Rewilding the West: Restoration in a Prairie Landscape

ManningRichard Manning is an award-winning environmental author and journalist. He has written seven books, including Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization, Grassland: The Biology, Politics, and Promise of the American Prairie, and Food’s Frontier: The Next Green Revolution (UC Press, October 2001). Manning’s latest book on the natural history of America’s Great Plains is called Rewilding the West: Restoration in a Prairie Landscape and was published by UC Press in April 2009.

By: Richard Manning

I have a caution for my friends in the conservation movement pushing for quick action on environmental issues: 5,000 holes in the ground in Phillips County, Montana.

The holes were the work of the last great progressive Administration, Franklin Roosevelt’s. It’s hard to imagine this today in the red state West, but the northern Great Plains was ground zero of the Dust Bowl, so the resulting poverty among young, well-educated people made the region a hot bed of progressive politics. In fact, Roosevelt carefully crafted his agriculture policy in the 1932 election to speak to the radicals simply because he feared revolution. It worked. He ran up his biggest electoral margins in the region, so when he took office, it was payback time.

The parallel between the New Deal and the current gantlet of predicaments facing the Obama Administration has been overworked, but in some ways, not worked hard enough. The New Dealers were in fact desperate for ideas for projects they could adopt immediately on taking office, an exact parallel to the phrase “shovel-ready projects” in the stimulus package.

It just so happens there was a guy, a well-meaning progressive guy, who had a series of ideas for putting people to work on the Great Plains, and he had a direct link to the White House. His ideas led to the creation of a number of utopian communities that quickly failed; a huge aggregation of federal land under the Bureau of Land Management, the agency that oversees the massive scale of overgrazing of the West; and to an arid landscape now full of holes. He started work in Phillips County, Montana. The feds reasoned the farmers there were going broke for lack of water, so paid farmers to dig ponds and dam streams to provide water for livestock. Never mind that this is a bit like helping a poor person by giving him a savings account, but nothing to put in it.

Today, the landscape is ravaged because every single stream was lost to the ponds, now numbering about one per square mile.

Environmental problems are complicated, and when times are hard, subject to the messianic zeal and outright charlatanism of those who believe they have The Solution. When adopted in a political panic, those solutions turn out to be the next set of problems.

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