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Know the West

How federal agencies and range scientists wasted a century


Rangeland Health: New Methods to Classify, Inventory, and Monitor Rangelands

The Committee on Rangeland Classification, Board of Agriculture, National Research Council; National Academy Press, Washington, D.C. 1994. Paper, 180 pages. Order from: The Society for Range Management, 1839 York St., Denver, CO 80206;

303/355-7070; $22.

Review by Ed Marston

What have those guys been doing all these years is the question the study - Rangeland Health by the National Research Council - provokes. The study is a first-rate job by first-rate people, but it is all questions and no answers even though we're a century into the so-called "settlement" of the West.

Actually, the study doesn't contain questions - it contains appalling statements about our ignorance. According to the NRC, we do not know how to assess the health of rangelands. In addition to lacking a theory of rangeland health, the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and Soil Conservation Service have failed to gather the consistent field data that could be used to test a theory or to make general statements about the health of our grasslands.

In place of uniform data, we have several incompatible, inconsistent systems of information. Each agency interprets its (different) data differently, and each interest group then reinterprets the data.

So when a rancher says the range is incredibly healthy and productive, but worth less than $2 an animal unit month, and an environmentalist says the range is shattered and non-productive, but worth $10 an animal unit month, there's no way to choose between their statements. Because the range scientists have failed to do their job of integrating and generalizing, anyone can say anything without fear of being contradicted.

There may be, and probably is, good information here and there on the ground. And some BLM, Forest Service and Soil Conservation Service staffers and some ranchers may know what they are doing. And there are also range scientists doing good, but highly specialized, work.

But the system breaks down above the level of field offices and individual scientists and ranchers. The agencies and range scientists have never figured out how to be useful to the public. They have never integrated their data, or raised their science above its present highly specialized level.

This is because range science never thought of the public as part of its constituency. Range science lacks the perspective and the intellectual independence to provide information that would help the public understand our grasslands. Range science - which should be called political science, or "custom "n" culture" science - has been a handmaiden of the livestock industry. And handmaidens do not do good science.

Its failures are laid out in Rangeland Health, which says range science has over-specialized, has ignored related disciplines such as soil and watershed science, and has ignored better work being done abroad.

The study calls on U.S. scientists and the three federal agencies to become interdisciplinary, to agree on a single approach to classifying grasslands, to pay much more attention to watersheds and soils and ecosystems, and to do science and monitoring that will help the public understand the ongoing clamorous debate.

The book also hints that, in places, we are too late. At least some of the authors appear to believe that large chunks of America's grasslands have tipped over into dreaded category C - shrub-ridden, eroded land beyond nature's powers of recuperation - with millions more acres about to tip.

The book's authors are John C. Buckhouse, Rangeland Resources, Oregon State University; Frank E. Busby, chair, Winrock International Institute for Agricultural Development; Donald C. Clanton, Animal Science, University of Nebraska (retired); George C. Coggins, Law School, University of Kansas; Gary R. Evans, Chief Science Advisor to the Secretary of Agriculture; Kirk L. Gadzia, Resource Management Services; Charles M. Jarecki, Polson, Montana, rancher; Linda A. Joyce, ecologist at Rocky Mountain Forest and Range Experiment Station, USFS; Dick Loper, Prairie Winds Consulting Service; Daniel L. Merkel, range conservationist, Soil Conservation Service; George B. Ruyle, range scientist, Univerity of Arizona; Jack Ward Thomas, Chief of the Forest Service; Johanna Wald, attorney, Natural Resources Defense Council; and Stephen E. Williams, soil scientist, University of Wyoming.