The American West at Risk: Science, Myths and Politics of Land Abuse and Recovery
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Doug Prose, Words of the Wild,
Sierra Club, 12 (2): 6 (2009)
California & Nevada Wilderness and Wild Rivers
reprinted with permission

Review of The American West at Risk

Wilshire, Nielson, and Hazlett, three geologists, have crafted an unusual and fascinating chronicle of land use and its environmental consequences in the American West, beginning with the arrival of Europeans in the 19th century. The book's approach is bold. The authors analyze the environmental consequences of all types of land use in the West with the insight of scientists who have long been in the trenches of western environmental science.

The authors venture into realms rarely probed by writers from the reserved, insulated science world; they weave into the storyline the politics, motives, and myths that were held by the people and governments who carried out or sanctioned damaging land use practices. They do this with a touch of irony and dry humor, which brings the book's scientific analysis to vivid life.

A glance at some of the chapter titles in this book reveals a broad, creative, compelling, subtly humorous perspective on the American West. Once and Future Trees, Raiding the Range, Digging to China, No Habitat but Our Own, Tragedy of the Playground. Even the appendices look interesting: Biochemical War and You, Destroyer of the Worlds, Plutonium Fields Forever. There are 150 pages of notes and references, which make for lively reading by themselves! It's the kind of book you'll use to unearth hard-to-find facts on a particular environmental issue.

(Editor's note) Not to be missed is the striking conclusion chapter entitled, "The Needs of Our Posterity" highlighting the changes essential to our lifestyle if dire consequences for posterity are to be avoided.)

Howard Wilshire and Jane Nielson honed their political insights through careers as government scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey. Wilshire, now retired from the USGS, spent much of his career studying the effects of human activities on desert lands. His work often put him at odds with off road vehicle users, mining companies, oil and gas companies, the nuclear industry, the military, the Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management. Wilshire's own agency tried, and failed, to silence him when the going got hot on several occasions. Because of Wilshire's solid research and steadfastness, the West bears many fewer scars today.

Essentially, The American West at Risk offers a new and more truthful look at the dramatic story of the settling of the West, since the story's fabled elements of oversized dreams, schemes, greed, corruption, hardball politics, religious fervor, audacity, and desperation are commonly tinged with a romantic hue in historic accounts. Much of the damage inflicted on the fragile West in the century or so after the pioneer days was done by the ruthless hammer of big moneyh and power, with virtually no regulatory oversight and no regard for environmental consequences. But things have changed. Westerners have deepened their understanding of, and concern for, western ecosystems and have gotten active politically to protect their lands.

So the authors look to the future with cautious hope. In their words: "Although the west may be severely at risk, the present authors do not believe that it will be lost. There is much room for optimism that western folks will find ways to extend what remains of our natural bounty farther into the future than our current course can take us."

Doug Prose is a documentary filmmaker with Earth Images Foundation, and a former geologist who worked on environmental issues with Howard Wilshire at the U.S. Geological Survey.


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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