The West that was, and the West that can be

  • Illustration from Harper's Weekly in the 19th century

  • Dan Flores is a Hammond Professor of Western History at U of M in Missoula

  • Signs of the New West

    Dale Schicketanz
  • Illustration from Harper's Weekly in the 19th century

    W.M. Cary
  • Illustration from Harper's Weekly in the 19th century


On Jan. 24, 1855, Henry David Thoreau sat down to his journal to reflect on all the ways his homeland had changed since the first English colonists had arrived on the shores of Massachusetts two centuries earlier. For several days, Thoreau had been reading the accounts of some of the earliest settlers. Compared to the America they had found, Thoreau reflected, his experience in the forests was like listening to a symphony played without most of the instruments. As he further considered in what became his essay, "To Know an Entire Heaven and an Entire Earth," Thoreau decided that the European colonists had acted as demigods who had impoverished his world by, in effect, plucking from the heavens many of the best and brightest stars.

Only a span of years later and a continent farther west, the Crow leader Plenty Coups, speaking of his vision atop the Crazy Mountains wherein he witnessed the replacement of buffalo with speckled cattle, summarized the Indian perspective on that change with this cryptic remark: "After this, nothing happened."

Even Western pioneers who experienced the change were shocked. As L.A. Huffman, the famous Montana photographer, remembered it, when he first came west in the 1870s, "This Yellowstone-Big Horn country was then unpenned of wire, and unspoiled ... One looked about and said, "This is the last West. ..." There was no more West after that. It was a dream and a forgetting, a chapter forever closed."

From any perspective, that great world of sunlight and grass, endless forests and clear streams anyone could drink out of anytime, now seems central in our experience as a people. Being born literary, Native American, or a sensitive pioneer was and is no requisite to mourning the loss of a world like that, a wilder life on a wilder continent.

Most of us interested in the natural world here on the eve of the 21st century understand Thoreau's sentiment: "I am that citizen whom I pity."

Looking out my windows at the American West from a Rocky Mountain valley in Montana, I can identify with both Thoreau's pathos and Huffman's lament, and less clearly I can see what Plenty Coups meant when he said that after the historic period began for the whites, history ended for the Crows. Step out my door and I'm enveloped by a classic Western landscape that, at first glance, seems very little different from what the Salish and Kootenai saw here.

The mountain valley and its sagebrush foothills haven't gone anywhere, and neither, in places, have the fescues and bluebunch wheatgrasses, the cottonwood and aspen groves along the river. But like all of us alive in this time, I inhabit an impoverished nature, an impoverishment made emblematic by the erasure of many of the great animals that once lived here. The bison herds that the early British traders describe frequenting this valley two centuries ago are entirely gone now.

You can picture the process of the erasure:

Considerable herds right to the end, but more and more sporadic in their appearances, until the last time or two it was almost magical, and they seemed rather like echoes of a past world than tangible beasts of the present. Soon the foothills no longer smelled like them, and their tracks no longer appeared along the creeks. Two winters' worth of snow melted their droppings into the soil, and magpies eventually hauled off all the lingering tufts of hair still snagged on the sagebrush. Their wallows gradually filled in with vegetation and disappeared. Their trails, which through the centuries had significantly shaped the very topography of the West, were appropriated by cattle, or deepened into gullies, or drifted in and became unrecognizable.

Today, the only physical evidence that the great animals were ever here is the infrequent skull or scapula eroding out of a streambank. That, and accounts like those of the Snake River brigades and the oral memories of the native peoples, are about all that remain to testify that a century ago the Bitterroot Valley lay at the Rocky Mountain heart of a great, biologically diverse and rich continent.

The Incredible Shrinking West

For most of the past two centuries the West has been growing smaller before our eyes. Since the process gained its foothold literally 400 years ago when the first Spanish colonies were planted along the Rio Grande in northern New Mexico, the human inhabitants of the American West have been dismantling and simplifying the place piece by piece. Beginning 125 years ago, with the preservation of Yellowstone and Yosemite parks, and at an accelerated pace since the creation of the Wilderness Preservation System in 1964, the visionaries of our culture have checked the dismantling process by attempting to preserve some select pieces as vignettes of what we think the West once was.

Parks and wilderness systems in two ways resemble great literature, art and music. While striving for high expression they rarely obtain it; nonetheless, they serve as cultural landmarks, tangible expressions of something good and noble in the human spirit. Writer Wallace Stegner thought of the West's wildlands as a kind of "geography of hope."

In his late years, Stegner concluded that they were being assailed too rapidly, on too many fronts. His hope was that the West's great deficiency, its relative aridity and finite water sources, would ultimately serve to slow the assault and place limits on Western growth.

Restoring the West was not a topic to which Stegner devoted much attention. But many of our conservation visionaries, who originally thought in terms of making Western resources a commons to be shared and managed by the federal planners, have turned their attention more recently to the theme of restoring the West.

The idea of restoration is as old as the first great book of American conservation history, George Perkins Marsh's 1864 Man and Nature, wherein Marsh urged that mankind become a co-worker with nature in the reconstruction of the damaged fabric of the natural world. If public retention and management of Western resources is the great conservation theme of the late 19th century, and preservation of select pieces of the West that of the 20th, restoration may well be that of the 21st.

As noble a cause as restoration is, the plans and processes of it easily raise as many questions as preservation ought to have. If we aim to restore the West, we ought as a first step to have clearly in our minds exactly what it is we're about. And in hopes of avoiding some of the mistakes and grand controversies that have come to surround preservation, looking the problems in the eye might not be a bad idea, either.

The place to begin is with the premise, because it's a doozy: What exactly do we mean when we speak of "restoring" the West, and what on earth was the West's "original condition?"

For most of the 20th century we've thought we've known the answer to that last question. Certainly John Muir, gazing awestruck at the soaring gray granite in Yosemite, was convinced he knew. Since Thoreau, and right down to the time of Aldo Leopold and Stegner, we were sure we knew what the West was originally. The tradition, as spelled out in the enabling acts of both the National Park Service and the Wilderness Preservation System, has been to seek that baseline condition in the earliest journals of European explorers and travelers.

The Old West was superabundant

Ernest Thompson Seton's famous Lives of Game Animals did that three-quarters of a century ago and produced not just anecdotes but extrapolated statistics. Seton's wildlife figures for the "original" West are truly astonishing: 60-75 million bison, 30-40 million pronghorns, 10 million elk, 10 million mule deer, 1.5 to 2 million sheep across the West at the time the first European explorers traversed it. Big predators as a sign of a healthy continental ecology? Seton assembled accounts indicating that grizzlies had been so numerous that the rate of encounters in early America ranged from 30-40 sightings in a single day in northern California, to nine sightings in a month in the Big Horns in 1877, to bears every 50 yards during salmon runs in Idaho.

Relying less on journal descriptions and more on ecological carrying capacities, more recent scholars have revised many of Seton's figures, yet the imagery of a great natural garden remains. Victor Shelford speaks of an average of 400 whitetail deer, 50-200 wild turkeys, five black bears, three cougars, and one to three wolves per 10 square miles along the edges of the Great Plains in 1500. I've calculated bison herds on the Great Plains, in times of good grass, to reach as high as 24-28 million.

For the country from the Rockies westward, Frederic Wagner estimates 20-30 million large mammals in 1492, including 5-10 million bison, 10-15 million pronghorns, 1-2 million bighorn sheep, 5 million mule deer, 2 million elk. And I note in my Hall and Kelson, Mammals of North America, that the eastern perimeter of the grizzly's range is originally believed to have stretched from Mexico's Sierra Madre Mountains across West Texas to eastern Kansas, thence due north along the Mississippi to Hudson Bay. We now think grizzly populations across that vast stretch totalled more than 100,000 animals.

Along the Alaskan coast and in the Northwest as far inland as present Idaho, salmon runs featured so many different species that it would take several minutes just to list them, a living mass that surged up the rivers during spawning runs with such need and power that even those who had witnessed bison herds on the plains were stunned to speechlessness.

This brief litany of diversity and abundance only scratches the surface:

Hundreds of cactus and reptile species in the deserts of the Southwest; so many passenger pigeons in the annual migration flights up from Texas that some scholars believe the Cross Timbers, a 400-mile long strip of oak woods reaching almost to Kansas, was planted by their droppings;

So many prairie dogs that a single dog town covering much of the Texas Panhandle is believed to have harbored more than 400 million of them;

Old-growth giants, firs and redwoods and sequoias in the Pacific Northwest and the Sierra, parklands of fat, yellow-bellied ponderosas from the San Francisco Range in Arizona to the Flathead Valley in Montana.

And prairie, of course, the only apt metaphor for which is still today, oceans. Great seas of prairie lay across most of the basins and benches and foothills everywhere in the West - tallgrasses, from switchgrass to bluebunch, mid-height gramas and bluestems and fescues, and high plains carpeted with buffalograss so velvety that Meriwether Lewis described it, as it appeared in North Dakota in the spring of 1805, as resembling a huge "bowling green in fine order."

Such was the West 200 to 400 years ago, now eaten away to the point that, to illustrate, among too many examples, there are not 25 million bison but only a quarter million, not 100,000 grizzlies but fewer than 1,000, not billions of passenger pigeons, but now only stuffed ones in a diorama in Philadelphia.

The West-That-Was has long gone by a name that is a worship word, holiest of the holies, for us parishioners of the environment. Aldo Leopold enshrined "wilderness' in essays such as his 1933 piece, "The Virgin Southwest," and since then we've not only made it sacred, we've deeply internalized an ideology of its meaning.

The Romantic Age and America's cultural need had already made the primeval continent into a metaphor for the Divine - if not actually God, then the best and freshest example of His handiwork. In seminal essays like "Pioneers and Gullies' Aldo Leopold coupled that idea with a conviction that the presence of humans, or at least northern European humans, could only detract from or despoil the perfection of that wilderness. The emphasis on that despoliation has become the defining stream in how we think about American environmental history.

What's wild was tamed

Wilderness is certainly the wrong word for what early America was. It's the wrong word because it's Eurocentric and it obscures more than it reveals. What is obscured is that the garden doesn't have to be free of the human touch to still be a garden.

At the time of contact between Europe and the Americas, at least 350 generations (probably more) of men and women had been at work living in and transforming North America over a time span of well over 100 centuries. Multiply that out based on the recent estimates of pre-Columbian population and it means that over the last 500 years before contact the supposed "virgin" landscape of the present United States had been home to 150 million people.

As geographer William Denevan argued in an article he called "The Pristine Myth," the ecological changes that many people could produce over that full span of occupation could only mean that North America when Europeans first saw it was a managed landscape, much of its look and ecology the product of the human presence.

Indians had cleared forests, drained swamps, engineered significant water diversions and highway systems. They had built public works in the form of earthen mounds that for two centuries were larger construction projects than anything the Europeans attempted in America.

Indians had also engaged in environmental modifications that in our Eurocentric guilt we tend to associate only with industrial societies. Their ancestors had played at least some role in the extinctions of the megafauna of the Pleistocene, ecologically the most significant transformation to occur in the West since humans have been here. Indian farmers had introduced dozens of domesticated exotic plants to the West, moved several native species around from one location to another. And the fire ecology they practiced had altered successional patterns and even floral and faunal ranges significantly.

In Utah, for example, ecologists Walter Cottam and John Wakefield argued half a century ago that the waving grasses that drew the Mormon pioneers to the benches of the Wasatch Front were relict populations maintained by Indian fires. That they so quickly gave way to junipers was the result of substituting one land-use scheme for another.

That the West looked and functioned ecologically the way it did 400 years ago had everything to do with the fact that Indians managed it with fire as a great gathering and hunting continent, that tribal wars and hunting based on maximum take for least effort kept buffer zones full of animals across the West, that taboos kept some aspects of nature (beaver among the Blackfeet, for example) sacrosanct, that no clear distinctions were drawn between humans and human-like animals like grizzlies, so that big predators like bears or wolves were not pursued or eradicated.

We also have to face squarely that the America we rhapsodize about was populated by no more than about 10 million people (north of Mexico) at the time of Contact. That's 1/30th the present population of the U.S. and Canada. Even so, Denevan figures it probably took the European settlers more than 250 years to produce as much ecological alteration in America as existed on the continent at the time of Contact.

To make matters even more complicated, Denevan, along with geographer Martyn Bowden, who calls the pristine wilderness idea "the grand invented tradition of American nature as a whole ... a succession of imagined environments," say much of the natural diversity and richness in our literary accounts reflects a continent that was in ecological rebound as a result of Indian depopulation from European disease.

Bison, for example, were never seen in the Southeast by a DeSoto expedition that infected the numerous tribes of the region with disease. Afterward, they were widely reported over the next century or more until Indian populations rebounded, whereupon bison once again vanished from the region. Several recent paleobiologists, most notably Charles Kay of Utah State, believe that populations of many ungulate species in the West remained suppressed for more than 7,000 years before being briefly released, by human disease epidemics, in the 17th and 18th centuries.

A snapshot in time

While these arguments may never persuade us to drop the term wilderness and substitute "Indian-managed America" or "Continent undergoing ecological rebound," these insights are obviously problematic for restoration ecology. Even if I succeed in eradicating the Asiatic wheatgrass and exotic spotted knapweed that have mostly supplanted the native fescues and bluebunch on my 25 acres of Bitterroot Valley prairie, and even if I turned a buffalo loose on it, it may be that what I'll have restored is nothing but a snapshot of time and place - not the face of nature as pristine superorganism at all - but merely another of the kinds of landscapes that humans, and history, have produced.

I've decided that I simply don't care if the image of America we hold in our heads doesn't deserve to be called "wild." Most of the things humans hold dear and value, after all, are cultural constructions. Few readers of the Bible think that the accounts of the creation there are anything but metaphorical, yet that knowledge apparently doesn't dim the power of the book. I feel the same about wilderness and ecological endeavors aimed at restoring North America to its previous or baseline condition.

The United States, after all, exists in historic context.

For Americans, value in nature lies firmly rooted just there. To give credit where it's due, I personally prefer the term Indian America when imagining that baseline nature of five centuries ago. But acknowledging that what I value springs not so much from God as from evolutionary history, humanity's hand firmly on the tiller for several thousand years, shouldn't diminish the luster.

Whose West wins?

On the other hand, all this represents a revision in thinking that we'd best be up front about, because we have to be clear about which West we're trying to replicate. The Pre-Contact West? The Post-Contact West? A pieced-together Pleistocene West? Or the Best West we can imagine? I have a soft spot for a restored West with wild mustangs in it, and that's a very specific snapshot in time even if you argue, taking the long view, that horses are native.

And when we do decide what West we ought to restore, we'll likely as not face (in fact we already have) plenty of questions:

How can we expect to restore Indian fire ecology to an America speckled with houses and latticed with roads that act as firebreaks? How do we replicate a continent managed for hunting and gathering with a population more than 30 times larger?

Then there are nuances: Returning wolves and building in livestock losses is one thing; how accepting are we going to be that lions or grizzlies have returned and are going to munch the odd tourist or jogger on a recurring basis?

There are also specific problems. For one, what we've often destroyed is not just species but ecosytems. Think of the prairie dog communities on the Great Plains, which recent research indicates supported more than 70 different species. The prairie dog community may be simple compared to restoring salmon runs on the tributaries of the Columbia. And as those of us who've supported bison restoration found out when Frank and Deborah Popper called for a Buffalo Commons, not everyone's going to be happy with a vision of restoration.

Ecologist Reed Noss thinks large ungulates like bison, along with their carnivores, would need an area on the order of 10 million acres to support a population of 100,000 animals. None of the great parks we created during the heyday of the preservation movement is nearly that large. In bison restoration on the Great Plains lies 21st century restoration's equivalent of Yellowstone or the Wilderness Act.

Finally, if practical, on-the-ground democracy has been one of the defining triumphs of conservation and preservation, then we have to ask: Who gets to be in charge of restoration in the next century? Some restorations - of wolves, of fire to the public lands, of bison to the plains, of the Western grasslands after a century of plowing and grazing abuse and brush spread, of salmon - are obviously of national interest and scope. But many restoration projects are not only local but often occur at the level of the shortest feedback loop of all - on private land. Arresting weed spread in the West is an example of a restoration that has an enormous private-land dimension.

Across the West the spread of exotic weeds, one of the unintended aspects of European biological imperialism, is creating biological wastelands at a dizzying rate. The spread is bad enough on the public lands, where roughly 4,600 acres of wildlife habitat are being lost to weeds every day, but the rate of spread and corresponding loss of native species on private land is horrifying.

In my home state of Montana, a 1988 study found that in three years of invasion, the exotic spotted knapweed is capable of knocking six of 21 native plants in mountain meadows into the "rare" category. A knapweed-infested foothill prairie eventually will lose 95 percent of its native grasses. And knapweed spread from 4.5 million acres in Montana in 1989 to cover nearly 12 million acres in the state by 1993.

There's one more aspect of restoration. In our efforts to restore the West we may confront an issue that will bewilder all our inspiration and striving. Fifteen years ago down in the Texas Panhandle, with literary descriptions and 19th century photographs in hand, I set about using fire to restore to native prairie a little 12-acre ranchette then enveloped in a mesquite thicket almost impossible to walk through.

Two or three good burns and the grasses were back - the little blue gramas waving about for all the world like thousands of little quarter-notes stabbed into the ground, the side-oats gramas growing heavy with seed-heads that resembled rows of feathers on a lance. It was beautiful.

Then the weather started changing. The period that we associate with classic American wilderness description, 1500 to 1850, was a time of climate anomaly, the Little Ice Age. It was great for grass, great for big animals. Now there is global warming, with its tendency in the Southwest, at least, to produce droughts broken by almost unprecedented gullywashers, so that annual rainfall is up while soil moisture is dropping. Fifteen years later, I'm watching the cactus and the kangaroo rats march onto ground Indian-era photos show was a waving empire of grass.

It's one small for instance of what we're likely to face at every level of restoration in the 21st century, and a further demonstration of that old maxim of history: what happens next is going to be awfully interesting.

The original version of this essay, "Making the West Whole Again," will appear in Reclaiming the Native Home of Hope: Community, Ecology, and the West, edited by Robert B. Keiter, forthcoming in 1998. For information, contact the University of Utah Press, 101 University Services Building, Salt Lake City, UT 84112 (800/773-6672).

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