It’s always disconcerting to have a myth blown apart. Like when you find out your favorite sports star, who you know to be a morally upstanding person, abuses his wife. The world wobbles; food doesn’t taste as good; you just want to fall asleep and wake up when everything is back to normal.
That’s what happened to my myth about the American
West. As a youngster, I believed the mountains, plains and deserts
of the West were the last intact remnants of unspoiled America.
They were where the deer and the antelope still played, where the
sheer majesty of the natural landscape dwarfed human efforts to
But inch by inch, this myth has eroded. A giant
chunk slid into the river about eight years ago while I was
reporting on a story about the spread of a non-native shrub called
tamarisk along the West’s waterways. Once the scientists and
land managers showed me the billowy Eurasian import, I saw it
everywhere. Vast forests of tamarisk clogged the Colorado
River’s banks. It sprouted along creeks and irrigation canals
and in every low spot where water might gather, taking up space
usually filled by native cottonwoods and willows.
similar scenario played out as native grasses and forbs of
Colorado’s Front Range gave way to Russian Knapweed and other
foreign opportunists. With the help of wildfire, the vast
sagebrush-studded Great Basin was turning into fire-prone
cheatgrass pastures of little value to a cow, let alone anything
wild. Suddenly I saw every farming community in the Rockies as a
breeding ground and launching pad for non-native plants and
Humans, more often than not, sowed the seeds. We
brought these species with us from other continents, and we plowed
up or overgrazed the land and dammed the rivers to unintentionally
provide invaders with ideal conditions. We even deliberately
planted them in an ignorant attempt to restore lands damaged by
mining, logging, grazing and wildfires.
So the world
wobbled for me. But I was in good company. And some of the people
who saw the world as I now did were doing something about it.
Today, many land managers, public and private, are
restoring the West’s native species. Dozens of companies have
sprung up to provide them with the basic building blocks: native
seeds. Last year, Granite Seed Company, based in Lehi, Utah, south
of Salt Lake City, sold 5 million pounds of seed mix to the federal
Bureau of Indian Affairs. It was used to rehabilitate land burned
on the Navajo Indian Reservation in Arizona. Half of that was
native seed, and some of it, such as antelope bitterbrush, can
fetch as much as $40 per pound.
Government has played an
important role in the native seed boom. In 1999, President Clinton
signed an executive order requiring the Forest Service, Bureau of
Land Management and other agencies to eschew exotic seeds for
natives "to the extent practicable" when restoring lands.
It’s a good step, but too small to do the job. In
Nevada’s Great Basin, a federal initiative to restore
sagebrush continues to lag because of uncertain funding. Even where
its managers have cobbled together funds for restoration work, they
are using native seeds only about 40 percent of the time.
Old habits die hard. We know how to grow exotics like crested
wheatgrass better than natives, and it is easier for managers to do
what they have always done, especially when by law they only have
to use native seed when "practicable." The other problem is supply.
Native seed companies have little certainty that the seeds they
collect or grow will in a given year will be bought, thanks to the
vagaries of Mother Nature -- the size of wild fires, for instance
--and the year-to-year vacillations in agency budgets.
It’s not dissimilar to the problem American farmers have
coping with fluctuating world markets. The solution the government
has come up with for farmers is to subsidize their crops.
It’s time for Congress to do the same for native seed
With a little help, a new indigenous Western
agriculture can thrive. Imagine field after field of native
sagebrush and grasses, their seeds restoring hundreds of millions
of acres of public land. Imagine the water savings that would come
from growing natives, instead of alfalfa and corn.
Congress would step in to guarantee funding for a steady supply of
native seed and mandate federal and state agencies to use only
native species, it would start blowing away another myth: That the
federal government is only capable of degrading the American West.