Exploring a Slightly Different Approach to Reinvigorate the Ground Beneath Our Feet
Environmentalism enjoys a peculiar popularity as the idea everyone supports in theory yet few actually do anything substantial to support in day-to-day life. How many people do you know who complain vaguely about the mountainous waste of American society, the demise of recycling programs, the littering of the countryside, and so on? And then how many people do you know who actually do something, like compost their garbage?
In fact, many of environmentalism’s battles are set not within our spheres of experience but are rather hotly contested issues about faraway lands—Alaska, the rain forest, the West. Especially the West: It remains beautiful and wild in myth. In reality, it is urbanized, subdivided, pocked with the scars of mining adventures and atomic tests, and drained of what little water exists there in the first place. It is the focus of environmental interests and government programs to set aside and preserve land and, not coincidentally, the home of people who resent environmentalists and government intervention in land use.
Diving into this thorny thicket is Dan Dagget, a committed Western environmentalist who finds himself more on the side of ranchers and Western landowners than on the side of Earth First! activists, U.S. Fish and Wildlife agents, and traditional environmentalists. His treatise, Gardeners of Eden, is revolutionary in some ways—it straddles the gulf between the wise-users and the leave-it-aloners.
Environmentalism, Dagget says, has been captive to the “leave it alone” perspective—the notion that the best thing for land is to fence it off and “protect” it from human use so that nature can take over and restore the ecosystem. This perspective is not only dominant among environmental activists but also in government, and it guides environmental policy.
The thing is, it’s wrong, at least from Dagget’s point of view. Leaving land alone won’t restore former mining sites or clear-cut, overgrazed, and eroded land—and, in fact, leaving land alone will hasten the land’s demise. Land in the West, and presumably elsewhere, can be efficiently and effectively restored with human hands-on techniques.
Or maybe we should say “hooves-on techniques.” In Dagget’s scheme, animals have a primary role in the process—a process as old as agriculture itself. Any organic farmer understands the principles of manure as a soil restorer: Seed an exhausted plot of land with a soil-enriching crop, then let your cows, goats, or horses graze their way across the acreage. The animals work like walking soil producers, tearing up the plants and shitting them out in the form of nitrogen-rich soil amendments. Over time, the land will harbor more life, grow more types of plants, and soak up more water—that last being a significant advantage in the dry West.
This is not untested theory. Writing with the fervor of a prophet with a new religion, Dagget describes his time spent with environmentally mindful ranchers and little-known activists who are applying these “gardening” techniques with almost unbelievable success. His first chapter follows Tony and Jerrie Tipton, a husband-and-wife team of land restorers who live in a run-down bus. The Tiptons managed to restore a formerly toxic mining site from barren waste in Nevada to land supporting native plants and animals. They merely used cows, hay, straw, and seeds, and they succeeded where the mining company’s hydro-seeding equipment and mechanical mulchers couldn’t. The chapter, like all the chapters in the book, is illustrated with lush photographs of the Tiptons’ work, before and after.
From there, Dagget visits an Arizona rancher whose land supports significant populations of endangered species of birds and fish, whereas a nearby preserve supports none. He follows a project in an Arizonan national forest that uses goats to eat combustible underbrush to reduce the chances of explosive fires. He visits Oregon ranchers who are raising grass-fed cattle, which is easier on the environment, and California ranchers who are encouraging growth of old oaks.
In North Dakota, he visits Goven Ranch, where Gene Goven grazes his cattle the way that bison used to graze the plains. According to scientists at North Dakota State University, Goven’s grazing techniques have increased his soil’s ability to absorb water sixfold. Across the road from the ranch, where land has been kept in the government’s Conservation Reserve Program, and thus off limits to grazing, the soil is hard as rock and just about as porous.
And so everything in Dagget’s point of view is counterintuitive: Don’t use less land; use more. Don’t create more government regulation, which hampers ranchers who are trying to help the land; cut back on bureaucracy. The most fervent environmentalists don’t necessarily know what’s best for the land—Dagget recounts a meeting between a rancher and an Earth First!er who said that he would rather see the land become “as bare as a parking lot,” if that’s how nature intended it, than watch nature endure more of the rancher’s meddling with the land.
Dagget’s argument relies on a couple of assumptions. The first is that past human interaction with nature in the New World has been positive. Gardeners of Eden draws heavily from Charles Mann’s “1491,” the Atlantic Monthly article that is now a best-selling book. According to Mann, Native Americans were not simply living off the natural bounty of the Americas; they created it—the rich grasslands, the herds of buffalo, even the South American rain forest. Dagget recounts Mann’s research in his book, although he doesn’t note that some scholars disagree with Mann’s argument.
The second assumption is that present and future human interaction with nature is positive. Remember: Many people support environmental causes in theory, but few follow environmental ethics in day-to-day life. The ranchers in Dagget’s book are exemplary—and probably atypical.
In making his case, Dagget never sounds like the sort of “wise use” pundit who is more often merely an apologist for rapacious corporate policies. His message goes deep into environmental tenets—perhaps deeper than is practical, as he is asking people to rediscover their agricultural roles. In short, Gardeners of Eden is about curing the alienation people have from the land and encouraging them to rediscover the symbiotic relationship humans can have with nature. It’s not only about curing alienation; it’s about getting people to stop thinking of themselves as aliens on the planet. Whole ecosystems are made to seem at risk when a rare frog or lizard is going extinct, but no one wonders about how the earth might suffer if humans remove themselves from the synergistic relationship they have with nature.
“Most important,” Dagget writes, “no one is trying to reintroduce humans into the environment to have us resume our duties as hunters, herders, gatherers, and whatever else, even though we are going to great ends to restore animals that have played much less significant roles.” H
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