Desert, by Calfin Kattle

Desertification of the Arid West

Added 20 February 1997

The desertification of the West. That sounds somewhat ridiculous. The West is already a desert! The Southwest in particular is even more of a desert. When looking out upon expanses of saguaro (suh-war-o) cacti that are hundreds of years old, how can anyone claim that the area is becoming a desert? After all, it is estimated that the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts are approximately 1 million years old. (pp. 3)

Strange as it may sound, the arid West is undergoing desertification. The West has become "perceptibly more barren during the past 100 years." (pp. 3) The obvious problem, is water. By definition, an arid environment is one that is in a continual state of water deficit. When a cow drinks water, it is not drinking from a surplus supply of water. That cow is taking water from something else. There wasn't even enough water in the West prior to the days of Columbus. Since then millions of people and millions of cattle have been added to the arid West. Although humans are a significant factor in desertification, let's stick to cattle.

A single cow consumes 10-15 gallons of water per day. (pp. 6) That is 10-15 gallons of water of water per cow per day, taken away from native plants and animals. Although I certainly do not advocate the complete removal of cattle from the West, the above numbers alone make it obvious that cows do not belong in the arid West.

There are other numbers to throw around as well. According to a study conducted by the United Nations Council on Environment and Development (UNCED), 50% of both public and private lands are severely degraded, and the carrying capacity of those lands has dropped 50%. (pp. 5) The range quality has been improving in places over the past 50-100 years, especially in the uplands, but the land is still highly degraded when compared to earlier times. (pp. 5) The BLM has also reported a recent improvement in range quality, as the land rated excellent to good has doubled. (pp. 70) This improvement is fantastic, but at the risk of sounding greedy, it isn not enough. If any piece of land cannot be rated as 'good' (or at least 'fair') with the presence of cows, then that land should not be used for grazing. If land can be grazed and still be rated as 'good', then great! A problem will be solved! (more or less)

But resting on the laurels of these reported improvements is dangerous. Instead, it is necessary to plunge into the darkness and hope to come out clean. Focus now, on the information provided by David Sheridan in Desertification of the United States:

Also, according to a 1991 Government Accounting Office (GAO) report, "Current livestock grazing activity on BLM [Bureau of Land Management] allotments in hot desert areas risks long term environmental damage while not generating grazing fee revenues sufficient to provide for adequate management." (pp. 86) There are also recurring instances where ranchers are using blow torches to burn the thorns off of cacti, so that the cattle can eat them (since nothing else remains to be eaten).

Each example spells out the need for change, the need to curb the consumption of a magnificent region. Again, cattle ranching does have it's place in the West, but on a decidedly smaller scale, under the umbrella of sustainable yield.

Sheridan, David, Desertification of the United States, Council on Environmental Quality, 1981.

Russell, Sharman Apt, Kill the Cowboy: A Battle of Mythology in the New West, Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1993. ISBN: 0-201-58123-X

Pendley, William Perry, War on the West: Government Tyranny on America's Great Frontier, Regnery Publishing, Inc., Washington, D.C., 1995. ISBN: 0-89526-482-X

Martin, S. Clark, Stocking Strategies and Net Cattle Sales on Semidesert Range, Forest Service Research Paper RM-146 (Fort Collins, CO: U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1975)

Johnson, Jack D., "Discussion," in Prescilla Reining, comp., Desertification Papers (Washington, D.C.: American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1978)

Costello, David F., The Desert World (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1972)

Crossette, George, ed., Selected Prose of John Wesley Powell (Boston: David R. Godine, 1970)

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