The Santa Fe New Mexican,
Pasatiempo, March 2009
The Santa Fe New Mexican
reprinted with permission
Review of The American West at Risk
"What is land but the profits thereof" asked English jurist Sir Edward Coke, whose writing came to America aboard the Mayflower. The settlers of New England saw little worth in the forests that surrounded them. Land had value only after it was turned into "void ground," shorn of trees, purged of wild beasts, and made ready for cultivation.
The notion persists that there is little cost benefit to land that can't be drilled, mined, or built over. As the authors of The American West at Risk point out, the Bush administration routinely weakened protections established under laws that were enacted to shield natural resources from exploitation. The book is an encyclopedic assessment of the toll that the traditional view of land has taken on the 11 contiguous western states. It is a report assembled by three scholars who scrutinize the damage with the practiced eyes of veteran insurance adjusters itemizing the wreckage of a hurricane or an earthquake.
Too often, history books pay scant attention to the environmental impacts of conquest. The American West at Risk is not a history book, but its exhaustive accounting of the ecological costs of empire-building provides a long-overdue perspective.
The book sets out to quantify the effects of forest clearing, mining, energy extraction, industrial agriculture, livestock grazing, urban sprawl, waste disposal, and motorized recreation -- along with military exercises and weapons manufacture and testing. The authors describe how these activities, occurring in "a slow-healing, mostly arid" region, have accelerated erosion, degraded air and water quality, spread toxic contamination, and generally wasted an obscene amount of natural capital.
About 94 percent of America's "heritage forests" -- those standing when Europeans arrived -- have been cut down. Of the 500,000 tons of pesticides applied to farmland each year, 99.9 percent never reach a target pest but disperse through the environment. The United States displaces five times more soil and rock per capita than any other country in the world. Forty percent of western headwater streams are polluted with toxic mine waste.
By 1998, the federal government was spending up to $14 million annually to kill thousands of coyotes, foxes, bobcats, badgers, prairie dogs, mountain lions, and bears that are considered a menace to livestock grazing on western public lands.
The authors back up their assertions with 150 pages of chapter notes quoting academic studies and government reports. Two of the three authors, Howard Wilshire and Jane Nielson, spent a combined 60 years working as research scientists for the U.S. Geological Survey.
Despite the book's heft, however, it should not be mistaken for a textbook. Wilshire is an activist and the chairman of the board of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. He and his coauthors are clear about their point of view from the outset. "Western public lands, about 47 percent of the region, are this nation's patrimony -- the bulk of its remaining natural capital...There is still a lot to save, and much of the damage can be reversed. But utter destruction is the risk that the nation is taking, and what we authors hope to avoid."
Wilshire and his colleagues say that nothing less than a 180-degree course correction is required. Without reducing consumption, curbing sprawl, eschewing toxic materials, reforming permissive mining laws, and eliminating subsidies for logging and grazing on public lands, we will continue to waste what's left of America's natural wealth.
Meaningful reform will take place, the authors write, only after society learns to assign a dollar value to the services that land yields -- storing water and carbon dioxide, filtering toxins, dispersing seeds, recycling nutrients, and providing the ingredients for life-saving drugs.
And what are those services worth? Edward O. Wilson, perhaps the country's most eloquent environmental scientist, estimates that the ecological services provided by wild environments are equal in dollar value to the gross world product. America's share of that bounty comes largely from the western states.
When it comes to saving what's left, Wilshire and his colleagues leave little room for compromise. So-called smart growth is a chimera, ditto "clean" coal and "safe" nuclear power.
If the book gives short shrift to the progress that has been made, the authors would argue that our best efforts don't begin to compensate for the losses we continue to inflict -- losses which, by the end of the century, could amount to half the species of plants and animals on earth.
To date, "the United States has managed to imperil 69 percent of the world's nearly 2,000 endangered and threatened plant and animal species." We did it mainly by altering, corrupting, or destroying the land that supported them. We did it by creating void ground.
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
ABOUT THE AUTHORS