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

Introduction Obeying Nature

Chapter 1 Once and Future Trees

This chapter deals with processes of forest evolution; the impacts of invasive human uses, including logging, recreation, and other development; and the types of policies that might preserve healthy forests and their services, which are essential to our survival.

In 1915 President Theodore Roosevelt said, "The only trouble with the movement for the preservation of our forests is that it has not gone nearly far enough, and was not begun soon enough." Today, U.S. loggers are pushing to cut the last of our heritage trees, the remains of forests here at the time of first European settlement, giving little heed to the necessity of replacing them for the vital services they provide all living things. These services include oxygen production, carbon sequestration, water filtration, and controls on soil erosion.

Government agencies oversee and regulate forest lands and their uses, currently aiming to manage complex biological ecology interactions to serve the public's need for lumber, paper, and other commodities--but also for recreation and renewal. After nine decades of variable forest management goals and five decades of encroaching human development, urban pollution and exotic tree diseases are killing pines, firs, and oaks, and drought conditions have promoted devastating fires in western U.S. forests. Non-timber forests, such as the widespread pinyon-juniper forests of the west, have been mowed down over large areas to expand grazing lands for cattle.

The challenge of replenishing this vital resource is made doubly difficult by current and future rapid climate warming, which could limit the survival potential for many tree species, and for the forests themselves. The first, most critical, step is to understand how forests grew and thrived before intense human occupation.

Chapter 2 Harvesting the Future

Raising crops and livestock directly affect more than 68 million acres in the eleven western states. It is likely that modern farming practices, heavily subsidized by government policies and tax money, have made irreversible changes in soil structure and soil biota, with consequences that we do not yet fully understand. The subsidies destroy small farms and increase negative environmental impacts from unsustainable "conventional" farming practices, which pollute air, surface water, and groundwater far beyond the farms themselves. Dust from plowed lands poses health hazards as windstorms loft soil particles and disease-causing soil biota over long-distances. Atmospheric dust plumes from inappropriate farm practices have been tracked beyond the borders of the United States, and disease outbreaks of epidemic proportions have spread over hundreds of square miles after single dust storm events.

Farm productivity has suffered from long-term erosional soil losses, but the investment of large amounts of energy prop it up with heaps of chemicals poured on the land. Waters are polluted by increased sediment loads from eroded farms, and by the huge numbers and amounts of fertilizer chemicals and pesticides. Irrigated farming in the west consumes staggering amounts of water, competing with the needs of fish and other aquatic biota, from which we derive many benefits. Also covered in this chapter is the promise of reform through a resurgence of traditional farming on small organic farms.

Chapter 3 Raiding the Range

To feed a tiny proportion of the beef cattle and sheep raised for meat, western habitats have sustained enormous damage, including weed invasions that have degraded ecosystems over huge tracts of land, irreversible soil losses, and destroyed water sources and riparian zones. Injuries due to overgrazing from a century ago still can be identified - powerful testimony to the permanence of grazing damage in the arid west. In support of what it believes to be a traditional western lifeway, the American public expends hundreds of millions of dollars to benefit an industry contributing little or nothing to the regional or national economy. Oversight by the managing agencies (mainly the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service) is often blocked by Congressional interference. Of the more than 138 million acres of public lands grazed in the eleven western states, 68% are in fair to poor condition (reduced forage, accelerated soil erosion, invasion by weeds, impaired natural habitat). Streams, including ephemeral streams, are the cradles of life in the arid west. Yet, 64% of stream courses on BLM lands were classified in 1998 as not in proper functional condition, mostly as a result of grazing.

Chapter 4 Digging to China

Mining is still conducted under the anachronistic 1872 Mining Law, which imposes huge economic and environmental burdens on the public lands owners. Even when modest protections are sought under that law, Congress has moved swiftly to torpedo them, despite the fact that the law allows huge give-aways of public resources to foreign nationals. The amount of land directly impacted by mining and exploration affects a relatively small acreage, but the damages inflicted on that land will alter the shape of the land and degrade air and water for thousands of years. The bottom line, with which we have yet to come to terms, is that the earth cannot meet our growing demand for mined commodities, especially in competition with the world's increasing lust for the American dream. Real and lasting answers will come only after we begin addressing the root problems, and can restrain both high consumption and population growth.

Chapter 5 Routes of Ruin

Roads and other "linear" construction corridors have negative environmental effects over areas far larger than the constructs themselves. An estimated 320,000 mi2 - more than 10% of coterminous U.S. - is affected by the existing 4 million miles of public roads; this does not include another 2 million miles of pipeline and transmission corridors, and thousands of miles of nonpublic roads. The effects include land and water pollution from erosion and sedimentation associated with roads, emissions, toxic spills, habitat segmentation, weed introduction, direct kill of wildlife, and others. This chapter deals with damaging construction practices, gross failure to implement appropriate (and even required) mitigations, and mismanagement of public lands that allows proliferation principally of roads, pipelines, and transmission lines.

Chapter 6 Legacies of War

Terrorism has brought the frightening specters of modern warfare to the United States mainland, raising the American public's awareness of its potential to kill and to pollute our environment. But for generations before 2001, vast stretches of public land were contaminated with unexploded weapons, including ordnance carrying polluting chemicals and harmful biological agents. Generations before Timothy McVeigh and Al Qaeda, in effect, the designing, making, and testing of chemical and biological payloads for bombs became a war against segments of the American population. Outright experimentation on uninformed American citizens remains a hallmark, and a legacy, of military chemical and biological weapons tests. The U.S. is busy now researching military applications of truly ominous chemical and biological agents. We need to consider President Eisenhower's warning. How dear to us is our land? How much of our land, and how many species are we willing to destroy to defend what we hold dear? What of value will be left, and how will the destruction impact our lives and our children's futures?

Chapter 7 Creating the Nuclear Wasteland

Atomic radiation, once released, is a diabolical gift that keeps on giving. What we don't know can hurt us. The American public does not fully comprehend the immensely long times that radioactive contamination from military activities in the western U.S. will persist in its land and water. Even scientists are only beginning to appreciate that the damages are not now contained, and never can be - because animals and humans continually interact with water, soils, and with the plant and bacterial life supported by the water and soils - and with the physical forces that shape the earth. Most grotesque of all of our military activities, production and testing of nuclear weapons, has left a legacy of degraded and polluted lands and water that will be with us for many centuries. Yet we persist with fantasies that we can develop nuclear weapons that can be used without harm to nearby civilian populations, and destroy deeply buried targets. We maintain nuclear arsenals sufficient to kill the world's people many times over. And we think we will dispose of the wastes from military weapons and civilian reactors so they are forever isolated from the biosphere. We think.

Chapter 8 No Habitat But Our Own

Human settlements have proved convenient for many human purposes, concentrating industry, markets, and the labor force at transportation hubs, focusing cultural resources and entertainment. But smoggy, chemically burdened urban areas do not constitute healthy human habitat. Growing western populations and increasingly consumptive land uses have become like cancer, wiping out farms and natural areas, eating up huge areas of fertile land for growing food, degrading the land's capacity to support wildlife. Natural habitats are not just for recreation, they support human life as well, and also support economic life - in addition to the quality of life. The relentless sprawl of western cities places a heavy tax on all infrastructure, but most importantly on energy and water. These unsustainable practices are soon to be challenged as energy prices skyrocket in response to depletion of nonrenewable resources and supplies of clean water diminish.

Chapter 9 The Last Drops

Commentators are fond of saying that water shortages are the greatest challenge our civilization will face in the future. In the arid western United States, that future arrived even before the beginning of the ongoing 21st century drought. For over 50 years dams, reservoirs, aqueducts, pipelines, and groundwater wells have provided abundant - seemingly endless - water that allowed western populations to swell far beyond what arid regions can support through protracted droughts. But now the famed water projects are running out of the most precious resource, creating growing confrontations. Allocations of water from limited sources served agriculture to the exclusion of many stakeholders - wildlife in particular - and are now bowing to overwhelming demand. In only about a century, overconsumption, water contamination, and increasing population pressures - all have overstressed the west's major rivers and groundwater basins, turning fresh water into a declining resource. The toll of water depletion on soils, wildlife, and people, is already a gargantuan problem, which looms even larger in the very near future. Faith in the ability of technology to solve the problem of inadequate water supply is likely to be challenged as climate responds to the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. To meet the challenge will require an informed populace and agreement that there is a problem before it overtakes us.

Chapter 10 Garbage of the Golden West

The nation as a whole has 22 million septic systems that discharge as much as 1.5 trillion gallons per year into shallow aquifers; 16,400 active landfills and half as many inactive and abandoned sites plus hundreds more illegal toxic materials dumps; nearly 200,000 surface impoundments of oil and gas production wastes, mine, industrial, and municipal liquid and sludge wastes; and nearly 300,000 waste injection wells. By 1986 the eleven western states had 246 Superfund sites. There are no disposal sites for high-level radioactive waste, one operating site for transuranic waste, and three operating and three closed low-level radioactive waste sites. Efforts to prevent spread of toxic components of the various kinds of waste into the biosphere have encountered numerous problems, and old ideas about the capacity of soils to absorb such materials have been slow to die. Such modern techniques as dump liners, using either synthetic or natural materials, frequently fail - it is said that there are two kinds of liners: those that are leaking and those that are going to leak. A major overhaul of our waste-generating and disposal habits would be a boon to all life on earth. We have created much of the problem in two generations. We can, given the motivation, undo the problem in less time.

Chapter 11 Tragedy of the Playground

Technology and prosperity have joined to give ever-increasing numbers of people the power to cause great harm to the natural landscape - for fun. The National Forests are only beginning to cope with the problems of motorized recreation, which have beset public lands under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management for four decades. Demand for vehicular use of National Forests is 10 times the level of 1950. Many of the National Forest's 400,000+ miles of roads and trails should be closed and rehabilitated to reduce the enormous erosional problems and habitat fragmentation they cause. The National Parks are facing the onslaught of tens of thousands of snowmobiles that shatter the winter's serenity while negatively affecting plants beneath the snow, radically changing the ground-surface temperature, extending the period of thaw, and leaving a trail of toxic pollutants in the snow. Burgeoning numbers of golf courses suck up enormous amounts of water while polluting what remains with pesticides and fertilizers. Increasing numbers of majestic mountains are scarred by ski runs. We must ask what life will be like when, in words ascribed to Chief Seattle, the secret corners of the forest [are] heavy with the scent of many men."

Chapter 12 Driving to the End of America's Birthright

With petroleum (oil and natural gas) prices rising worldwide, Americans now face the addict's quandary - how to wean ourselves from a terrible dependency before it kills us. Visionaries seek the methadone route - "new" energy sources to satisfy our addiction without suffering bad effects. More realistically highly polluting coal, and "renewable" energy sources might bridge the gap between petroleum and some still unknown, preferably cheap, replacement. But no currently known renewable energy source combines oil's high per-volume content of energy with convenient mobility and versatility as a raw material. Not least, our U.S. birthright demands a level of energy production so gigantic that alternative energy sources cannot meet it without severe environmental damage. This chapter discusses issues surrounding declining availability of cheap petroleum, environmental costs of exploration, production, and use of fossil and nuclear fuels, and limitations on development of alternative fuels, including the few that are truly renewable.

Chapter 13 Nature's Way

The different types of human activities described in previous chapters cause overlapping effects of erosion and sedimentation, degradation of soils, and contamination of sediment, and rock that lie between the ground surface and the water table, and ultimately pollution of groundwater. The nuts-and-bolts of the natural processes by which these events take place and how they are affected by human activities are the subjects of this chapter.

Conclusions The Needs of our Posterity --------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Appendix 1 Conserving U.S. Public Lands - A Chronology. Annotated Selected History of National Events Affecting Western U.S. Public Lands.

Appendix 2 Best Intentions - Federal Waste Disposal Laws. Annotated selection of important federal laws governing waste disposal.

Appendix 3 Everything Comes From the Earth. A listing of the sources of materials used in making the myriad products we use to support our way of living.

Appendix 4 Bio-Chemical War and You. Tabulated tests of toxic substances used with human subjects, simulants used, numbers of trials, and potential health effects. Project SHAD.

Appendix 5 Destroyer of the Worlds. A chronology of U.S. testing of nuclear weapons.

Appendix 6 Plutonium Fields Forever. Area 13, on the Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, near the Nevada Test Site, is the location of a 1957 "safety test." It was the only one of 30 such tests that blew up a real nuclear warhead, but all were designed to examine the size and distribution of plutonium debris spread over the desert floor when packages of nuclear materials were blown up with high explosives. Considering current concerns over terrorist use of "dirty bombs," the outcome of these tests is of interest. The distribution of plutonium was mapped after the tests, and in Area 13, redistribution by various living agents such as burrowing animals, transient animals (including birds), and cattle confined to graze in the contaminated area was studied. Unfortunately these studies were discontinued in the late 1980s. Considering that this contamination will remain for thousands of years, and no real study of redistribution of plutonium particles by wind has been done, renewed study would be most valuable.

Appendix 7 Bombs for Peace. Grandiose ideas for peaceful uses of nuclear bombs - nuclear dynamite - led to detonation of 27 nuclear bombs that tested the ability to use bombs for major earth excavation projects (e.g., replacement of the Panama Canal, building harbors and dams), enhancing production of natural gas from low-yield fields, excavating a nation-wide system of canals for redistribution of water, and constructing underground storage cavities, among others. The problems of radioactive fallout and contamination were, not surprisingly, never solved - but these harebrained projects were not the underlying motivation for the program. Faced with an imminent moratorium on testing nuclear weapons, Edward Teller convinced President Eisenhower "to show the world that nuclear weapons, radioactivity and radiation were not harbingers of death but were in fact powerful, benign servants offering almost limitless benefits to humankind." Atomic Energy Commissioner Lewis Strauss confessed that Plowshare was meant to "highlight the peaceful applications of nuclear explosive devices and thereby create a climate of world opinion that is more favorable to weapons development and tests." Although Plowshare was a complete technical failure, its positive outlook and promotion of nuclear weapons and tests remains "a powerful culture of denial [that has] sunk strong, deep roots into the heart of scientific and industrial America."

Appendix 8 The Bunker Buster Fantasy. Bunker busters are bombs designed to penetrate the earth to reach deeply buried targets before detonation. The physical requirements to contain radioactive materials created by detonation show that containment is not possible even for very small tactical weapons. U.S. development and testing of such weapons will certainly lead to abrogation of the Partial Test Ban Treaty and eliminate any possibility for U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

Appendix 9 US and Them - the United States and World Oil Reserves. Since the U.S. has depleted its own oil and gas deposits to the vanishing point, the status of the world's reserves and consumption is of immediate interest if we expect to maintain our current lifestyles. Oil is a nonrenewable resource - the supply is finite. And the majority of the world's principal oil fields are in decline. We should be considering alternatives to our consumption of oil.

Appendix 10 "Democratizing" Energy - Hydrogen Fuel Cells. Hydrogen, like electricity, is an energy-carrier, not a primary energy source - the energy carried by hydrogen must be generated from other sources. The processes for converting earth-based substances to hydrogen are both energy-inefficient and polluting. Hydrogen fuel cells do not provide an alternative to gasoline for powering vehicles in the ways and numbers that we now use them.


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.

It now faces depletion of many of these resources, and potentially serious threats to its few "renewable" resources.

Purchase Here at Oxford Press



Dr. Howard G. Wilshire, Geologist; Dr. Jane E. Nielson, Geologist; Richard W. Hazlett, Geologist

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