Grazing is not the Answer
Review by Keith Akers
Welfare Ranching: The Subsidized Destruction of the American West.
Edited by George Wuerthner and Mollie Matteson. Washington, Covelo, and
London: Island Press, 2002. 346 pages, paperback, approximately 11
3/4" by 13 1/2", $45.
There is a tendency among some environmentalists to regard grazing
cattle as an alternative way of raising meat which is superior to
factory farms. After all, cattle consume forage on grasslands that could
not grow food for people anyway; and the cows live lives of comparative
ease compared to their sisters and brothers crammed into factory stalls.
And what else are we going to do with our Western lands, anyway?
Welfare Ranching is the definitive answer to this tendency. A
political issue is an unlikely candidate for a coffee-table book; but
this color-illustrated book is at the same time brilliantly organized,
stunningly photographed, and comprehensively documented. It specifically
addresses grazing on public lands, but there’s very little in Welfare
Ranching that doesn’t also apply to all grazing in the
West. After reading this, there is little room to escape the conclusion
that grazing is an incredibly destructive form of agriculture; if
anything, it would seem to be far worse even than factory farms. Cattle
are not only on public lands, they are even in national forests —
there are twice as many domestic livestock in the Yellowstone ecosystem
as there are wild ungulates! It is wiping out the land; it is wiping out
entire species; it is biological warfare against the earth. For mass
destruction, it would make Saddam Hussein envious. And YOU are helping
to pay for it with your taxes.
The real strength of Welfare Ranching lies in its ability to show
what is wrong — and what is right — not just through words, but
through pictures. It has lots of pictures, in fact opening it at random
you will likely find a small body of text and a huge picture. Those of
us who are not familiar with this subject probably would look at an area
grazed by cattle and say to ourselves, "well, what’s wrong with
this?" What the authors of this book have done, is to tell us how
to look — and see — what is really going on.
I knew already that grazing affected riparian areas (areas near water
in the arid or semi-arid West). Now I know what a riparian area looks
like, and I know how cattle affect the stream banks, the vegetation, the
water, and the wildlife; I know what "range improvements" look
like. I know what a sage grouse looks like, and what a Pacific Tree Frog
looks like, and what an ungrazed grassland looks like — and why we don’t
see very many of any of these any more.
Almost as an afterthought, the editors have also presented not only
lots of color pictures which show what the problems are, but thorough
and up-to-date essays by what are really the top people in the field. I
especially enjoyed Part IV, which details the specific environmental
impacts of grazing on public lands. There are essays on exotic weeds,
bears, prairie dogs, snails, frogs, bison, wolves — you name it. There
are even essays on the underlying economic realities — briefly, that
public lands grazing contributes almost nothing to the economy.
Welfare Ranching is neither the first nor the only book to
discuss the issue of public lands grazing. I was first introduced to the
subject when I read Sacred Cows at the Public Trough by Denzel
and Nancy Ferguson, and then later found The Waste of the West by
Lynn Jacobs. These are also excellent discussions of the subject of
public lands grazing. But if there were only one book you could read on
how the cattle culture really affects the West, Welfare Ranching
is it. It is well worth the $45 cost. This book has made it impossible
for an intelligent person, regardless of their dietary habits, to defend
public lands ranching. Because of the attractiveness of the presentation
of the issue, and the comprehensive nature of the coverage of the
problems, Welfare Ranching is a "must read" for anyone
concerned about the environmental problems of the West.
November 30, 2002