Reviews, Author interviews and Commentary
The American West at Risk:
Science, Myths, and Politics of Land Abuse and Recovery,
by H. G. Wilshire, Jane E. Nielson, and Richard Hazlett.
640 p., $35.00. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. ISBN13
Eric W. Mogren,
Environmental History (2010) 15 (1): 151-153
Excerpt: The power of America's western myth, and the disparity between that idyll and troubling truths about its reckless destruction of the very place Americans cherish, has so distorted our thought process that we have little understanding today about the environmental legacy of that western experience. That is why The American West at Risk: Science, Myths, and Politics of Land Abuse and Recovery is such a welcome, and alarming, addition to environmental and western literature.
Truthout.org - Review: "If Dirt Could Talk..."
Excerpt: It is truly as though the three earth-scientist authors allowed the Western earth to speak, to explain its complex but inexorable response to human displacements of soil and rock, to toxic emissions, applications and run-off, to deforestation, agribusiness, over-grazing, mining, road building, war games, nuclear testing, "development," water "management," garbage "disposal" and recreation activities.
Truthout.org - Interview: "How to Save the American West"
An Interview With Drs. Howard Wilshire, Jane Nielson and Richard Hazlett
Man is everywhere a disturbing agent. (2008), Journal of Forestry 106:449
Excerpt: This is not an upbeat book, as its title warns. But the greater risk lies in not reading it. For no single volume yet has probed as wide or interrelated range of issues or has done so with such a sharp eye on the historical, scientific, and social implications of Americans' resource consumption.
The Geological Society of London, Geoscientist, February 2009, p. 5005
Excerpt: Development [of the west] has been guided by expediency, maximization of short-term private profit, indifference to consequences, and outright chicanery. Immediate costs that enable widespread degradation have been heavily subsidized by public funds, and some of the worst of that degradation is due to direct government actions. Long-term costs are charged to our grandchildren.
The Santa Fe New Mexican, Pasatiempo, March 2009
Excerpt: 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.
Journal of Environmental Quality 38:1780 (2009)
DOI: 10.2134 / jeq2009.0004br
Excerpt: If you wish to be informed, enraged, enlightened, and appalled about the American west, this is the book to read.
Pat Flanagan, (2009),
Excerpt: 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.
Chuck Hulin, A battle for the land -- and soul -- of the West,
High Country News, February 2009
Excerpt: [The authors] present a guide to solutions -- to crafting new federal and state policies based not on myths and the wishes of industry but on actual data and scientific research.
P. Joseph Potocki, Metroactive, October 8, 2008
The American West at Risk has "college textbook" written all over it, and that's a shame, because this is an engaging and clearly written account of what horrendous deeds we have done and continue doing to the 11 contiguous states which form the arid Western United States.
Depressing stuff, for sure, but if we're to inform ourselves in order to intelligently deal with powerfully negative forces, you'll be reading this excellent volume and keeping it close at hand for ongoing reference. Highly recommended.
Zygmunt J.B. Plater, Professor of Law, Boston College Law School, July 2008
At last! A book by scientists who are not hesitant to declare active civic policy lessons from the intensive research and data they compile. All too often scientists have expert knowledge of geophysical data and natural processes highly relevant to the formulation of sound public policy, but hesitate to present it forthrightly in a public forum. To state hard facts in the midst of public policy debates, or in contexts where data contradict major interest blocs, is all too often deemed too political or controversial, and scientists lay low in cautious passivity. Not these three. Wilshire, Nielson, and Hazlett, using their broad and unchallengeable scientific expertise, have produced a book that actively seeks out crises and battlegrounds where good science exists and needs to be applied, and civic policy lessons drawn. They present their knowledge in a highly accessible format, in text and graphics drawing hundreds of discrete points of information into analytical overviews that inform and cry out for rational political response. The book is a practical gift to civic society and to public interest advocates. It is one of those rare works written by authors who -- like Theo Colburn, Rachel Carson, and too few others -- are impelled to be citizens as well as scientists.
Doug Prose, Words of the Wild, Sierra Club, 12 (2): 6 (2009)
Excerpt: 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.
Karen rated it: Five stars, Goodreads, February 2009
This book is a gem - it's a well-written investigation that also acts as a reference for many many questions I have had personally and professionally. The authors have been able to synthesize pertinent data in a way that's accessible (much more accessible than public records requests to say the least). I especially appreciate the detail and synthesis of pesticide information. For anyone who has ever had questions about the environmental realities of the West and what needs to be done to address them.
This land was your land,
San Francisco Bay Guardian (January 2009)
Excerpt: An EPA library in condensed form, The American West at Risk presents a coherent survey of forestry, agriculture, water use, outdoor recreation, road building, military operations, garbage disposal, and nuclear power. "Western US public lands, about 47 percent of the region, are this nation's patrimony - the bulk of its remaining natural capital," the authors observe.
Two geologists on saving the earth,
interview, San Francisco Bay Guardian (January 2009).
This week we reviewed The American West at Risk, a recently-published tome that details how ongoing environmental issues are destroying the general livability of Earth for all species, including humans. In short, this book shouldn't just be on every wannabe Greenpeace activist's nightstand. Each of the 13 chapters explore one subject in depth -- forestry, mining, military operations, road building, to name a few -- and balances science with politics and reality to sharpen the argument for preservation of natural resources.
We spoke with two of the authors, Howard G. Wilshire and Jane E. Nielson, who will be reading and discussing the book with co-author Richard Hazlett on Thursday, Jan. 8 at Books Inc, 601 Van Ness Ave.
Reviews published by Amazon
Conservation wins require good politics and better science July 9, 2008
By Patricia A. Flanagan
The American West at Risk-Science, Myths, and Politics of Land Abuse and Recovery
I have been waiting years for this book to become available. The abuses of our arid western lands by the extraction and thrillcraft industries leave the concerned conservationist and land manager with much to do. However, it is no good shooting from the hip --a sound foundation in the science, law, and politics of these industries and the long term damage they cause is the only way to plan for healing. When called to action this book is the first grab from the shelf.
Excellent reference literature for everyone living in the arid West, July 9, 2008
By Karen Franz
I have also waited for this book to come out, starting in 2003. As a watershed professional, I find it to be an excellent, complete reference book for several issues I work with on a daily basis. I was particularly impressed with the pesticides chapter, I have had the most difficult time researching toxicity and regulations, and this book brought it all together into a useful format. This book should be at-hand for all environmental professionals in the arid west, as well as students & concerned residents looking to understand and address the complex issues facing our region.
A MUST read!, July 10, 2008
By Wayne Simister (Salt Lake City, UT)
Being a child and hearing over the radio, "Don't eat the snow today .... it is radioactive!" set the stage for wanting to know more. This was said over the air in downtown Salt Lake City during the years of open air atomic testing in Nevada!
What hasn't been told IS told in this book ... and much more! My hats are off to the authors. This has to be one of the most powerful messages to mankind. These authors have done excellent research. Find out the facts and DO read this book!
Understanding Why Land Abuse Matters, and What To Do About It, July 14, 2008
By Dee A. Cope "Dee Cope" (California)
There is an old Chinese proverb: Some people make it happen; some people watch it happen; and some people wonder why it happened.
For many years, I have watched in disbelief the growth of urban sprawl, the mountains of garbage leaching chemicals into groundwater, and the dangerous accumulations of nuclear waste, to name just three insults we have inflicted upon the environment.
As I watched, I wondered: How could we let this happen? Why did it happen? Whose interests were served by these actions? This book provides the answers, in clear, simple language that is as useful to the scientist and student as it is to the lay reader. I felt helpless to respond appropriately to newspaper headlines issuing dire warnings about some new threat to the environment, partly out of ignorance, and partly out of a sense that surely the powers that be know what they are doing.
Thanks to "The American West at Risk", my ignorance has been dispelled, along with any complacency I might have harbored about the wisdom of continuing to carry on business as usual.
Comprehensive, well-documented, passionate, July 19, 2008
By Doug Smith (Colorado)
The book is clear and easy to read. A surprising range of topics are covered. Among these topics are water, drought, timber harvesting, agriculture, grazing, mining, waste disposal, erosion, roads, ORV damage, and energy resources. Science concepts are presented to clarify the problems and possible solutions; the science presentations are accompanied by many clear illustrations. Discussions of history and politics help in understanding how and why the problems have developed, and how we might solve them.
In the coming elections and for years to come, climate, energy, land use, and population will be crucial issues to consider. This book provides many insights into these issues. Whether or not readers will agree with all the points emphasized in the book, they are likely still to treasure it as a source of information impossible to find in any other compilation. Particularly, it should be read by all concerned with our west.
An ecological core text, July 19, 2008
By H. R. Downs (USA)
This book could be understood as a "bible" of the ecological movement. By now everyone has heard that there are serious, life-threatening environmental problems. This book not only explains, in a very readable way, what, exactly has happened to our soils, our trees and our water supply, it also points out what we can do to repair the damage.
It's easy today to become overwhelmed with the sheer scale of environmental problems. That's where this book really shines. Understanding what is wrong, through careful analysis, allows the reader to grapple with environmental ills and to see the way to environmental health. A healthy, vigorous environment really is possible. Sure it looks like a nightmare in the media but The American West at Risk shakes you out of any media-induced lethargy with a reasonable call to action.
Send this book to everyone you know---and given the fact that we don't have a lot of time left to reverse our environmental ills, you might want to put that at the top of your "to do" list.
Long overdue inventory and prospect, July 28, 2008
By R. Pike (San Francisco Bay area, CA USA)
Anyone with even the remotest fondness for the "wide open spaces" of folklore and song will be rewarded by time spent with this indictment of our culture's wastage of a rich patrimony. I know of no better exploration of the themes sounded so well 40 years ago in Garrett Hardin's prophetic "Tragedy of the Commons." Degradation of the West's fragile land, its scarce water, and the biota they support, plus the links to resource extraction and waste disposal, are all here, and the many interwoven issues are inescapably documented. The book is at once passionate and sober, clearly written, and founded on solid research by authorities qualified to render an opinion. Given the host of environmental ills growing with our expanding population, I can't imagine a classroom in the country without this volume and its clarion call for the political will to act. Copious notes provide a sourcebook of material for those roused to explore further. Perhaps best of all, the nudge toward good stewardship of the natural world--so convincingly delivered here--is not unique to the American West, but will ring true in many another region across the globe. My sole reservation is that the publisher missed a bet by rejecting the book's snappy original title, "Losing the West;" indeed.
Can the West Be Saved?, August 5, 2008
By Karen Schambach (Sierra foothills, California)
The authors bring science into the political discussion of our consumptive use of the arid West and spare no sacred cows. We are carelessly and systematically using up and destroying the natural resources that make the West the unique and wonderful place we love; replacing wildlife with domestic animals and off-road vehicles; making sacred places into dumps and mining the water that provides life to both the desert and ourselves.
This is a must-have book for conservationists, teachers and anyone who cares about understanding our impact on these rugged but fragile lands.
This book never made it onto my bookshelf, August 5, 2008
By Andrew Kishner
'The American West at Risk' never made it onto my bookshelf. It is still on my desk, months after buying it, and I expect it will remain there for some time as my frequently referenced, easy-to-understand guide to the environmental problems facing the American West. What's truly valuable about this book is that the information that the authors distilled into it is so pertinent and relevant yet usually impossible to find in one place with such clarity and detail. The average person usually has to grapple with lengthy, convoluted and sometimes misleading environmental assessments and impact statements regarding the extent of damage that projects of the DoD, DoE and other federal agencies have caused or may cause the land and health of peoples in the West. Wilshire, Nielson and Hazlett have distilled the thousands of pages that the beginner or amateur researcher - whether farmer, rancher, downwinder, transplant or even politician - would normally have to page through to get a handle on a controversial Western land-use issue. The authors, deeply concerned about land abuse in the West, have taken the time and effort to put together this themed-reference guide that no one else has done. They did a 5-star job at it.
Our common destiny, September 8, 2008
By Florence Lewis (West New York, New Jersey)
With great good fortune and apparent wisdom the United State became a magnificent country from sea to shining sea. How tragic that our enormous, fertile and bounteous western lands should be so ill-used that, indeed, in many cases, they are crumbling and disintegrating before our very eyes. We have not been good stewards of our land and its resources; this book tells the story. Backed by years of experience at the U.S. Geological Survey, the authors make a meticulous, reasoned, well-documented and comprehensive argument. If we don't pay attention we are in danger of squandering our natural bounty to greed, mismanagement and indifference. Every federal, state and county policy maker, every earth science professor, every geologist and ecologist, every library, indeed every citizen who has the barest inkling of what's at stake should have this book. Halting and reversing years of land, water, waste, mineral and air mismanagement will not be easy, but must and can be done. This reasoned and thoughtful book proves that we are on a collision course with a tragic destiny if we don't begin to care and care properly for our land. This cry and program for better land stewardship gives us the technical know-how and the hope that it can be done.
A Benchmark Achievement, June 18, 2009
By David Drake (Blue Hill, Maine)
In the interest of full disclosure, I was a marine geologist at the US Geological Survey (USGS) in Menlo Park CA during most of the time span that Howard Wilshire and Jane Nielson were there. Although we never collaborated on any projects at the USGS, I was aware of their reputations for cutting edge research and conclusions that at times were controversial, but were always based on solid facts and clear, careful reasoning. Howard and Jane "stirred the pot" at the USGS in ways that were beneficial and added to our understanding of complex geologic processes. Together with environmental geologist Richard Hazlett, the authors boast more than 75 years of experience in the geology and natural systems of the western states. I can't imagine three more qualified earth scientists to tackle the monumental task of describing the current condition of our Western lands, how we got where we are, and what we should do now to hopefully reach a happy ending. This book is definitely not a Disney movie version of land use in the West; if that's what you want, you came to the wrong department. Neither is it dry, dull or dispassionate. It is a carefully crafted, fully documented and readable scientific account of what happens when we ignore the laws and processes of "Nature". Whether the consequences of our actions are intended, the product of ignorance, or unintended, Nature does indeed have the last at bat in this ball game. The history and effects of land abuse in the West are mostly quite disturbing, and the authors do not pull punches, an attribute I greatly admire. However, if all we got were disturbing environmental stories, the book would not have fulfilled its potential. Thankfully, the authors carry a theme of respect for Nature from beginning to end and each sad tale of land abuse is balanced by a discussion of what went wrong and how we can promote recovery and sustainable use. This book, or excerpts of it, should be required reading in high school and college science classes and it clearly should be within easy reach of all environmental managers, scientists and politicians. It is truly a gift to every American from three outstanding concerned scientists. Thank you!
A masterly work of reference, 15 Sep 2008
By Lambert Garrick (Switzerland)
This superbly researched account of the causes and dangers of a resource depleted future for the American West, written by three eminent geologists, is as relevant to European audiences as to those in the U.S. The sheer weight of accumulated evidence from many sources presents a very convincing case that what they say is actually happening, and their warnings about the perils of uncontrolled energy consumption should be taken very seriously by governments, professionals and energy consumers everywhere. This book should be a 'must read' for anybody who wishes to know what should be done today to ensure a sustainable future for the world.
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.
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