Book Review: The Western Range Revisited
Suggested Citation: Kerr, Andy and Mark Salvo. 2000. Review of "The Western Range Revisited: Removing Livestock from Public Lands to Conserve Native Diversity". Wild Earth. 10, No. 2. Summer. 102.
The Western Range Revisited: Removing Livestock from Public Lands to Conserve Native Diversity. By Debra L. Donahue. University of Oklahoma Press. 1999. 388 pages. $15 paper.
Reviewed by Andy Kerr and Mark Salvo
With the publication of Western Range Revisited: Removing Livestock from Public Lands to Conserve Native Diversity, Debra Donahue has authored the first book ever to focus exclusively on the history, law, politics, economics, and ecological impacts of domestic livestock on Bureau of Land Management lands. Donahue is a law professor at the University of Wyoming, with a Masters degree in wildlife biology and nearly three decades of experience with the federal government and the National Wildlife Federation studying, monitoring, and advocating for arid western ecosystems. Her book reflects the scope and depth of her career as she weaves law, biology, and economics together to present a compelling case to remove livestock from the public domain.
May Professor Donahue be tenured (!), as her treatise challenging the economic and social contributions (and delineating the ecological effects) of public land ranching strikes at the heart of her own state's love affair with the western wrangler, whose image is branded on every automobile license plate, public building, and University of Wyoming football helmet. In response, the president of the Wyoming state senate—who admitted he hadn't read her book—even drafted a bill to abolish the university's law school.
Donahue's ecological analysis draws heavily on conservation biology, including the writings of Reed Noss and others. She details the impacts of grazing on native biodiversity, vegetation, water, cryptobiotic crusts, invasive species, fire regimes, carbon cycles, fish and wildlife. She also sets up—and then debunks—the major arguments in favor of livestock grazing advanced by grazing apologists masquerading as scientists.
As part of an economic analysis, Donahue lists a myriad of government subsidies and other entitlements enjoyed by public land ranchers. After documenting the amount of subsidies these ranchers receive, Donahue describes how few the beneficiaries are, and how their political power far exceeds their economic "contribution" to local and national economies; citing Montana economist Thomas Power, she notes that public land grazing is actually a sink, rather than a source of economic growth.
Our democratic sensibilities are quickly offended by Donahue's chapters on the social and cultural advantages ranchers receive over other users of the public land. Many more people (taxpayers) use and enjoy public lands for hunting, fishing, and other activities, and do so with little or no discernible impact, than those few that run livestock at the expense of flora, fauna, water, and wilderness. And, while they make no profit, public land ranchers are being paid to play cowboy and degrade the land and experience of other public land users.
Legally, Donahue makes a convincing case that Congress need not act to allow the end of livestock grazing on public land. Despite the pervasive nature of public land livestock grazing, it is not required by law (feral horses and burros are another matter). Federal law does mandate, however, that public land be conserved and used sustainably. Under the present grazing regime it is impossible to argue that conservation standards are being met.
Donahue provides perspective for her book by relating the sordid history of public land livestock grazing in the first two chapters, which is vital to understand how we arrived at the present situation. Only by knowing the history of an issue can we see the way to the future we want. Donahue tells us that ending public land grazing is ecologically imperative, economically rational, and socially fair. Unfortunately, not being the political scientist, she offers no political solutions to end grazing. That task is for others. And for those trying, Western Range Revisited is both enlightening and emboldening.
Reviewed by freelance environmental agitator Andy Kerr and Mark Salvo, grasslands advocate for American Lands.