The American West at Risk: Science, Myths and Politics of Land Abuse and Recovery
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Pat Flanagan, (2009), Desert Report
Desert Report
Sierra Club California/Nevada Desert Committee

Review of The American West at Risk

I am one that reads a magazine and, sometimes even a book, from the back to the front. Depending on your orientation, the conclusion of The American West at Risk either sets the perspective or wraps it up. As a nation we are spending our resources, are experiencing the results, and are operating under the myth that, having won the West, we can have it all because technology will fix our messes. Since we have no place else to go, it is time to get serious and come to terms with "how to live better with nature" or "future generations will face an impoverished and dangerous future."

We (you and I) are already serious, are actively working on wasteful personal habits, and are commenting to agencies and politicians about threats to our arid western landscapes (both never ending, frustrating activities). This book is for us. It is full of the science that informs our opinions and through which we can explore the cultural myths that influence us. For me, the historical background of our environmental messes helps to ground the issues so that I can better understand what drives "the opposition." I need this understanding because it allows me to step back, get a handle on my "justifiable" anger, and respond without the emotions which close the door to both thinking and listening. Regardless of my feelings, I want my comments to be grounded in the science of the issue. Having the history and the science at my side in one clearly written volume is a joy. It also helped me to file away stacks of reports and research littering the tables and floor.

The authors, all geologists with decades of experience, including teaching, are blessed with the talent to navigate the technical issues with grace. The glossary, appendices, page notes, and web references, clarify and deepen our knowledge. The easy style leaves out preaching but can be blunt when laying myths to rest: "Speaking of 'maintaining' dirt roads is an oxymoron, because clearing vegetation out of the ditches can increase erosion and sediment yields as much as seven times."

Their list of human-caused "environmental woes" includes logging, industrial agriculture, soils and erosion, grazing, mining, roads, radioactive waste disposal, nuclear fallout, sprawl development, water quality and availability, waste disposable, destructive forms of recreation, declining oil and other natural resources, and non-renewable and renewable energy. The ecological consequences of our actions are explored in detail. For example "The Routes of Ruin" covers roads and utility corridors (both paved and dirt), number of miles, the footprint of each over time on the landscape (including hydrology, pollution during building and from vehicles over time), social pressures to build and maintain, rules and regulations, and the politics of enforcement. The final section offers discussion around four questions that can guide our "road addiction recovery." This chapter provides some heft when commenting on Off Highway Vehicle (OHV) Commission funding and restoration policies and grants, construction of new transmission corridors across the desert, or military base expansion. Other chapters on OHV recreation, the exhaustion of oil reserves, and the long term effects of military training in the desert, provide depth.

For me, in rural San Bernardino County, our planners, elected officials, and citizens continually grapple with the dirt road issue and the rural life style - when to pave and when not. It is a complex issue when there are hundreds of miles of dirt roads with varying usage and no mechanism for maintenance. I am seeking guidance from "The Book."

Pat Flanagan is the executive director of the Mojave Desert Land Trust and serves on the board of the Morongo Basin Conservation Association.


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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