Sunday, February 24, 2008

Ecological Drama in the Southwest

San Pedro River in 1984, from the Hereford bridge, before the removal of cattle in 1988.

A photo from same location in 1998, after 10 years of rest from livestock grazing. Source.

The Saharan desert, as evidenced by cave-paintings, was once a fertile grassland. The drama of ecological change is one of the greatest epics humans can imagine. We are so small and yet not insignificant: we have caused it and can cause it again. We can look at the Sahara and see how it is now: we can look at the Sahara and see how the American Southwest might be in the future. The BLM estimates that western rangeland soils have already lost one half of their organic carbon content; Arizona has less than a third of its organic soil remaining. When all of the soil is lost the land will no longer support life.

What is the cause of the desertification in an already-desert land? As long ago as 1938 Aldo Leopold wondered "whether semi-arid mountains can be grazed at all without ultimate deterioration. I know of no arid region which has ever survived grazing through long periods of time, although I have seen individual ranches which seemed to hold out for shorter periods. The trouble is that where water is unevenly distributed and feed varies in quality, grazing usually means overgrazing." The extent of the damage is far worse than when Leopold wondered, so much worse that the only wonder is that we allow it to continue.

It is a failure of memory that allows us to complacently watch our ecosystems dry out and turn to dust. That Tucson's rivers used to flow along tree-lined banks is recorded, but easily forgotten in the scorching heat, augmented by urban heat-island effects, of the Sonoran desert. In urban landscapes like L.A. the connection between man and the environment has been completely severed; there is no conception of wasting water since L.A.'s rivers are so long gone the city pipes water from the remote Sierras. In this completely altered landscape nothing remains to even suggest the possibility of an alternative to urban sprawl.

"One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds...An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise. "
Aldo Leopold, Round River: From the Journals of Aldo Leopold, 1972

Tucson is different. It changed me by opening the possibility of conceiving a past that has not been erased. In and around Tucson there are still places that have not been changed beyond memory. But it is only in truly wilderness areas that we can understand the contrast between what was and what we have created. Ironically, it is only in areas "untrammeled by man" that we understand that man is the agent of change in this great ecological drama, and learn therefore that we can change the course of history.

Sadly, most designated Wilderness areas in the U.S. are not true wilderness in the most important sense because they continue to be grazed by cows (due to "grandfathering" clauses), the most important cause of degradation. To seek out and better appreciate the contrast between the work of man (and his animals) and nature, I have begun compiling a list of true, ungrazed, wilderness areas in the contiguous U.S. states. Far and few between, organized by state, with years since last grazing in parentheses. Please email me with any suggestions or corrections.

Ungrazed Wilderness

(ungrazed) part? of the Gila Wilderness in Gila National Forest
(?) White Sands National Monument

(2002-2007) Tonto National Forest, Mesa Ranger District, Sunflower Allotment
(ungrazed!) Dutchwoman Butte in Tonto National Forest
(2001- )Lower Campbell Blue Grazing Allotment, Apache Sitgreaves National Forest

(2000- )Steens mountain, and (1997) Blitzen River, Burns District BLM
(1990- )Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge
(1999) Owyhee River, Vale District BLM
(? Some ungrazed, 2000- )Hells Canyon National Recreation Area, OR/ID
(1990) Warner Wetlands, Lakeview District BLM

Craig Wildlife

California Desert Conservation Area
Peninsula Ranges Bighorn Sheep Critical Habitat, Santa Rosa National Monument (BLM) and San Bernadino National Forest

National Public Lands Grazing Campaign
Before and after photos from Forest Guardains

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