The American West at Risk: Science, Myths, and Politics of Land Abuse and Recovery

The American West at Risk: Science, Myths, and Politics of Land Abuse and Recovery

The American West at Risk: Science, Myths, and Politics of Land Abuse and Recovery

The American West at Risk: Science, Myths, and Politics of Land Abuse and Recovery


The American West at Risk summarizes the dominant human-generated environmental challenges in the 11 contiguous arid western United States-America's legendary, even mythical, frontier. When discovered by European explorers and later settlers, the west boasted rich soils, bountiful fisheries, immense, dense forests, sparkling streams, untapped ore deposits, and oil bonanzas. It now faces depletion of many of these resources, and potentially serious threats to its few "renewable" resources.The importance of this story is that preserving lands has a central role for protecting air and water quality, and water supplies--and all support a healthy living environment. The idea that all life on earth is connected in a great chain of being, and that all life is connected to the physical earth in many obvious and subtle ways, is not some new-age fad, it is scientifically demonstrable. An understanding of earth processes, and the significance of their biological connections, is criticalin shaping societal values so that national land use policies will conserve the earth and avoid the worst impacts of natural processes. These connections inevitably lead science into the murkier realms of political controversy and bureaucratic stasis. Most of the chapters in The American West at Risk focus on a human land use or activity that depletes resources and degrades environmental integrity of this resource-rich, but tender and slow-to-heal, western U.S. The activities include forestclearing for many purposes; farming and grazing; mining for aggregate, metals, and other materials; energy extraction and use; military training and weapons manufacturing and testing; road and utility transmission corridors; recreation; urbanization; and disposing of the wastes generated by everything that we do. We focus on how our land-degrading activities are connected to natural earth processes, which act to accelerate and spread the damages we inflict on the land.


Science … does not compromise…. [It] forces ideas to compete in a
dynamic process. This competition refines or replaces old hypotheses,
gradually approaching a more perfect representation of the truth…. The
natural process of a bureaucracy … tends to compromise competing ideas.
The bureaucracy then adopts the compromise as truth and incorporates it
into its being

John M. Barry, Rising Tide

This book focuses on the human-caused environmental woes of America’s 11 contiguous western states, its mostly arid western continental frontier. In the nineteenth century, penny pamphlets and dime novels mythologized the American west, making icons of its prospectors, “cowboys,” northwestern loggers, and wide open spaces. The west was free of encroaching neighbors and government controls, open to fresh starts. As Robert Penn Warren wrote, in All the King’s Men, “West … is where you go when the land gives out and the old-field pines encroach … when you are told that you are a bubble on the tide of empire … when you hear that thar’s gold in them-thar hills…. ” But the “West” was more than gold and oil bonanzas—it was also a land of rich soils, bountiful fisheries, immense, dense forests, desert wonders, and sparkling streams. It is no myth that the western states were America’s treasure house.

The romantic myths related to “winning” the west tend to obscure both its basic objective of resource exploitation and the huge public expenditures that supported every aspect, bestowing fortunes on a few. Western resources supported U.S. industrial growth and affluent lifestyle, but now they are highly depleted or largely gone, and the region is in danger of losing the ability to sustain an even moderately comfortable future. Much of what we have done to these magnificent lands opened them to devastating erosion and pollution. Today, whole mountains are being dismantled to produce metals from barely mineralized zones. Entire regions may be devastated in the attempt to extract the last possible drops of petroleum. We soon could cut down the last remnants of ancient western forests, along with the possibility of ever again seeing their like. Large-scale farming has opened vulnerable western soils to erosion by water and wind, perhaps inviting another dust bowl era. Irrigating vast crop acreages has converted many of them to salt farms, perhaps resembling the conditions that spelled doom for the ancient Babylonian Empire.

The how and why of these risks—the past and impending losses—are the theme of this book, along with proposals, strategies, hopes, and even fantasies about how . . .

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