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Know the West

A poverty of imagination

  Dear HCN,

Your article on the Sierra Club's zero-cow initiative (HCN, 2/26/01: 'Zero-Cow' initiative splits Sierra Club), as with so many pieces that HCN does related to grazing issues, once again misrepresents the issues by trying to create a black and white - either/or - situation.

The article portrays the Sierra Club's zero-grazing initiative as a misinformed effort by "urban environmentalists" who know nothing about the "real" West or have no compassion for those affected. And because the article specifically dealt with Hispanics in New Mexico, there is even a not-so-subtle suggestion that those seeking to end the subsidized destruction of the West by cows are somehow racist or rich elitists. Of course this is exactly what those opposed to this initiative want everyone to believe, and your writer certainly provided nothing to counter this perspective.

But as one of the leaders of the Sierra Club's zero-cow movement, I can say without hesitation that the staunchest supporters of zero cows are well acquainted with the West's public lands and know from first-hand experience the multiple ecological impacts wrought by cows. We don't just sit in the city discussing some theoretical West, as the article implied. And most of us aren't rich either.

Second, we believe there are alternative ways of making a living in the West than by pounding the soil to pulp, trampling riparian areas into muddy quagmires and driving hundreds of species to extinction. We are a rich country * rich in both creativity and funds. It's simply not a choice between having cows trash the West or people having to live in caves without food, water or electricity, as critics of any natural resource reform often try to suggest.

The problems of poverty faced by some rural Hispanic residents in New Mexico go well beyond the issue of public-lands livestock production. And the solutions to this poverty are going to involve far more than allowing anyone to graze public lands or not.

If we use our minds, I am positive we can find alternative solutions that provide a brighter future for rural people while giving the land a well deserved respite from abuse. But whether we can create these solutions means going beyond simple black-and-white choices. The greatest poverty faced in the rural West isn't a lack of money, but a poverty of imagination.

George Wuerthner
Eugene, Oregon