BOOKS: Welfare Ranching

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, January/February 2003:

Welfare Ranching:
The Subsidized Destruction of the American West
edited by George Wuerthner and Mollie Matteson
Island Press, (P.O. Box 7, Covelo, CA 95428), 2002.
346 pages. $75.00 hardback, $45 paperback.

As a southerner now living in the West, I am intrigued by
the similarities between what is happening today to the Western
cattle culture and what happened more than a century ago to the old
Southern plantation culture.
Both were products of an entrepreneurial spirit that
exploited people and the environment for economic gain. Both
developed romanticized veneers that appealed to Americans trying to
formulate a national identity–but Southern genteel society attempted
to mimic European aristocracy, while the rugged individualism of
pioneering Westerners symbolized, to some degree, an escape from
Old World trappings.

Welfare Ranching: The Subsidized Destruction of the American
West chronicles the ecological and social costs of the western
livestock industry from inception to the present. It also unravels
the cultural and political tapestry that sustains the industry’s
stranglehold on the landscape, including the strong support of
governmental agencies, banking institutions, and universities.
Skillfully edited by ecologist and longtime wildlands
activist George Wuerthner, with environmentalist and writer Mollie
Matteson, this coffee-table-sized book is a compilation of critical
essays from highly respected historians, natural and social
scientists, attorneys and activists, who offer eye-opening facts
and compelling arguments to persuade readers that the time is long
overdue to terminate livestock grazing on millions of acres of public
lands, most of which have been and continue to be ravaged by livestock.
Topics include “the grasp of the cowboy on contemporary
consciousness,” “the true cost of a hamburger,” and “ways to stay
blind to the critical plight of Western ecosystems.”
“These lands are under siege, and much is lost and
irretrievable. This book is our call to alarm,” Wuerthner states
in the introduction. “Yet, ultimately, we work for what is still
here,” he continues, “for what may yet be again. The arid West
is a land of limits. Yet limitations can produce innovation;
limitations can drive creativity, in human societies as in nature.”
Welfare Ranching dispels myth after fallacy after fantasy by
surgically dissecting the repeated rationalizations of the ranching
industry, until the average reader must, in good faith, agree that
it is time for livestock to go. The standard rancher’s apologies
such as “livestock benefit wildlife,” “ranching is the foundation of
rural economics,” and “it’s either ranching or subdivisions,” and
more, are all laid to rest in a book that may become the new Bible
of anti-grazing activists. The book documents overwhelming evidence
that livestock grazing is to blame for loss of biological diversity,
water depletion and pollution, soil erosion, and wildlife
destruction and displacement.
Punctuated with beautiful and stark full-page colored
photographs inviting the viewer to leap into natural landscapes
before and after bovine presence, it is impossible for a reader of
Welfare Ranching to lose sight of the message. Many of the photos
serve as a primer for the untrained observer on what to look for when
searching for ecological damage caused by livestock.
Welfare Ranching also prescribes concrete solutions for a
transition away from grazing.
“Our challenge is to anticipate the future,” concludes
contributing essayist Bill Marlett. “Can we end livestock grazing
in the foreseeable future and restore biodiversity to the landscape?
Yes. But can we do it in a manner that saves face, that respects
the legitimate, if not futile, toil of the yeoman rancher on our
public lands, and do it with gentle firmness?”
The answer is affirmative. The South is a changed place as a
result of a bloody culture clash in the mid-19th century, and
another, less bloody but still claiming many martyrs, in the
mid-20th century. Most, though not all, would insist that it
changed for the better.
The West has undergone dramatic changes during the past
century, and will no doubt undergo even greater change over this
century. The question to be answered is: will future generations
view the changes favorably?
Much will depend upon the values we and our successors embrace.
–Andrea Lococo

[Lococo is Rocky Mountain Coordinator for the Fund for
Animals. She may be contacted at P.O. Box 11294, Jackson, WY
83002; telephone: 307-859-8840; fax: 307-859-8846;
<>; <>.]
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