How to Save the American West

Wednesday, 26 August 2009 08:29 By Leslie Thatcher, t r u t h o u t | Interview | name.

How to Save the American West
Geologists, activists and husband and wife Dr. Howard Wilshire (board chairman of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility) and Dr. Jane Nielson (president, Sebastopol Water Information Group) spent ten years writing "The American West at Risk." (Photo: Drs. Wilshire and Nielson)

    Leslie Thatcher for Truthout: Please describe the genesis of your book "The American West at Risk."

    Jane Nielson: Very few geoscientists speak about the scientific bases for environmental protection, because they either depend for employment on industry or developers, or they work for government agencies, which respond to political pressures from financial interests. Because of his wide-ranging studies on human impacts across much of the arid western states, even while working for USGS, Howard was an established source of background information for environmental action groups, and served as an expert witness on a variety of issues. He often receives calls from lawyers, journalists, and just plain concerned citizens worried about some devastating project being moved into their neighborhoods, or about the unforeseen effects of a project or program. He continued to respond to public inquiries even after the federal government (under Reagan) issued threats to employees against becoming involved with legal issues that "crosscut the missions" of other federal agencies.

    At the time the book was proposed, I had been wondering what or who would eventually take on Howard's role, since he could not be around forever. So I was very supportive of the book idea, even though I knew it would be a huge project that could swallow my life.

    Howard Wilshire: The idea for the book that became "The American West at Risk," came into being around Rick Hazlett's dinner table in Pomona in 1998. I was considering writing a book on a low-level radioactive waste dump proposal in which I had been heavily involved, but my co-authors-to-be convinced me that the subject matter should be broadened to include the experience of all three of us in the west. With this agreement, our intent was to describe what two centuries of human occupancy had wrought on the land, and the geologic consequences of altering the landscape. After proposing the project to several publishers, Oxford University Press accepted the proposal in 2000. From the first words written to publication occupied the best part of 10 years.

Dr. Richard Hazlett, who hosted the 1998 dinner that gave rise to the ten-year project he co-authored, "The American West at Risk," notes, "Tackling the ecological and other environmental problems facing the West requires a powerful grassroots base in order to keep our political system open, honest and responsive." (Photo: Dr. Richard Hazlett)

    Richard Hazlett: This book originated out of mutual concern that some valuable science relevant to the welfare of future society in our part of the country was being ignored, forgotten, or simply under-appreciated for the powerful messages it contains. Given the expertise of Howard, the first author, in areas related to soil degradation and erosion in particular, we felt that this project deserved our commitment. We have spent most of our lives in the American West, have worked in its lands closely, and have witnessed with growing pain the corrosion of its natural environment and depletion of resources - even those we ordinarily consider "renewable" - as the region has filled with larger numbers of people pursuing high-consumption lifestyles. Perhaps Edward Abbey is a spiritual father for this book; we share many of his same concerns. But we bring hard science and government documentation to the table in conveying them.

    Leslie Thatcher: What do you each hope its impact and utility will be?

    Jane Nielson: My hope is that the book will give people tools for making environmentally-protective decisions. In a democracy, citizens need access to many critical kinds of information. For non-scientists with concerns about environmental issues, having access to raw data is almost useless unless they also have access to expert interpretations that are not biased by financial or political influences.

    Oxford published the book in their academic series, and it certainly is usable by teachers and students. But we really wrote it to be read and used by any citizen, so that they can effectively address fundamental issues behind environmental degradation that may threaten their well-being. It is also intended for use by journalists who want to understand the background of environmental issues and controversies; for environmentalists who need to understand the comparative impacts of alternative land, water, and energy use proposals; and for the lawyers and policymakers who get to shape the policies that determine environmental impacts. I also hope that it may guide taxpayer/voter assessments of the likely environmental impacts from proposed federal, state, and local policies.

    Howard Wilshire: It is my hope that the book will serve multiple purposes: to be immediately useful to non-scientists involved in environmental problems in their own neighborhoods to help them provide scientific bases for their concerns; to assist professionals - lawyers, politicians, journalists, land managers and planners - in understanding and applying earth science principles to land use problems; and, not least, to provide a textbook for use in environmental courses at college level to help inspire an understanding of how nature responds to our impact on the land, and of the urgency to think before we act.

    Richard Hazlett: I hope that the text will stimulate regional dialogue about the issues of land stewardship and planning, with the public and government taking a good hard look at the questions, "What kind of future do you want for the West?" And "What would it really take to make living in the West 'sustainable'"?

    Leslie Thatcher: What do each of you see as the single most serious threat to Western lands, and how would you immediately go about mitigating it?

    Jane Nielson: Like Howard, I see dominant American attitudes as the most serious threat to western resources, including lands, waters, minerals.

    Worrisome attitudes include:

  • The morphing of the American Dream to equate with "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous";

  • The idea that "Anything I want I should have";

  • The belief that the world's resources should be under our control; and

  • The perhaps subliminal belief (or lack of questioning of the idea) that resources can never run out - that there will always be a replacement just as cheap or easy to use as what we now consume in huge amounts. This attitude is emphasized by economists as well as by far too many scientists.
  •     Howard Wilshire: The most serious threat to Western lands is the attitude that we can use the land in any way we desire without consequence to ourselves or to those who will follow us. An impoverished land is the threat imposed by this attitude. Education is slow, but necessary, to change attitudes. In the meantime, it is necessary to regulate the use of our natural resources, and to undertake restoration of damaged land to ensure a quality of life in the future commensurate with what we have enjoyed.

        Richard Hazlett: This question is practically unfair; there are a host of important issues out there, and to highlight one runs the risk of diminishing the relevance of the rest, but put to task, I believe it is the contamination and depletion of water resources that is the greatest threat. The economic losses and social costs of increasing exhaustion and pollution of this resource (both surface and groundwater) could well worsen some of the other problems we discuss in the book. The solution to regional water deficits is to exercise a coordinated planning program, on the one hand improving simple low-energy technologies and conservation practices for more efficient use and purification of watershed resources, and on the other, reckoning with the sheer numbers of people moving into the more arid and semi-arid areas of the West. Population, in the end, trumps all other efforts at building a sustainable future. Slowing it, however, brings many of us face-to-face with basic concerns about human rights and individual freedoms. Zoning and taxation are effective public policy tools for putting the brakes on profligate growth without enforcing truly draconian measures. Combined with value changes regarding large family sizes and community-level discourse about what individuals owe the Commons in terms of their environmental impacts, things CAN turn around. It takes gutsy political and religious leaders, teachers, authors, and other respected community voices to effect value changes and new discourses. No one individual alone can turn a tide.

        Leslie Thatcher: Describe how an American West "not-at-risk" would look.

        Jane Nielson: The population would be stabilized at a level commensurate with sustainability.

        With the exception of already-established cities, sustainable land occupancy would look rather like the US at the end of the Spanish-American War. Desert areas would be de-populated, with the few remaining residents living on hunting, their water for daily use and vegetable gardens coming from spring-fed wells, rainwater harvesting, and reused graywater. Mountainous areas would be largely protected, and if open to logging, would be sustainably harvested, at a level limited by regrowth rates and energy costs. As a result, the mountains would appear largely forested, with generally open understory.

        Ranches and farms would exist in areas that do not need constant irrigation, and crops would be raised using diverse permaculture and other ecological farming methods. Across the interior northern plains, a variety of fodder and grain crops would be grown together - perhaps in alternating strips - along with fruits and other produce as the seasonal temperature variations allow. Some lands would be growing diverse perennial grains (based on Wes Jackson's "growing granola" experiment - assuming that it works out).

        Grazing would be limited by carrying capacity considerations. Restoration programs would have enhanced the productivity of public rangelands, and the future equivalent of the BLM then would issue permits for limited herds that must be moved frequently. In many areas grazing would not be allowed, or would be highly restricted, to sustain wildlife.

        Navigable stretches of rivers would support commerce, but industry would be set back from any streamside to protect water quality and support aquatic ecosystems. Although some floodplain areas may remain in crops, a high proportion would be parks or reserves to prevent flooding of habitations, and to support riparian wetland ecosystems.

        Cities would be much reduced in size and many suburbs would have disappeared, reverting (with help) to wooded open space preserves or wetlands. The densest suburbs would have contracted into small exurban villages, separated from city centers by woodland and farms. Most village residents would have gardens, and neighborhoods would grow staple crops in former shopping malls of all sizes and shapes. City people also would grow a lot of their own food, mostly in cleared zones between neighborhoods.

        All housing would include rooftop rainwater harvesting systems and holding tanks, to supplement centralized systems based on surface water and well-based supplies. Graywater systems would be the mainstay of landscaping, which would be dominantly native plants. Playing fields would grow low-water grass strains as much as possible, with only limited irrigation.

        Wastewaters would be minimal, with the extreme reduction of synthetic chemicals allowing them to be treated successfully with series of swales, leading to ponds and wetlands. Garbage dumps would be things of the past, replaced by recycling yards with carefully designed drainage and remediation systems. Old dumps would have been reduced by mining them for usable materials. Materials reprocessing wastes would all be biodegradable.

        Howard Wilshire: There would be a lot fewer people because these lands cannot sustain the current population. Sustaining the people who do live here means that urban sprawl, road-building, and destructive mechanized recreation would no longer take place. Much more of the land would remain in a natural state, or be used in sustainable manner so that the population would directly benefit from nature's services - provision of clean air and water - and stable productive soils. There would be no water or energy subsidies, so communities would be smaller and more self-sufficient.

        Richard Hazlett: A bottom line metric for a risk-free West is one in which water, energy and soil resources do not show continuing annual depletion and decay, and a landscape in which dangerous pollutants (whether agricultural, nuclear or mining related) do not continue to spread. The West would be less fragmented by roads and cattle grazing, slowing the infiltration of bio-invasive species and allowing natural biodiversity to respond successfully to environmental change. (The forestland corridor projects in Central America provide an example of how people can improve opportunities for all life while continuing to utilize large amounts of land on a regional scale). Implicit in these conditions for risk-free or low-risk occupation of the West are large changes in waste generation, treatment, and isolation, especially as regards mining and nuclear materials. Also implicit are large changes in our food production systems. Agro-industry has caused catastrophic and in fact unnecessary ecological damage, much of it irreversible. A low-risk American West would also be one in which people do not presume that they should be able to live anywhere they please. We need to work and live more closely with the land and what it can provide at the local level. Some of our great western cities, including, for example, Los Angeles, Phoenix and Las Vegas, are ecological monstrosities and really make no sense from the stand point of sustainability.

        Leslie Thatcher: Assume you are maximizing the ideal as limited by the possible, and describe what steps you would take to achieve that "not-at-risk" American West, in what priority.

        Jane Nielson: In addition to Howard's reforms, I would add reform of forestry practices, as indicated in my answer to number four, and adoption of ultra-conserving policies to reduce water usage (some are already invented and being implemented, especially in the Pacific Northwest states). Perhaps a pipe dream is a change in attitudes and law to not allow release of new chemicals into the environment unless and until each one can be proved to have no, or beneficial, effects on living things. I would like to see GMO agriculture fail or be abandoned for lack of subsidies.

        Howard Wilshire Many policy reforms:

        1. Reform our energy policies to emphasize the value of the land surface over the value of energy resources extracted from the land.

        2. Reform our water policies to emphasize protection of the needs of total ecosystems for adequate, clean water; eliminate water subsidies.

        3. Reform military training policies to maximize training by simulation rather than by destructive land uses; undertake serious remediation of lands damaged by weapons production and testing, in particular nuclear weapons.

        4. Reform our mining policies to require post-mining restoration, assured by adequate bonding before mining starts; restrict mining of non-essential materials like gold; assure adequate royalty return to all land owners, including the public.

        5. Reform our public land recreational policies to eliminate destructive uses and promote passive uses.

        6. Renew farm conservation policies that eliminate water pollution and wastage, that protect soils from erosion, and that wean agriculture from industrial pesticides and fertilizers.

        7. Reform grazing policies by eliminating federal programs of rangeland vegetation manipulation by mechanical and chemical means, and reducing or eliminating public-lands grazing.

        Richard Hazlett: I'd promote a region wide dialogue along the lines of the Danish Consensus Democracy (DCD) movement, engaging a full range of interested community members plus government agency representatives, ecologists, geologists and pollution-experts addressing the questions mentioned above: "What kind of future do we want for the West," and, "What would it take to make living in the West truly sustainable?" The outcome of these DCD dialogs, held over a period of several years, would be widely published throughout the country. The dialogues would serve as a platform for large-scale public education and building awareness of the issues - an important first step for initiating any large-scale change. Presuming that there is sufficient consensus not to continue pursuing business as usual (I suspect that this would be the case!), policy development to reduce annual per capita resource consumption and pollution would ensue, focusing primarily on water and energy as top priorities, followed by wood and mineral products. DCD dialogues would be necessary to develop public directives for policy makers and government action. Any policy should allow finally for opportunities to let Nature heal itself, whether it be through the abandonment of clear-cutting practices and fire control so that timberlands can return to better equilibrium with the environment, or the replacement of heavily grazed lands with antelope and buffalo range. (Why not harvest indigenous antelope and buffalo in periodic drives on open rangeland rather than more destructive cattle? Their meat and other products are arguably just as desirable, and they impact water resources less severely. Ranchers would become more like natural resource managers). Aldo Leopold once stated as one of his four rules of ecology that "Nature knows best." We can work with Nature to solve our environmental dilemmas, if we give her a chance!

        Leslie Thatcher: Please explain how the cover photo is emblematic of all the risks you evoke in the book.

        Howard Wilshire: Natural processes of land degradation and re-formation exist in a delicate balance on which all life depends. Soils on which we are utterly dependent for food and clean water need long expanses of time to form. When human activities alter this balance, natural processes of erosion are accelerated so that we often lose hundreds of years of quiet soil formation in mere hours. With the soil go critical life-support services on which we depend. The dust storm featured on the cover of our book took place in December 1977 in the southern San Joaquin Valley. In 24 hours this one storm displaced more than 50 million tons of soil from grazing and farmland, laying the land bare to erosion from following severe rainstorms. The devastating effects of this brief storm, still visible on the land, combined the stresses of severe drought, intensive grazing, and farming practices that left the land unprotected. A recurring theme of our book is that we must understand the consequences of our activities in a framework of inexorable natural processes - we ignore nature's power at our peril.

        Jane Nielson: The working title for our book was Losing the West. When Oxford Press chose to put the windstorm photo on the cover, I thought they were endorsing our title, because it so graphically illustrates one of the main things we are losing - the soil!

        Leslie Thatcher: What issues have I failed to raise that you really want our readers to be aware of?

        Jane Nielson:The largest US product is the waste generated by our massive consumption of material goods: meaning manufacturing, mining and agricultural wastes, in addition to municipal garbage. Mining waste levels are increasing because the rich US metal ore deposits played out decades ago. This means that the US has largely dug up most of its mineral wealth and transferred it to waste dumps. Digging up and processing poorer ores requires ever-higher levels of energy. The US's supply of cheap petroleum also went into depletion decades ago.

        The rest of the world is trying to emulate us, but the Earth cannot support that level of material consumption. Using and depleting fossil fuels so rapidly, and pumping the wastes into our air, has changed the climate patterns in ways that we cannot easily predict.

        Thus, industrial economic development has brought us to a tipping point in the history of the world's resources, and there is no going back. Conservation is no longer just an option; it is about to be a necessity.

        Howard Wilshire: One matter not raised: Are the problems we describe unique to the western US and of interest only to Americans? We have focused on the American West because that is where our direct experience with land-use issues lies. How nature responds to human impacts on the Earth is controlled by the laws of physics: we cannot command nature to do our bidding unless we first obey its rules. These rules are universal. The quality of our lives, and our continued existence as a species, depend on our recognition and acceptance that we are part of nature, subject to its laws and to its powers.

        Richard Hazlett: Tackling the ecological and other environmental problems facing the West requires a powerful grassroots base in order to keep our political system open, honest and responsive. It is difficult being politically engaged given the busyness in our own lives and the challenges of the many different, sometimes unpleasant, personalities which must be engaged. But grassroots political engagement is the only way that government can be expected to function well. "The American West at Risk," if nothing else, is a book about how a well-meaning people have been hoodwinked and conned, lied to and exploited by selfish interests and irresponsible, often ignorant leadership at sorry cost to our lands and waters, and to individual health and humanity. This tale of abuse is certainly historically old, but we can see more plainly today what it means through the lens of science and the example of the American West. In any event, it is no way to conduct a civilization.


        Howard G. Wilshire was a US Geological Survey research geologist for thirty-five years, and now is board chairman of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

        Jane E. Nielson was a US Geological Survey research geologist for twenty-five years, and now is president of the Sebastopol Water Information Group.

        Richard W. Hazlett is Professor of Geology and the coordinator of the Environmental Analysis Program at Pomona College.

        This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. is Truthout's French Language Editor and quondam book reviewer.

    Last modified on Wednesday, 26 August 2009 10:48