The drunk who said it was right. Denial is not a river in Egypt. But it may be a river in New Mexico. Or Arizona. Or Nevada or Utah. Maybe Montana. The river is 20 feet wider than it was, say, in 1840. The only cottonwood on its banks is just about that old, magnificent but half-dead. Trout don’t swim in the water. Cowbirds, not flycatchers, nest on the banks.

 

Belsky and a number of her colleagues, including Robert Ohmart of Arizona State University, now predict that if livestock grazing in the West isn’t severely cut back, restoration will become impossible. They estimate that this will happen within 30 to 50 years.

Consider the facts: Already, 80 percent of the streams and riparian ecosystems in arid regions of the western United States have been damaged by livestock grazing. That’s from the U.S. Department of Interior, circa 1994. This damage isn’t just from way back in frontier days. A 1990 EPA report on grazing based on extensive field observations in the late 1980s revealed that riparian areas throughout much of the West were in “their worst condition in history.”

Although Belsky works for a conservation group, the tiny, Portland-based Oregon Natural Desert Association, she said she made an extra effort to seek out papers that would buttress claims by grazing supporters. These include the idea that the hooves of a 1,000-pound animal act like rototillers, helping promote plant growth by churning up soil. Au contraire, said Belsky.

“We looked very hard for papers that showed benefits and couldn’t find any,” Belsky said. “There were papers that showed no effects. Usually the authors themselves pointed out that something had gone wrong, either with the research methodology or an unusual event, like a flood. Every paper that cited a positive or neutral effect, we cited.”

Given this data, it’s easy to understand why the overwhelming majority of Western salmon and trout are threatened or endangered and why native and neotropical migratory birds are losing ground almost as fast. Yet Belsky’s paper also cites statistics indicating that the number of cattle in the West have more than doubled since 1940.

Poking at Sacred Cows

Telling people that the cowboy has no chaps is less popular than ever. Luckily, Belsky, a native Texan, is bulletproof. As one of the pioneering women in her field, she has always needed to be twice as rigorous as her male counterparts. She’s also better-trained than many of them, with a master’s degree from the Yale School of Forestry and a Ph.D. from the University of Washington. Her decade of research into grasslands ecology in East Africa received consistent National Science Foundation funding.

Voices like Belsky’s are usually drowned out by national environmental groups focused on land acquisition, like the Grand Canyon Trust, Sonoran Institute, and Nature Conservancy. These groups are propping up ranching in the West, gambling that they can rein in the worst grazing practices. Privately, their staffers have told me they’re well aware of the destructive effects of grazing. But that’s not what they tell ranchers or even news reporters. If you read reports issued by these groups or articles in the New York Times or most of the big Eastern papers in which they’re quoted, you’d think that a cattle ranch is really just a big, beautiful park.

The dirty truth is that most of these groups have been acting like real estate wheeler-dealers for so long, their people are starting to think that way. All that land just gets them salivating. So they’re not being straight with the American public about the risks involved.

Who’s the David and who’s the Goliath? Sometimes it’s confusing out here in the New West. Just like in Washington, D.C., the best sound bite wins. That’s not Belsky’s lookout. She’s not going to ramble on about the cowboy myth, even though she grew up in Abilene, Texas.

“Oh, years ago that was all stripped from me, adjectives and things,” she laughs. “I’m a scientist. This is as popular as I’m going to get.”

This doesn’t sound hopeful, but who knows? A good old girl from Abilene is probably the only one with the, er, prairie oysters to take on the good old boys.