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Oh, give me land, lots of land

Welfare Ranching: The Subsidized Destruction of the American West, Edited by George Wuerthner and Mollie Matteson, Foundation for Deep Ecology / Island Press: 346 pp., $75, $45 paper The Western Range Revisited: Removing Livestock From Public Lands to Conserve Native Biodiversity, Debra L. Donahue, University of Oklahoma Press: 388 pp., $21.95 paper Ranching West of the 100th Meridian: Culture, Ecology and Economics, Edited by Richard L. Knight, Wendell C. Gilgert and Ed Marston, Island Press: 196 pp., $25 paper Down to Earth: Nature's Role in American History, Ted Steinberg, Oxford University Press: 348 pp., $30

October 27, 2002|Frank Clifford | Frank Clifford is the author of "The Backbone of the World: A Portrait of the Vanishing West Along the Continental Divide." He is an editor at The Times.

The West is an exquisite corpse. "There was nothing to see in the land in the way of a flower," remarked Georgia O'Keeffe when she first saw the high desert of northern New Mexico. "There were just dry white bones."

A cow's skull floating in the sky became the painter's most enduring image. But there was nothing ethereal about the boneyard. It was the ruinous outcome of Depression-era drought, made all the more lethal by overstocking and overgrazing an arid land.

The hard surfaces and lifeless spaces have always made it difficult to appreciate the fragility of the West. We are desensitized by its lunar complexion and its otherworldliness. We named the landmarks of the Grand Canyon after alien deities: Jupiter's Temple and Vulcan's Throne. Later, we tested doomsday weapons in the deserts of Nevada and Utah. It is easy in such an apocalyptic environment to forget that it has nourished life for ages, easier still to forget our complicity in its destruction.

For more than a century, scientists have warned about the carrying capacity of Western lands. John Wesley Powell, who led an expedition through the Grand Canyon in 1868, advised Congress 10 years later that only 3% of the region could support intensive cultivation or livestock grazing. But Powell's recommendations for limited settlement were ignored, as was the recurring evidence of his prescience: the deaths of millions of cattle during the 1880s, the wholesale failure of early 20th century homesteads and the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

"Given the nature of arid lands, cow damaged landscapes are often perceived as aesthetically pleasing, even though ecologically wounded." So begins an essay by two seasoned environmentalists, Andy Kerr and Mark Salvo, in "Welfare Ranching," an extravagantly photographed super-size treatise that chronicles the devastation wrought by livestock and argues for its removal from the West's public lands.

The unhorsing of the cowboy begins with the cover, a near poster size dust jacket of a herd of cattle and a porcine wrangler mounted not on a cow pony but on a far more efficient engine of pollution and erosion, the gas-powered ATV. What follows is a series of critical essays by 30 or so authors, scientists and historians, including the late T.H. Watkins and the merry bandito of Western letters, Edward Abbey.

In many ways, "Welfare Ranching" is the illustrated, fuel-injected version of Debra L. Donahue's 1999 "The Western Range Revisited." Donahue reaches back in time to vindicate the contemporary concerns of Western environmentalists. She cites perhaps the most exhaustive study of the Western range ever conducted. Issued in 1936 by the Forest Service, it found that 98% of public rangelands had been severely overgrazed and blamed it on Western stockmen's reckless pursuit of quick profits, concluding that "care and restraint seemed farfetched and visionary."

The editors of "Welfare Ranching," George Wuerthner and Mollie Matteson, set out to demonstrate that conditions haven't improved appreciatively since the 1930s. They use statistics and photography of "cow bombed" landscapes to contrast ranchers' paltry yields with their gross expenditure of natural capital. A mere 22,000 ranchers today have the run of 75% of Western public lands. Their grazing rights take precedence over other uses on hundreds of millions of acres in the public domain, including national forests and a few national parks. At the same time, cattle ranching contributes to less than 1% of the jobs and income in Western states, including California. The contribution to the nation's food supply is equally negligible.

The unsuitability of the sparsely vegetated Western range is the main reason, the authors argue, that ranchers have repeatedly relied on taxpayers to bail them out. The federal emergency livestock feed program has cost taxpayers up to $500 million a year.

Then there are the millions that have poured out of the public coffers to pay for the ranchers' war on wildlife. Since the 1930s, the federal animal damage control program, according to Donahue, has financed the killing of some 4 million predators. The coyote has been the main target, but the subsidized slaughter has also annihilated hundreds of thousands of bears, wolves, bobcats, mountain lions and even prairie dogs.

Historian Bernard DeVoto said the West is a paradoxical place. Conservative lawmakers fall all over themselves to distribute billions of dollars in relief to people renowned for their rugged independence, especially when it comes to resisting government regulation. DeVoto once summed up the Westerner's attitude toward government this way: "Get out and give us more money."

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