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Trek West for the Big Picture

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Posted on Jun 25, 2013
Ken Lund (CC BY-SA 2.0)

By Chip Ward, TomDispatch

(Page 2)

The diverse stakeholders in the Escalante River Watershed Partnership may not share John Davis’s grand vision of an ecologically whole and “rewilded” continent, but they are intent on sewing together and rewilding their pieces of the torn fabric of American life.  As any effective organizer knows, you start where there is common ground—or where there are common weeds. 

Ranchers, rangers, biologists, hikers, and back-country guides are in many ways competing constituencies, but it turns out they all share the goal of clearing riparian (wet) canyons of those suffocating tammies.  The scientists survey the ground and identify targets.  Grants are written to bring in volunteers to do the fieldwork.  Last week, a dozen Great Old Broads for Wilderness, mostly outspoken middle-aged women, spent a week clearing unwanted brush as a service project

As biologists monitor progress and the group discusses issues that arise, inevitably the damage done by grazing cows comes up.  It couldn’t be a more awkward topic.  After all, ranchers are in the room.  Cattle ranching in these desert landscapes is a marginal activity.  Those ranchers depend on federal grants, tax breaks, and access to public land to make it work.  But cows erode stream banks and silt the water, short-circuit forest succession by eating seedlings, and contaminate fresh water with their voluminous poop that also spreads cheatgrass and weeds.

The hope is that eventually the EWRP will become a platform for a public airing of difficult issues like where cattle should be allowed to graze on public land and how many and when. 

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A Roadkill Extravaganza

Those awaiting Davis’s Trek West presentation this particular day in this particular corner of Utah have already found a scale that seems to fit the desperate needs of our landscape, state, country, and planet.  Most of us who believe in change are caught between the seeming futility of small-scale actions—like recycling our trash or using more energy-efficient light bulbs—and the impotence we experience when we push for large-scale change like climate legislation in Congress or international treaties to limit atmospheric greenhouse gases. 

On the one hand, too little; on the other, too late.  There does, however, turn out to be a middle scale between individual action and national or global campaigns that works well and makes sense: the community.  That’s the place where people can best embrace their roles as citizens, face off, share, contend, cooperate, create, learn from, and empower one another.

Watershed partnerships harken back to an old ideal.  John Wesley Powell, the one-armed general and Civil War hero who later explored the Colorado River and its tributaries, was the first person to grasp and publicize the aridity rather than fecundity of significant parts of the American West.  He argued that practices and policies developed for wet Eastern lands were inappropriate for the drier West.  He advocated for governance around watersheds where local stakeholders committed to living within the limits they knew firsthand could come together and plan.  That’s what I’m observing this morning in Utah.  In twenty-first-century terms, think of it as ecological citizenship.

Davis claims he is shy and a poor presenter, but it turns out that he is quietly charismatic.  The case he makes for corridors is practical.   His listeners know that he is trekking across a landscape that is not your grandfather’s Wild West.  The wide-open spaces where the antelope once roamed are now fragmented by a zillion roads featuring SUVs with flattened animals on their bumpers.  Davis says that, on his most recent journey, he’s already seen at least 1,000 crushed, dead creatures.  It’s been a roadkill extravaganza. 

So, what to do?  He shows pictures of a landscaped underpass in nearby Kanab, Utah, constructed at a deer crossing where at least 100 deer a year were being hit by cars.  Every year about 10% of the local herd was becoming roadkill along with foxes, turkeys, and the occasional bobcat.  The underpass cost $2.6 million, which is hardly chump change in this neck of the woods, but each deer-car collision costs, on average, $6,600. Do the math, he tells them. Making the landscape permeable for animals seeking food, mates, and water keeps them healthy and pays for itself soon enough. 

The Wolf at the Door 

Ranchers and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) rangers who serve them view John Davis skeptically.  For one thing, he’s been frank about the need to reintroduce wolves across Western ecosystems, given the “keystone” role they play in shaping a healthy landscape. In case you’re not a Westerner, you should know that the subject of wolf reintroduction is a political third rail in much of our region. It’s an idea that would stun and appall our grandfathers, who killed wolves on their lands to leave more deer and elk for hunters and make meadows safe for cattle. 

Ecologically, the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park has been an unqualified success. Since wolves were returned to that landscape, elk are no longer bunching up and munching down in stream-fed valleys until they are silted, eroded, and devoid of other wildlife. The wolves thin the elk herds and move them, which, in turn, allows willows, aspens, beavers, birds, and a more biodiverse landscape to thrive.  Their success in Yellowstone has confirmed the insights of conservation biologists, giving them credibility and authority. Cowboys fear that, having pushed aside elk, conservationists will go after their cows next. 


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