In the summer of 2000, in the midst of one of the most intense droughts in the Southwest in decades, I was radicalized by fire. During an 11-day backpack across the Gila Wilderness, my companion and I came across one of the rarest events in the cow-burnt landscapes of the West - a gentle fire, dancing slowly through an old-growth ponderosa pine forest. McKenna Park, the area where the fire burned quietly for more than two months, had been off-limits to domestic livestock for nearly half a century. As a result, native grasses blanket this parkland, while beavers dam mile after mile of trout streams bordered with dense thickets of cottonwood and willow.
That experience was just one in a long line of ecological epiphanies I've had since moving to New Mexico in 1994. They've led me to a simple conclusion: Cattle grazing on much of the Western landscape makes no ecological sense, and has little economic relevance.
Beaver and fire are two critical ecological agents that will continue to be marginalized by the rancher-centric worldview promoted in "Ranching West of the 100th Meridian," a new book edited by Richard Knight, Ed Marston and Wendell Gilgert. The book is a collection of essays that celebrate ranching and the rural culture that has grown up around it in the last 140 years. At the center of its worldview is the belief that ranching, with slight ecological modifications, can save the West from the onslaught of development.
Knight and his collaborators promote the false dichotomy that Westerners must choose between either cows or condos; between flood-irrigated alfalfa pastures or another Wal-Mart. For the same reason that I disagree with President Bush for framing the post 9/11 geopolitical world as either good or evil, I reject the notion that we can only have cows or condos.
First, ranching in an arid landscape is not economically vibrant enough to prevent sprawl. Ranchers regularly lose money. This financial reality is only acceptable because of direct and indirect taxpayer subsidies on the order of $500 million per year. Ranchers have been selling out to developers for a century or more, not because of pesky environmentalists, but because ranching, as a business, stinks. And it's not getting any better. If Westerners are serious about preventing sprawl from destroying private lands that are important wildlife corridors or biological hotspots - and we should be - then we can't hide behind the cowboy myth.
We must place much greater priority on conservation easements, land-use planning and private land acquisition. As it is now, we're getting the worst of both worlds - ecologically damaging cattle grazing and largely uncontrolled sprawl. Our public lands are held hostage by ranchers who angrily oppose wolf reintroduction, persecute prairie dogs and continue to allow their livestock to destroy streams, even after they've sold their private lands to become the latest 'Elk Meadows' subdivision.
Second, defenders of ranchers routinely fail to consider the true ecological impacts of livestock grazing in the West. As they narrowly frame it, the ecological debate about ranching is little more than a conflict over how to manage grass. Contrary to a report they cite, there is reams of evidence from the non-agriculturally oriented scientific community implicating livestock production in the endangerment of hundreds of imperiled desert, grassland, aquatic and even forest species.
Ranching supporters also ignore the role that cattle grazing - by removing grasses that fuel low-intensity fires - has played in disrupting natural fire regimes across the West's drier forests. Likewise, they fail to openly admit that the sole reason wolves are embattled refugees on the Western landscape, and that federal agents kill almost 90,000 coyotes per year, is to make the West's open spaces safer for sheep and cattle.
And what of the near-complete extermination and continuing war against prairie dogs and beavers, keystone species whose loss has resulted in the near collapse of Western stream and grassland ecosystems? Or the hundreds of Western creeks dammed and diverted for the purpose of flood-irrigating alfalfa to sustain cattle in the winter or to fill stockponds on land where cattle could not otherwise exist?
The society we seek is one that doesn't persecute the West's wildlife, glorify guns, arrogantly presume a right to divert an entire creek's flow, or turn desert grasslands into scrub. This culture rejects the consumerism and sprawl that is sterilizing our precious Western heritage. The culture waiting to flourish as ranching wanes is one that embraces the West's wild heart, its droughts, fires, wolves and all of the extremes of this stark and beautiful land that we call home.
Editor's note: John Horning is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He is executive director of Forest Guardians, based in Santa Fe, N.M..