A battle for the land -- and soul -- of the West

  • Images by the BLM; leezsnow, nexusseven, ISTOCK; Shaun Gibson. Photo illustration by Shaun Gibson

The American West at Risk: Science, Myths, and Politics of Land Abuse and Recovery
Howard G. Wilshire, Jane E. Nielson, and
Richard W. Hazlett
617 pages, hardcover: $35.
Oxford University Press, 2008.


It's no secret that the West's public lands are in deep trouble. The American West at Risk presents a familiar litany of problems: damage from overgrazing, hard-rock mining and large-scale clear-cutting; motorized recreation; nuclear waste storage and the dewatering of arid regions. But the book also calls on citizens to take some responsibility for the mess, and it offers suggestions for shaping rational policies to clean it up.

In the words of Walt Kelly's Pogo, "We have met the enemy, and he is us." Westerners tolerate -- and sometimes encourage -- industry's exploitation of our public lands. We elect, and re-elect, politicians who represent not us but rather those industries whose contributions fill their campaign coffers. Authors Howard G. Wilshire, Jane E. Nielson and Richard W. Hazlett acknowledge that we the people are not solely to blame: The U.S. government has long put environmental protection at the bottom of its agenda.

It's not that there haven't been plenty of alarm bells, both inside and outside of government. President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned the nation about the dangers of destroying from within that which we were trying to protect from without. Over 50 years ago, Admiral Hyman Rickover talked about the risks of dependence on fossil fuels, but our representatives in Washington have done almost nothing to curb the addiction. Water, perhaps the West's most valuable natural resource, is still divvied up according to an agreement made over 75 years ago during a period of abundant rain, with the allotments unchanged despite the long-term drought. 

But the authors offer more than just a recitation of problems. They also present a guide to solutions -- to crafting new federal and state policies based not on myths and the wishes of industry but on actual data and scientific research. They write: "The western United States has left its frontier days well behind. We can no longer pillage the land and move on because there is no other place to go. ... Now is the time for learning how to live better with nature. If we cannot, our proud nation could go the way of many civilizations that preceded ours."

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