Rangeland Health: New Methods to
Classify, Inventory, and
Committee on Rangeland
Classification, Board of
Agriculture, National Research Council; National Academy Press,
Washington, D.C. 1994. Paper, 180 pages. Order from: The
Society for Range Management, 1839 York St.,
Denver, CO 80206;
Review by Ed
What have those guys
been doing all these years is the question the study - Rangeland
Health by the National Research Council - provokes. The study is a
first-rate job by first-rate people, but it is all questions and no
answers even though we're a century into the so-called "settlement"
of the West.
Actually, the study doesn't contain
questions - it contains appalling statements about our ignorance.
According to the NRC, we do not know how to assess the health of
rangelands. In addition to lacking a theory of rangeland health,
the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and Soil Conservation
Service have failed to gather the consistent field data that could
be used to test a theory or to make general statements about the
health of our grasslands.
In place of uniform
data, we have several incompatible, inconsistent systems of
information. Each agency interprets its (different) data
differently, and each interest group then reinterprets the data.
So when a rancher says the range is incredibly
healthy and productive, but worth less than $2 an animal unit
month, and an environmentalist says the range is shattered and
non-productive, but worth $10 an animal unit month, there's no way
to choose between their statements. Because the range scientists
have failed to do their job of integrating and generalizing, anyone
can say anything without fear of being contradicted.
There may be, and probably is, good information
here and there on the ground. And some BLM, Forest Service and Soil
Conservation Service staffers and some ranchers may know what they
are doing. And there are also range scientists doing good, but
highly specialized, work.
But the system breaks
down above the level of field offices and individual scientists and
ranchers. The agencies and range scientists have never figured out
how to be useful to the public. They have never integrated their
data, or raised their science above its present highly specialized
This is because range science never
thought of the public as part of its constituency. Range science
lacks the perspective and the intellectual independence to provide
information that would help the public understand our grasslands.
Range science - which should be called political science, or
"custom "n" culture" science - has been a handmaiden of the
livestock industry. And handmaidens do not do good science.
Its failures are laid out in Rangeland Health,
which says range science has over-specialized, has ignored related
disciplines such as soil and watershed science, and has ignored
better work being done abroad.
The study calls
on U.S. scientists and the three federal agencies to become
interdisciplinary, to agree on a single approach to classifying
grasslands, to pay much more attention to watersheds and soils and
ecosystems, and to do science and monitoring that will help the
public understand the ongoing clamorous debate.
The book also hints that, in places, we are too
late. At least some of the authors appear to believe that large
chunks of America's grasslands have tipped over into dreaded
category C - shrub-ridden, eroded land beyond nature's powers of
recuperation - with millions more acres about to
The book's authors are
John C. Buckhouse, Rangeland Resources, Oregon State University;
Frank E. Busby, chair, Winrock International Institute for
Agricultural Development; Donald C. Clanton, Animal Science,
University of Nebraska (retired); George C. Coggins, Law School,
University of Kansas; Gary R. Evans, Chief Science Advisor to the
Secretary of Agriculture; Kirk L. Gadzia, Resource Management
Services; Charles M. Jarecki, Polson, Montana, rancher; Linda A.
Joyce, ecologist at Rocky Mountain Forest and Range Experiment
Station, USFS; Dick Loper, Prairie Winds Consulting Service; Daniel
L. Merkel, range conservationist, Soil Conservation Service; George
B. Ruyle, range scientist, Univerity of Arizona; Jack Ward Thomas,
Chief of the Forest Service; Johanna Wald, attorney, Natural
Resources Defense Council; and Stephen E. Williams, soil scientist,