In the summer of 2000, in the midst of one of the most intense droughts in the Southwest in decades, I was radicalized by fire. During an 11-day backpack across the Gila Wilderness, my companion and I came across one of the rarest events in the cow-burnt landscapes of the West -- a gentle fire, dancing slowly through an old-growth ponderosa pine forest.
McKenna Park, the area where the fire burned
quietly for more than two months, had been off-limits to domestic
livestock for nearly half a century. As a result, native grasses
blanket this parkland, while beavers dam mile after mile of trout
streams bordered with dense thickets of cottonwood and willow.
That experience was just one in a long line of
ecological epiphanies I've had since moving to New Mexico in 1994.
They've led me to a simple conclusion: Cattle grazing on much of
the Western landscape makes no ecological sense, and has little
Beaver and fire are two
critical ecological agents that will continue to be marginalized by
the rancher-centric worldview promoted in "Ranching West of the
100th Meridian," a new book edited by Richard Knight, Ed Marston
and Wendell Gilgert. The book is a collection of essays that
celebrate ranching and the rural culture that has grown up around
it in the last 140 years.
At the center of its
worldview is the belief that ranching, with slight ecological
modifications, can save the West from the onslaught of development.
Knight and his collaborators promote the false dichotomy that
Westerners must choose between either cows or condos; between
flood-irrigated alfalfa pastures or another Wal-Mart. For the same
reason that I disagree with President Bush for framing the post
9/11 geopolitical world as either good or evil, I reject the notion
that we can only have cows or condos.
ranching in an arid landscape is not economically vibrant enough to
prevent sprawl. Ranchers regularly lose money. This financial
reality is only acceptable because of direct and indirect taxpayer
subsidies on the order of $500 million per year. Ranchers have been
selling out to developers for a century or more, not because of
pesky environmentalists, but because ranching, as a business,
stinks. And it's not getting any better.
Westerners are serious about preventing sprawl from destroying
private lands that are important wildlife corridors or biological
hotspots -- and we should be -- then we can't hide behind the
cowboy myth. We must place much greater priority on conservation
easements, land-use planning and private land acquisition.
As it is now, we're getting the worst of both
worlds -- ecologically damaging cattle grazing and largely
uncontrolled sprawl. Our public lands are held hostage by ranchers
who angrily oppose wolf reintroduction, persecute prairie dogs and
continue to allow their livestock to destroy streams, even after
they've sold their private lands to become the latest 'Elk Meadows'
Second, defenders of ranchers
routinely fail to consider the true ecological impacts of livestock
grazing in the West. As they narrowly frame it, the ecological
debate about ranching is little more than a conflict over how to
manage grass. Contrary to a report they cite, there is reams of
evidence from the non-agriculturally oriented scientific community
implicating livestock production in the endangerment of hundreds of
imperiled desert, grassland, aquatic and even forest species.
Ranching supporters also ignore the role that
cattle grazing -- by removing grasses that fuel low-intensity fires
-- has played in disrupting natural fire regimes across the West's
drier forests. Likewise, they fail to openly admit that the sole
reason wolves are embattled refugees on the Western landscape, and
that federal agents kill almost 90,000 coyotes per year, is to make
the West's open spaces safer for sheep and cattle.
And what of the near-complete extermination and
continuing war against prairie dogs and beavers, keystone species
whose loss has resulted in the near collapse of Western stream and
grassland ecosystems? Or the hundreds of Western creeks dammed and
diverted for the purpose of flood-irrigating alfalfa to sustain
cattle in the winter or to fill stockponds on land where cattle
could not otherwise exist?
The society we seek
is one that doesn't persecute the West's wildlife, glorify guns,
arrogantly presume a right to divert an entire creek's flow, or
turn desert grasslands into scrub. This culture rejects the
consumerism and sprawl that is sterilizing our precious Western
heritage. The culture waiting to flourish as ranching wanes is one
that embraces the West's wild heart, its droughts, fires, wolves
and all of the extremes of this stark and beautiful land that we