, at a piûon-juniper
research conference in Flagstaff titled "Desired Future Conditions
for Piûon-Juniper Ecosystems," there were lots of scientists
and land managers - good people doing good work. But they weren't
interested in the big picture. The specialists stayed close to
their experimental plots or their juniper-loving insects or the
oils in Pinus edulis. Goodloe was the only speaker on the program
who tried to tie together an economy, an ecosystem and a theory of
How then do we
decide whether the Southwest should be a grassland or a woodland?
If, on this subject, science is a tower of Babel, on what
foundation do landowners and the public base strategies?
A partial answer came out of the small town of
Joseph, Ore., this winter, when Goodloe and fire historian Stephen
Pyne of Arizona State University participated in a three-day
literary workshop called Fishtrap.
of Fire in America and of the more recent World Fire, and Goodloe
showed slides, gave talks, and interacted with an audience rich in
fire experts from land management agencies.
says, "Goodloe's is as good an explanation and a solution as anyone
has come up with." He warns against broad conclusions because, he
says, each piece of land is unique. But he also says, "I'm
convinced from reading the historical record that the Southwest was
dominated by grasses, and now it's dominated by woody plants."
When Pyne talks of woody plants, he doesn't mean
just piûon and juniper: He includes the near-sacred saguaro
among the brushy invaders. Most people, he says, don't think of a
saguaro or its fellow cacti that way. "But when the cactus rots,
you realize it is also a woody plant."
because he's a historian rather than a range scientist or
ecologist, Pyne isn't very dogmatic about theories, including his
own. He quotes with approval Norm Christensen, a fire ecologist at
"Norm likened fire ecology to
holy scripture - they can justify anything they want." Pyne
continues, "It's not a lab science. The experiments are always
turning out different. It's the same with climate modeling, water
infiltration measurements, hydrology. They can't replicate the
"God bless the researchers. They're working
hard. But it's not possible."
If hard, experimental science
won't point us toward a landscape, what will? Pyne, a historian who
doesn't even fully trust his own discipline, hedges. He says
history provides only a rough guide. "We can't go back. Too much
has changed, like introduced species. We have to accept what is
Even if we could somehow visit the
past, Pyne says, it wouldn't provide a definitive answer. "We know
that nature created an enormous variety of landscapes. But it
doesn't tell us which to choose."
He rejects the
ecological view that says the more species the better. And he
rejects the idea that we should simply let the landscape tell its
own story, by letting wildfires burn and by generally letting
nature take its course.
"At some point, you have
to quit being an ecologist and saying that nature has no values -
that everything in nature is equally good." Nature may have no
values, but "you have to recognize that humans do have values, and
that they do exercise them."
limitations, Pyne believes history provides the best guide we have.
"There is general dissatisfaction with the landscape today, but the
early explorers and pioneers liked the landscape they found, and
that is why they settled there. They liked the grass up to the
stirrups, and the open, grassy forests and the wildlife."
That, he says, is the landscape he would choose,
though he knows others would make different choices. "Bertrand
Russell said people like the natural world they grew up with. So if
you grew up with piûon-juniper, you get alarmed at the idea of
removing them." Pyne could add that if piûon-juniper dominated
the West when you moved to the region, you might also want to hang
on to it.
However difficult, he continues, we
have to call the shots. "We're brought back to human values. We're
living on an existential earth. We have an earth that can take lots
of shapes. It argues for prudence, for recognizing our level of
ignorance. But I don't see how we can escape the need to shape the
"The real future of environmentalism is in
rehabilitation and restoration. Environmentalists have told the
story of the Garden of Eden and the fall from grace over and over
again. But we haven't yet told the story of redemption," Pyne
concludes. "Now we need to tell that story."