Watch out Mars, we don’t treat frontiers with respect

  The same day President Bush announced his plan to "continue the journey" into space by colonizing the moon and heading for Mars, I stood in line at the grocery store and thought about space exploration as just another excuse to head ever Westward, another distraction for troubles at home, another frontier to conquer and leave behind.

As I thought, a distinctive odor tickled my consciousness, emitted by a row of votive candles on a nearby shelf. I inhaled the rich, nutty fragrance of roasting chestnuts recalled from my childhood.

"Chestnuts roasting on an open fire," crooned Nat King Cole." When "The Christmas Song" was written, the odor of roasting chestnuts was synonymous with winter, emanating from stands where street vendors sold handfuls of the buttery nuts.

Now, the magnificent forests of American chestnut trees are gone, victims of an accident in the conquering of their particular frontier. A lethal fungus imported with Asian chestnut trees began killing native chestnuts.

The fatal microbe, first noticed at the Bronx Zoo in 1904, eliminated American chestnut trees on 9 million acres of forest in less than 50 years. By the time "The Christmas Song" became famous, the trees that inspired its opening line were gone in a disaster greater than any hurricane or wildfire.

American chestnut trees were the redwoods of the East, with straight trunks reaching 100 feet tall and up to 20 feet across at the base. They dominated deciduous forests from Maine to Alabama and Maryland to Michigan: researchers estimate that one in every four trees was a chestnut.

Their oil-rich nuts fed native wildlife of every sort, fattened domestic livestock, and provided a winter cash crop that rural-dwellers shipped by the railroad-car load to cities across the country. The straight-grained, rot-resistant wood was cut for telegraph poles, fences, railroad ties, paneling, musical instruments and furniture.

Then suddenly, the trees died. The loss of American chestnuts devastated rural economies and destabilized forest ecosystems, causing watershed erosion, loss of soil fertility, and elimination of other native species; it may even have exacerbated global warming by removing the largest source of carbon storage in Eastern deciduous forests.

Here in the West, we have experienced similar accidents of conquest.

In the late 1800s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture touted several species of trees imported from the eastern Mediterranean and East Asia for windbreaks and erosion control in the Southwest and western Great Plains. The thicket-forming trees with their springtime cloud of pink flowers took hold like kudzu: today, tamarisk, also called salt cedar, infests one million acres along Western streams and rivers, crowding out cottonwood trees and poisoning soils with a rain of salty leaves.

The thirst of these trees may be their most devastating economic and ecological effect: Salt cedars out-guzzle the native plants they replaced by an estimated 800 billion gallons of water a year — enough to supply 4.8 million people.

In an arid land perennially short of water; when Kansas is suing Colorado (again) over water not delivered; when California has grudgingly ceded claims to "excess" water it had been sucking from the Colorado River, and New Mexico is scrabbling to find the water it owes to Texas, salt cedar’s thirst has an impact big enough for even Congress to notice. Last year, the Congress appropriated $20 million for research on salt cedar eradication. That’s probably not enough to get rid of the trees in even one Western state.

Then there is cheatgrass, the Eurasian annual accidentally introduced with livestock grazing. A prolific seed-producer and quick germinator, cheatgrass quickly colonized the intermountain West.

Short-lived and intensely flammable, it is proving terrifyingly effective at doing what ranchers have not been able to do in a century of trying: removing sagebrush. Cheatgrass spawns wildfires that have cleared hundreds of thousands of acres of sagebrush just when we are discovering that the once-ubiquitous shrub is critical to the health of the ecosystems where it lives and the economies dependent on those ecosystems.

We have the tools to bring back American chestnuts, and to eradicate salt cedar and cheatgrass. Doing so would enrich the landscapes around us, and the lives we live on them. But such projects require money, lots of it. And money, like water, is a finite commodity: if we spend $1 trillion or so colonizing Mars, there’s that much less for here on Earth.

That’s why I think it’s time for a national vision that is less about heading ever Westward and conquering new frontiers. We need to stay where we are and thoughtfully restore the communities we now inhabit, both human and wild.

Susan Tweit is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is a writer and naturalist in Salida, Colorado.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds
  • WATER POLICY ANALYST WITH WRA (BOULDER)
    Position Summary: Western Resource Advocates seeks a passionate Water Policy Analyst with knowledge of western water issues to join our Healthy Rivers Team to strengthen...
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST
    9+ acre inholding. Passive solar strawbale off the grid and next to the Continental Divide Trail in ponderosa pine/doug fir forest at 7400.
  • HIRING BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER DIRECTOR
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring an Education Center Director to oversee the operation of the Bears Ears Education Center....
  • PROGRAM MANAGER, SUSTAINING FLOWS
    Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • PROGRAM ASSOCIATE - VERDE RIVER EXCHANGE
    Verde River Exchange - Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • CODE COMPLIANCE OFFICER
    Teton County Planning & Building is hiring! Our ideal candidate is a team-player, a problem-solver, pays attention to detail, and can clearly communicate technical material...
  • ARCHITECTURE DRAFTSPERSON/PROJECT MANAGER
    Studio Architects is seeking a full time Architectural drafts-person/project manager with1-3 years of experience to join our firm. At Studio Architects our mission is to...
  • ASSISTANT MANAGER/TRAINEE, COLORADO RANCH
    needed for 16,000+ acre conservation property in south central Colorado. Qualified candidate would have experience working on a ranch or wilderness property, general forestry/fire management...
  • FARM HAND &/OR NANNY IN ESCALANTE
    Nanny for 18-mnth-old. Yearly salary, vacation, health insurance. Spanish/other foreign-language native spkr prefrrd.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Washington Association of Land Trusts seeks an ED to build on WALTs significant success & to lead the association to new levels of achievement. See...
  • BEAUTIFUL CUSTOM STRAWBALE HOME IN WESTERN COLORADO!
    Secluded, energy efficient Southwestern home on 40 wooded acres. Broker - Rand Porter - United Country Real Colorado Properties. 970-261-1248, $425K
  • FORMER RETREAT CENTER/CONSERVATION PROPERTY FOR SALE
    57 acres in Skull Valley, AZ, 17 miles from Prescott, year-round creek, swimming holes, secluded canyon, hiking/meditation trails, oaks, pines, garden, greenhouse. House, office building,...
  • ARIZONA PUBLIC LANDS ORGANIZER
    Title: Public Lands Organizer About the Arizona Wildlife Federation (AWF) The AWF is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating, inspiring, and assisting individuals and organizations...
  • HISTORIC RANCH HOME W/ 20 ACRES
    Historic 1893 Ranch Headquarters. 4 Bdrm, 3.5 Ba, 4000 ft2. Remodeled 2002. Includes 2 studio apts, stables, arena, workshop, 5 RV hookups. Chirachua & Peloncillo...
  • VICE PRESIDENT OF RETAIL OPERATIONS
    The Vice President of Retail Operations will provide overall leadership and accountability for purchasing, product development, merchandising planning, visual merchandising, retail operational excellence, oversight and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners seeks an experienced fundraiser with excellent communication and organizational skills.
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    position in Phoenix with the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy.
  • ROADS END CABIN NEAR YELLOWSTONE
    Vaulted ceilings, two fireplaces, two bedrooms, loft, jetted tub, wifi. Forest, mountain views. Wildlife. [email protected]
  • ACCOUNTING CLERK
    Our director is seeking to employ the services of an Accounting Clerk to assist with various accounting and administrative tasks. This is a great opportunity...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, COMMUNITY RADIO PROJECT
    Community Radio Project, Cortez, CO (KSJD & the Sunflower Theatre). Visit ksjd.org and click on the Executive Director search link. CRP is an EOE.