To restore the West, go big and go native

  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 tame it.

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.

A 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 animals.

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 growers.

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.

If 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.

Paul Larmer is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He is the paper’s publisher and can be reached at plarmer@hcn.org.