Watersheds Messenger     Spring 2002     Vol. IX, No. 1     PDF ISSUE

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Saving the Sagebrush Steppe from Our Footprints
By Kelley Weston

In his biophylia hypothesis E.O. Wilson speculates that human beings are hard-wired to look to the short term and the close by. We rarely look more that five years out and tend to focus on our immediate surroundings to the exclusion of the whole. Therefore, what is immediate in time and space becomes disproportionately powerful in our decision making process. In contrast, most widespread environmental damage occurs in bits and pieces over decades. By focusing on the near term and near by, we miss the accumulation of small incremental changes that eventually build up to critical levels and provoke a crisis.

When problems are small, crisis management is usually adequate. But it proves ineffective as a response to the momentum of long-term change. Global warming, loss of biological diversity and wholesale conversions of ecosystems to human use do not produce small crises and are not solved by quick fixes.

We can understand the dynamics of this degenerative process by studying the decline of the sagebrush steppe ecosystem. The ongoing disintegration of ecological stability in the West is the direct result of human mismanagement. The delicate structure of the pre-Colombian sagebrush steppe ecosystems, characterized by a complex composition of grasses, forbs and shrubs, was the result of a highly variable semiarid climate and long fire-free periods.

Grazing by introduced livestock from the late l9th century to the present day has severely damaged the bunchgrass and herbaceous component of sagebrush plant communities, opening areas to invasion by introduced annual grasses that, in turn, have altered the frequency of fire. More frequent fires, conversion of sagebrush steppe for agriculture, conversion to wheatgrass and ryegrass pasture and the rapid spread of introduced grasses and other non-native species have virtually eliminated pristine pre-Colombian sagebrush steppe habitat.

Isolated relics of sagebrush steppe habitat with a good perennial understory occupy only 1 percent of the total original habitat area. Over the last 130 years the sagebrush steppe ecosystem of western North America has been so radically altered and the changes are now so widespread that many believe that perhaps only 25 percent of the original 270 million acres can recover to a state resembling its original condition.

The remaining 74 percent is either compromised by the infestation of introduced species or converted to human use. This steady degradation of lands in the West closely resembles a process described by David Quammen in an article for Harpers magazine entitled "The Planet of Weeds" in which ecosystems slowly degrade into a state of depleted diversity. "Weedy" species of plants and animals useful to humans or able to adapt to human manipulation prove better able to adapt to continuous abuse and rapid change and are naturally selected over less adaptable species.

The accelerating spread of medusa head, cheatgrass, thistle and other noxious weeds as well as the proliferation of coyotes, foxes, magpies and other adaptable species into habitat once dominated by more fragile native species is a perfect example of the process. The horrible end result of this scenario is not the ecological apocalypse so often described by environmental activists but something infinitely worse: a long, drawn-out existence in a trashed junkyard of fragmented and marginally functional ecosystems virtually immune to recovery.

When an environmental disaster of this magnitude is finally recognized, there are always calls for education and public action. Consequently there is a great deal of momentum these days to thin, cut, bum, seed, graze and otherwise manipulate lands in order that they might recover from imbalances caused, in most cases, by past misguided cutting, burning, seeding and grazing.

It is a seductive theory with a core of scientific truth. The problem with the new management however, is not in the science, which, though limited, is often good. Nor is it in the techniques, which can also be effective. The problem is in the underlying motivations that are largely concerned with maintaining the status quo and an ethic of progress that believes human beings should and can order and control nature.

The question in management is always what are you managing for? To move from managing for the status quo to managing for a world of ecological restoration, we must accept reality: If the health of land and water and species is in conflict with its value to people, then there is a fundamental flaw in our understanding.

Human beings cannot afford to physically restore the tens of millions of acres of sagebrush steppe, forests or other ecosystems still able to recover. We can catalyze the recovery by removing the debilitating forces causing the degradation, such as inappropriate grazing, irrigation, agricultural conversion and other easily recognized irritants. And with great humility and caution we can reintroduce powerful natural forces like fire.

We can also protect critical riparian and wetland habitats and other vital, relatively small features - and even create them if necessary. But ultimately our success depends on the regenerative force of nature inherent in all life.

With all of our science and the prospect of billions of dollars for ecological management, we are still utterly dependent on the natural cycles of regeneration to get the job done.

We have a choice to make in the West. Will we continue to expend our time, money and intelligence to subsidize ecological destruction, or will we use it to support restoration?

Of all the public lands in North America, the sage steppe ecosystem has perhaps the fewest barriers to successful restoration. Mining is relatively localized and commodities such as gold, copper and other metals will continue to decline in value as they are replaced by less expensive and more easily obtainable materials.

There are few forests worth harvesting and the current level of livestock production and its use of public lands will decrease markedly when government subsidies are withdrawn.

Even with a legacy of 130 years of mismanagement, millions of acres of land can recover naturally with only a minimum of interference. We have a perfect opportunity to release part of the world from our iron grip and let it be wild.

Kelley Weston is WWP board president.


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